Chefs of the Future! This is the first of a three-part series examining how restaurants will work in the years to come.
Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, the two young chefs who run Torrisi Italian Specialties in New York's Little Italy, both have blue-chip resumes. They've worked in some of the best restaurants in America. But these two Italian-Americans guys have taken off their toques and instead set out, with an almost overwhelming sense of mission, to create a deli-restaurant that redefines Italian-American food and, maybe, the way the next generation of chefs approach how they want to cook and do business. Both guys consider this small eatery, which just got a staggering 5-star review from New York, a supremely serious, personal mission (as this homemade launch video suggests).
Torrisi only has 18 seats. There's one server. But what's happening there is monumental, once you get the idea behind it. Rich and Mario are cooking classic Italian-American food straight-up, but using the techniques, standards, and some of the advanced tools, that they learned from their years at the kind of big, expensive restaurant that today's economy has made untenable.
Take their turkey sandwich. Although word has spread quickly in New York food circles about their chicken parm hero, which is revolutionary because it actually tastes like chicken (juicy, salty, intense, pan-fried in good olive oil and served with handmade mozzarella that gushes salty-tangy milk onto the cutlet), the dish that will truly up-end your expectations is the turkey. I don't know about you, but I've never had good turkey. Not in sandwiches, not at Thanksgiving. It's bland and boring and bad. This isn't: wrapped up tightly in a plastic cocoon and bathed in a spa-like atmosphere for hours and hours in a CVAP moist-convection oven, it's more like a heritage pork roast than turkey. The roasted garlic and pepper glaze, and the rugged little pieces of fresh thyme that cling to it, are a nice little bonus.
This isn't just chefs slumming, or, worse, pimping out casual food with fake, flashy chef touches. It's just the world's greatest turkey sandwich. The same is true for their chicken fra diavalo, their spaghetti with clam sauce, and all the various dishes they sell at night, when their little deli becomes an intimate enoteca, with one menu at a fixed price low enough for everybody. They don't need to pay a big staff, because they don't have one. They don't have to pay a lot for rent, so they don't have to charge high prices, which means they don't have to come up with overly elaborate dishes to justify them. They don't even have to use imported ingredients. And so they don't.
Why should they? They're reinventing the restaurant business, like a lot of chefs their age, and nothing is sacred. "In Italy," says Carbone, "they would never use imported cheese you have to send away for. Using what's around you is the most Italian thing you could possibly do." Torrisi chimes in, telling the story of a famous Italian restaurateur in New York whom he once heard complain at a panel discussion that he wouldn't use burrata, the creamy Italian cow's-milk cheese, because he couldn't get a first-rate product sent over. "And he was standing right next to [legendary NYC grocer] Lou Di Palo, who makes it every day!" Torrisi uses Sclafani tomatoes from New Jersey and mozzarella curds from upstate New York.
If fine dining is going to be saved in America, this is how it's going to happen. Talented young cooks will come up with new ways to make the food that Americans actually like to eat. The Torrisi guys aren't the only ones by a long shot (Roy Choi did it with tacos in L.A., and Hot Doug's is doing it for hot dogs in Chicago), but their corner of the world is Italian-American take-out food, and nothing is more universally loved, and more frequently crappy. For most of the country, the innovations of Mario Batali or the wood-fired pizzas of Naples are as irrelevant as a tornado on Mars. But America doesn't necessarily need double-x Italian flour or fennel pollen or any of the hallmarks of advanced Italian cooking. What it needs, and what it deserves, is a great turkey sandwich.
It's not that complicated. As Carbone says, "If you cared enough about it, you could make it really good."
Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.