For my lunch at Torrisi Italian Specialities in SoHo, New York I joined the queue at the deli counter, placed an order for a chicken parmigiana, paid, took a ticket and a seat.
Five minutes later I was served a sandwich stuffed with thin slices of grilled chicken breast, tomatoes and melted mozzarella, the pleasure of which was enhanced by the music and banter I always associate with this city’s delis.
At 9pm the following evening we returned for dinner. The lighting was lower and the music softer. But two other changes had taken place during the frenzy of activity that happens when Torrisi closes its doors between 4pm and 6pm.
The deli counter had been completely transformed, the fridges dressed and the area behind the counter converted from a sandwich preparation area into a garde manger, the area in the kitchen where cold dishes are prepared and other food stored.
A waitress was on hand to explain the $50 four-course menu written up on the blackboards. There was a selection of antipasti including fresh mozzarella and a beetroot salad with sour cream and brussels sprout leaves; baby shell pasta with calamari; a main course choice of trout with okra and polenta or duck with broccoli; and a plate of cookies, including cannoli, Sicilian-inspired pastry tubes filled with ricotta, made on a Brooklyn farm.
Torrisi is the creation of Rich Torrisi, 31, and Mario Carbone, 30, who met more than 12 years ago at the Culinary Institute of America and then earned their spurs cooking for two of the city’s most respected chefs, Daniel Boulud and Mario Batali.
During the time they were not cooking, they shared a flat and talked restaurants. They realised that, as Carbone explained, ”they were ready to run” but their savings were small and rents, they knew, were high. But by focusing on their own restaurant as the ultimate goal and maintaining their friendship (they still live only a floor from each other in the same block) Carbone and Torrisi may have inadvertently created a new business model for young, like-minded chefs.
The two biggest challenges for such enthusiasts are: first, finding the right premises at the right price; and, second, hitting on a formula that will keep them in business both during the day and in the evening. Torrisi the Deli, which transforms itself into Torrisi the Very Informal Restaurant, does just that.
The deli came first. Carbone and Torrisi are Americans of Italian descent with strong, happy memories of the food they enjoyed around their own family tables. They were aware, too, of how so much good Italian food had been corrupted as it was transported across the Atlantic.
A former clothing store with two large bay windows on Mulberry Street seemed to provide the ideal site for the deli. A father’s best friend handled the conversion; eBay provided half the fixtures and fittings; and $400,000 from family and savings later – “a lot in mistakes” Carbone confessed – their deli with eight tables was ready to open.
It was at this stage that Carbone and Torrisi had the first of two ideas that make their venture not just original but also a potential blueprint for others. The first was their solution to how to fill the deli in the evening, when most café, sandwich and coffee bars close their doors.
They took the decision “to chef it out”, Torrisi explained. The kitchen may be very small but they knew there was something they could offer to a high standard in the evening, even if it was only with a limited choice. And so they opened for dinner.
Nobody came. Whether it was the prospect of walking into a deli at night that put people off or the prospect of the limited choice in a city where customers are used to a proliferation of everything, Carbone wasn’t quite sure. And those that did come, expecting to order a sandwich, looked at the menu and, most disconcertingly, got up and left. Judging from the tone of Carbone’s voice, this was obviously a very painful period.
But last spring customers eventually began to read the blackboard and enjoy the food. And, most important, they began to tell their friends. Torrisi the Very Informal Restaurant began to provide a service, particularly to the neighbourhood. Business is now very good, Carbone added with a smile, serving about 200 customers between 10am and 4pm and another 75 in the evening.
In a city where Italian restaurants proliferate, these two chefs have also brought a distinctive edge to the food they serve. Although their recipes are highly authentic, none of the ingredients they use is imported from Italy.
They both believe that as the very best food in Italy is regional, they should only use what is grown and produced on the farms in the New York region, hence the local mozzarella, duck and vegetables. There is a local Chinese supplier for their noodles while the inspiration for the beetroots, sour cream and apple served as an antipasti came from the local Jewish neighbourhood. (It certainly would have delighted my late Russian grandfather.)
In opening Torrisi, Carbone and Torrisi believe they have created their own culinary footprint. The financial model behind this, however, may even travel worldwide.
Torrisi Italian Specialities, www.piginahat.com