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May 2, 2012 08:50 AM

Torrisi's Newest Chef's Tasting Menu: Review + Photos

Photos in context are here:

Italian food in New York City is terrible. Most of all in Little Italy. It’s all aimed at tourists, who are so enraptured with the closed, car-free streets and the outdoor seating that they forget to notice the bland, uninspired food. And then there’s Torrisi Italian Specialties, which was bold and impassioned, playful and polished–an embodiment of New York City itself.

Torrisi’s seven course, $65 prix-fixe menu is a steal and has received nothing but raves, but of course we couldn’t settle for a mere seven courses and went for the twenty-one course, $150 chef’s tasting menu with seven excellent wine pairings for $75.

• our Americano

This “mocktail”, a riff on the classic Americano, was made not with Campari and vermouth but juice and housemade bitters. My favourite part of it was the giant square ice cube. I’m not hard to please.

• pretzels

• smoked sable cigarette

• the quail’s olive

• rabbit and carrot

• buckwheat caviar knish

• chicken and cashews

• escargot casino

Torrisi is a bustling deli by day, serving a brined turkey sandwich office workers while away their lunch breaks waiting in line for, and the bar snacks were the perfect interlude to switch the tiny kitchen from that of a casual sandwich shop to one that puts a high Italian spin on the cuisines the people who make up NYC. These one-biters came at us so fast–in pairs or triplets–that I forgot to photograph the clam with celery and spicy oyster on the half shell. The Doughy caraway pretzels were like mustard-flavored gnocchi, the sable cigarette a kind-of-nasty/kind-of-clever reminder of the salmon cone at Per Se. The olive wasn’t an olive at all but a soft quail egg with a pleasant, not overpowering olive flavor; I was a little put off by the inedible accoutrements (though I would totally eat bay leaves if people would stop telling me I can’t) but loved the spoons they were presented on. The rabbit with carrot puree was sweet and herby with a crunchy base, and the caviar, served on a bed of buckwheat, was homey and warm. Not only was the caviar’s serving dish stunning, but we loved being able to decide how deep into the groats we wanted to plunge our knishes; the grain was easily crunched, like a nut. The chicken oyster, a nugget of dark meat on the chicken’s outer thigh, was so flavorful and juicy but really stood up to the cashews in a way I wouldn’t expect from such a tender piece of meat. The snails were sour, chewy, and only slightly less firm than the bacon chunks that accompanied them; it wasn’t my favourite dish of the night in flavor nor texture, but I appreciated the take on clams casino and was excited to try my first snail after all these years of fine dining without having ever been faced with one.

all paired with: Lieb Cellars, Pinot Blanc, NV, NY

• Brighton beets

These beets, a nod to the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn that’s still so Russian you need a tourguide to help you navigate restaurant menus, were a mix of crisp and tender, fresh and long-cooked. Sour apples and fried onions added to the already bright flavors.

• mackerel in crazy water

I missed this photo, as well, likely dazed by the idea of eating a traditionally very fishy fish alongside the most dreaded of all foods for me: tomato. But this was more like a gazpacho than a fresh salad, and the mackerel–served raw–was so unfishy it could’ve been sturgeon or halibut. The tomatoes, which were preserved, had the flavor of watermelon, and the sea beans added a crisp bite.

wine: Bloomer Creek, Tanzen Dame, 2010, NY

• foie gras newberg

• Delmonico tartare

Served at the same time and meant to be shared, the foie gras and tartare are updates of dishes made famous by one of the oldest and most noted steakhouses in NYC, Delmonico’s. The original Lobster Newberg was made with a creamy, buttery, alcoholic sauce; here, the sweet foie is topped with a brandy gelee and served with a salty, meaty, spiced oyster mushroom salad.

The Delmonico’s tuna tartare becomes a steak tartare with crisp, sour cornichon slices and a Béarnaise sauce that I can only dumbly describe as buttery. The presentation wowed me to the point that I was still taking photos of the delicately-carved pickles even as half of them had already been devoured. Spread on the thickest, saltiest, caper-powdered potato chips, it was more finesse than novelty.

But you can bet the novelty of the Demonico’s plates wasn’t wasted on me.

wine: Kalin Cellars, Chardonnay, 2005, CA

• Dancing Ewe sheep ricotta and ramps

This gnocchi was covered in a sauce so creamy and dense with peppercorn flavor, I would’ve paid for the pleasure of licking the pan. The ramps had the texture of green onion but are known for their more intense aroma and what my boyfriend called their “racier” taste. The ramps evidently replace the scallions that were being served on the oft-photographed version of this made with Coach Farms goat cheese; it had a strip of coffee/caramel/tobacco water “leather” on the side with the word “COACH” stamped on it like the label of one of the knockoff designer handbags sold in Chinatown. The more straight presentation of this dish makes me wonder if Torrisi is headed away from whimsical presentations or if they just weren’t in the mood to use marijuana syrup to draw a sheep in a ballerina costume on my plate.

• lobster Cantonese

Just plain delicious, no matter what cuisines it’s trying to emulate, this vermicelli with lobster evoked the flavors of Chinatown with soy and scallion. The crunchy breadcrumbs made the lobster seem deep-fried, like sweet and sour pork gone high class.

wine: Arnot Roberts, Rose, 2011, CA

• ravioli caruso

This apparently replaced the much-lauded beef ragu for us and was probably a more interesting if not grandma-reminiscent dish. The chicken liver filling, contained in the most perfectly-cooked raviolo, verged on too iron-flavored at times but was nicely balanced by the sweetness of the tomato sauce. The brown butter with accents of sage added deep flavors ripe for red wine pairings. Food & Wine says that this dish was “named for the famed tenor who backed the epic NYC restaurant Mamma Leone’s ([chefs] Torrisi and Carbone cite Mamma Leone as an inspiration alongside Thomas Keller and Joël Robuchon in a video they made about themselves)”.

wine: Coturri, Carignone, Testa Vineyard, 2009, CA

• Jewish lamb

A young man brought this gleaming dish of tomahawk lamb chop to our table and unannoyedly held it while I photographed it. And then held it over the table of the people beside us when I said he was too close for my lens to focus. But in all fairness, they had been ogling our table all night as they sat there with the regular, ol’ prix-fixe dishes, so they owed me.

The loin and deckle together were not-fatty and fatty, gamey and not-gamey, delicious in their own ways when accompanied by fried mint and peeled grapes. The deckle had a thick glaze and a chewier texture, while the loin was leaner and less adorned. The chop itself was more impressive than the finished dish, but that’s always the way with these things.

wine: Wind Gap, Syrah, 2008, CA

• bitters green

A sour, bitter palate cleanser to prepare us for the sweet, sweet desserts.

• cheese danish

We were served two pieces from a large danish cut into fours and kept under a glass dome. It didn’t matter how our slices tasted, because all we could think was that we wanted the other two. It was buttery, with a burst of poppyseed flavor. The onions were sweet, the cheese so thick and creamy. But who was going to eat the other two pieces?! The kitchen? The servers? MORE IMPORTANT DINERS WHO GOT SIX SLICES INSTEAD OF FOUR? No! No, actually, our server returned with the other two slices when he saw us finish the first two. Phew.

• ginger-lemon ice

Surprisingly creamy for an icy treat, with a strong bite from the ginger. This was unlike any shaved ice, snow cone, or slushie I’ve had.

• maraschino float

This tasted like really expensive medicine, and I mean that in the best way. It was so strongly flavored, maraschino cherry ice cream alongside a root beer financier made of creamy mousse covered in a chocolate shell, with mashed pretzels providing the contrasting saltiness. All attempts to suck the cherry soda through the straw were fruitless and embarrassing, but at least it was edible.

wine: Heitz Cellars, Port, NV, CA

• pastries

People eating the prix-fixe around us were getting a small plate with the old-timey (and incredibly not-crave-worthy) bakery staple, the rainbow cookie, so we couldn’t have been more impressed when we instead were served this giant cake stand of pastries with the chef’s tasting. For each of us, there was an apple donut, a pistachio and lime truffle, a crumb cake, a pine nut macaron, celery cake, a really not-sweet cannoli, a mint chocolate truffle, and seaweed taffy. All of it was impressive. Even the seaweed taffy. They also sent us each home with a little box containing a rainbow cookie, ironically, and you know what? Even it was powerfully flavored and much, much better than any day-old rainbow cookie in any Italian bakery.

my rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Torrisi is playful, gutsy, and aiming to please. The week before we dined here, my boyfriend and I had the chef’s tasting at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant that was supposed to be the best meal of our lives, and eating at Torrisi was a better experience. Where that restaurant was pretentious, Torrisi was humble. Where that restaurant was aloof, Torrisi was friendly, giving us details and stories associated with each dish. Where that restaurant was silent and imposing, Torrisi was filled with cool, jazzy music and couples not looking to out-foodie anyone. The only problem was that, as my boyfriend said, no one bite at Torrisi compared to any one bite at that restaurant. Nothing disappointed, but nothing had us using phrases like “the most” or “the best”, and we have used those words at similarly-priced restaurants. The effort is evident, though. You feel like Torrisi is making the absolute best food it can at this moment, and I have high hopes for its future.

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  1. Whats the 3* restaurant you are comparring to?

    1 Reply
    1. re: princeofpork3

      Brooklyn Fare. Amazing food for the most part, but you sure do have to jump through a lot of hoops just to give them your money.

    2. Your post and pictures are breathtaking. Wow. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing!

      1 Reply
      1. Italian food in New York City is terrible? What are you comparing it to? Babbo, Scarpetta, Del Posto, Maialino, Ai Fiori, Lincoln, Locanda Verde, Ciano, Manzo? Somewhere IN Italy?

        Did you mean to write that Italian-American, red sauce food in New York City is terrible?

        11 Replies
        1. re: kathryn

          I'm comparing it to the recipes-passed-down-from-grandma Italian food people have made me, but I guess I'm also comparing it to other types of cuisine found here. If you're not going to high-end places like Babbo or Locanda Verde, most Italian food here is bland and uninspired in my experience. Whereas I can go to the cheapest hole-in-the-wall Chinese joint, for instance, and find a menu full of foods that excite my palate.

          1. re: plumpdumpling

            You're comparing restaurant cooking with home cooking? I don't think that's fair.

            What low and mid-range Italian restaurants have you gone to? I find places like dell'anima, L'artusi, Sorella, even some of the sides/pastas/etc. at Otto to be flavorful and inspired.

            Part of this may simply be your high familiarity w/ the cuisine as opposed to the relative unfamiliarity you have with some kinds of ethnic Chinese food.

            1. re: kathryn

              Agree with both of your posts 100% kathryn.

              To the OP: How can you compare the menu you cite to Italian restaurant food or even Italian-American restaurant food? Yes, there are Italian influences in some of the dishes, but there are also Asian And French influences.

              I appreciate your writing and photography skills, but your lead sentence, "Italian food in New York City is terrible," is an inaccurate blanket statement.

              Lastly, the Coach stamped on "leather" is not a nod to the knockoff Coach bags but to the actual leather company. From the Coach Farms web site:

              "Miles and Lillian Cahn started Coach Farm in 1985. Previously they owned Coach Leather before moving upstate to enjoy a more “peaceful” life. Miles has often been quoted that they are being held hostages by 1000 goats at the farm."

              And for just a fun bit of trivia, Miles and Lillian's daughter is married to Mario Batali.

              1. re: ttoommyy

                Wow, who knew! I like that even more than the Chinatown/knockoff bag idea. Thanks for the information.

                Based on what you said, should I change my statement to "Italian food is so bad in NYC that this Italian restaurant started serving Asian and French food just to disassociate itself from other Italian joints?"

                1. re: plumpdumpling

                  Based on what you said, should I change my statement to "Italian food is so bad in NYC that this Italian restaurant started serving Asian and French food just to disassociate itself from other Italian joints?"


                  I believe the philosophy behind Torrisi's is to serve all kinds of food with an Italian perspective to it, the way food was prepared at home (take note) when the owner's were younger and lived at home: simple ingredients, locally sourced, simple preparations. I believe they have always been pretty adamant about it not being just an Italian restaurant, per se. Someone correct me if I am wrong.


              2. re: kathryn

                I usually like restaurant food 200% more than home cooking, so I don't think I'm being unfair. And I grew up in Ohio to a German family, so it's all ethnic to me.

                Thanks for the recommendations, though. I really do want to have good inexpensive Italian, so I'll check those out.

                1. re: plumpdumpling

                  Well, Italian and Chinese cuisines may both be "ethnic" to you, but you are more familiar with Italian cuisine than Chinese, right? That's probably why you find even a run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurant food exciting, while you're only impressed by high-end Italian restaurant (though I personally think there are many affordable Italian restaurants with good food.) I think your opening statement can only be true if you are comparing NYC Italian food to food in Italy. Otherwise - I mean, I can't think of a city that has better Italian food than NYC in North America, whereas there are quite a few cities with better Chinese food than NYC (SF, LA, Vancouver, just to name a couple.)

                  Great pictures though, as usual!

              3. re: plumpdumpling

                Plumpdumpling, you sure know how to get reactions on here. haha. Not a bad thing. I agree with you on a Torrisi meal possibly being more enjoyable than a Brooklyn Fare meal. Bklyn Fare getting 3 Michelin stars to me, is an absurdity. Although the dishes are good , more like many amuses bouches ( they are so tiny). But much of the dishes have the same tastes, especially citrus taste. There is no atmosphere, no service to speak of, it just doesn't rate the stars.
                As far as your example of 2 good Italian restaurants, Babbo and Locanda Verde, I personally think LV is average at most. I think there are several good Italian-American restaurants, although many of my favorites have closed ( Joe's, San Domenico, Ennio and Michael's), I think Da Silvano, Bar Pitti, Il Cantonori, Don Peppe's (queens), Da Andrea, Osteria Morini, Al Fiori, and more I enjoy all of these far more than Laconda Verde. And many of the dishes taste like something grandma might make at home.
                I appreciate Bob96's discussions on Italian-American food. I also, have heard many many times from my Italian American friends " I don't eat sauce ( gravy) out",,, but there really is good sauce out there.

                1. re: foodwhisperer

                  "I appreciate Bob96's discussions on Italian-American food. I also, have heard many many times from my Italian American friends " I don't eat sauce ( gravy) out",,, but there really is good sauce out there."

                  As a rule I do not either, but I had a beef braciole at Frankies on Hudson Street that tasted pretty much exactly like the one my mother, and now I, make.

              4. re: kathryn

                Heh, my thoughts exactly kathryn. I honestly figured the first sentence was written in a sarcastic tone. When I read on and saw it wasn't, I stopped reading. I can't think of a US city with better Italian than least not one that I've been to.

                Anyway, enjoyed the pics plumpdumpling!

              5. "Italian food in New York City is terrible."

                To much uber-deneralization there, I'm afraid. You gotta get out of Little Italy to get much better Italian ... even better than Torrisi, imho.

                Here's a question:
                Were the wines in your review the suggested pairing by the restaurant? If so, was there a reason as to why it was limited to American wines?

                11 Replies
                1. re: RCC

                  They seem to only have American wines on their menu. It's the one thing that making me hesitate trying Torrisi.

                  1. re: ukitali

                    I've eaten at Torrisi once before and I didn't bother to look at their list as somebody else was paying and taking care of the wine ordering.

                    Thanks for the information ukitali, and now that I've looked up their online list, you're absolutely right, it's entirely American. I'm with you, as their wine list does not provide much of an encouragement for me to go back with my own wallet at stake.

                    1. re: ukitali

                      Did some more research and apparently they use only American products in the restaurant. Interesting concept I guess.

                      1. re: ukitali

                        Not sure if I find the concept interesting. More like confusing. It's a restaurant with "Italian Specialties" on it's name and none of the foods and wines are.

                        1. re: RCC

                          Well, if all their wines were from New York, I could see the idea of them treating New York Italian food as a regional cuisine, but also featuring wines that are trucked cross-country from California makes the lack of European wines some kind of weird, non-environmentalist conceit.

                          1. re: RCC

                            I agree. My "interesting" comment was sarcastic though I can't knock the place since I haven't tried it.

                            1. re: ukitali

                              They made a case in the beginning about reclaiming-reinventing (you know the language) Italian foods made in America, and that Italian-American products were good enough--thus, Progresso, etc. Fair enough, but ultimately a shtick. As for the wine, I don't know--they could have stuck to a range of cheap (jug reds) to expensive California or even NY wines either made by Italian-Americans (plenty of those) or that mirrored an Italian American style (why not showcase such relatively little seen by still excellent growers as Foppiano, Seghesio, Rafanelli, Parducci, Preston, etc). Good drinking, a fresh approach, and a nod to tradition. My sense is since they now have been designated tastemakers, whatever they decide to do will carry authority.

                      2. re: RCC

                        Yes, the wines were all selected by the restaurant. I didn't even realize they were all American (and almost all Californian, at that) until someone asked me later if all of the wines were Italian.

                        I'm definitely open to good Italian recommendations!

                        1. re: plumpdumpling

                          For a place that takes pride in using Progresso dried bread crumbs and US-made pasta as locavore flag waving, it's no surprise the wines are American. The Torrisi project is creative, fascinating, and complicated enough to interest many food lovers. But to buy its stance that it represents an Italian (American) project can lead to trouble. There's no eay it should be compared to a Babbo, much less to,say, a Parkside in Queens as an example of quality, traditional Italian American cooking--and there's the rub: Italian American food has its own hierarchy of quality and sometimes nonna's food isn't among the winners.

                          1. re: bob96

                            What would you say the Italian-American food hierarchy looks like?

                            1. re: plumpdumpling

                              The hierarchy is really about the care with which now traditional dishes (however they ended up here) can be made: quality products, careful preparation, gracious service. It can be a superbly balanced Sunday ragu, or even an amazing eggplant parm or a simple lentils and pasta. The repertoire is not really as important as the results, and I guess I'm saying that to assume just because nonna makes it, or that you've always had it this way, this is what traditional Italian American food must taste like.

                      3. I am no New Yorker. However, last week, during my trip to your city, I had a chance to taste the 'Spaghetti with crab meat, sea urchins and basil and the Fusilli with bone marrow and red wine braised octopus of Marea', the 'Cacciuoco and Linguine alle Vongole of Lincoln' and the ' Spaghetti a la Bolognese of Babbo'. IMHO, they were as good, if not better than similar renditions I have had in Rome, Milan, Napoli or Florence! I think to use a word like 'terrible' is a bit harsh!

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Charles Yu

                          I've had good Italian food at some of the top restaurants, and I don't doubt that these dishes impressed you. I just don't want to have to eat at a four-star restaurant just to get some decent Italian!