Despite what at times must have seemed like a chef's inside joke -- no imported ingredients, no buffalo mozzarella, no regional specialties, a truly American immigrant grocery experience -- Torrisi was an instant hit. New Yorkers lined up for one of the coveted 18 seats.
Success brought diversity and expansion. Torrisi and Carbone found a new home for their red sauce concept at Parm right next door and Torrisi Italian Specialties, no longer a daytime market, diversified into a more elaborate chef's tasting menu that presents a vision of modern day New York. Still centered on the Italian American experience but now peppered with the influences of nearby cultures (Asian, Jewish, etc) and tastes on the surrounding city.
Some things stay the same. The nightly menu is still presented on a chalkboard and changes everyday -- though some favorites make regular appearances. Tasteful bites, chef's interpretations of classics, are still artfully presented on delicate china flea market dishes that might have brought our Grandma's specialties in years past.
Our dinner started with an amuse, a gift from the kitchen that sets the tone for the meal and whets the appetite for tastes to come, delicate bites of hand pulled mozzarella floating in a creamy lemon sauce.
Winter gardiniere is Torrisi's playful interpretation of the pickled Italian condiment. With paper thin slices of beets and fresh market greens the delicate salad was so beautiful and colorful at first glance it appeared like a painted design on the hefty white bowl. The flavor was fresh and clean and enticing. If there had been bread wed have slurped up every drop of bright, delightfully acidic dressing
Clearly a nod to the nearby lower East side, a course of lox and eggs was hardly the deli standard. Layered on a bed of delicate creme fraiche and topped with a runny poached quail egg the richness became the perfect counterpoint to the previous course's tart salad.
A paté, not of imported Prosciutto or chef's darling guanciale but Boar's Head meats was unique and dare I say utterly delectable. A kind of homemade head cheese served with house baked semolina bread and an attention grabbing pickled apple and onion salad.
I can hardly think of clams casino without my mind lazily drifting to red checkered tablecloths and chianti bottle candle holders dripping with colored wax. It's a "Goodfellows" kind of dish. Delicious when done well but far out of fashion. Torrisi re-interprets the standard as a topping for homemade pasta. Crispy breadcrumbs harken back to the original while briny bivalves mingle with the chewy pasta.
A riff on a coffee shop standard this scallop Francese had little in common with the all too familiar dish of often soggy lovelorn chicken in cornstarch heavy lemon sauce. The scallops in a delicate egg batter with the thinly sliced poached lemon and silky sauce are the only familiar elements in a dish re-invented for the better. A far cry from the New York wedding reception version seen plated at numerous city events.
"We'll hit it out of the park with dessert." Another accurate description from our server, clad in chef's whites and seemingly released from the tiny kitchen to bring us the last of our small plates.
Dessert was good. The rainbow was an almond cake so fragrant and heavy flavored I could barely notice the colorful chocolate coating for which the cake is named -- a dessert that could just as easily have been on Don Corleone's 1940's dinner table as finishing a meal on a winter's night in 2014. A pastry time capsule from mulberry street's past. Not content to revel in the past, the chefs brought old and new together in one course. In contrast to the brightly colored cake a dessert simply called ricotta was a revelation. Creamy curds gently dressed in cinnamon and sweet syrup resisted becoming cloying and one note with the addition of tart finger limes. Tiny pops of flavor that burst in your mouth while the creamy base cools the tongue. I usually take a couple bites of dessert and move on. If no one had been looking -- and in a 25 seat restaurant with tables pressed against each other someone always is -- I might have licked the bowl. Honestly I just can't understand how ricotta can be so delicious.
A night at Torrisi is a mini-vacation back through time -- a delicious love letter to New York's neighborhoods sent by chef's who love the city's neighborhoods and are equally at home with meatballs and matzoh balls -- real New Yorkers.