Read the interesting NY Times article for details, below.
Little Italy Meets Chinatown
Evan Sung for The New York TimesARCHES of red, white and green tinsel, hanging between the light posts of Mulberry Street, shimmered in the August heat.
“Ooh, I love it!” Mario Carbone said, surveying the scene outside his restaurant, Torrisi Italian Specialties. “They’re putting up the Christmas decorations already!”
Not for Christmas, but the Feast of San Gennaro, which starts on Sept. 16 and for 11 days swallows Mulberry Street, as it has each September, in some manner, for more than 80 years.
Since they were boys, Mr. Carbone (a Queens native) and his partner and co-chef, Rich Torrisi (from Westchester), have wandered the stalls of the feast as it’s become more and more like the midway of an Italian-American state fair. “Dunk the Jerk is one of the things I like about the feast,” Mr. Torrisi said. “Mainly for the lewd things people are shouting.”
There’s been little to like about the food, for years.
Some local businesses run stands, but much of what’s offered is what’s at street fairs across the city — watery sangria, greasy mozzarepas, undistinguished sausage and peppers. Mr. Carbone struggled to be charitable about the festival. “The food had to have been good at some point, right?” he said.
Why not now? With the feast about to take over their street, they felt they had to join in. The question they asked themselves, Mr. Torrisi said: “What can we do that’s a lot of fun?” Their answer was to embrace Chinatown at an event where everyone pretends it hasn’t taken over Little Italy, mixing Italian ingredients with Chinese techniques, and Chinese ingredients with Italian techniques.
The choice reflects the wry sense of humor that colors the pair’s best cooking; the swagger to be provocative reflects the decade-plus they spent at a number of the city’s biggest kitchens, where they were top lieutenants for bosses like Mario Batali (Mr. Carbone, 30, helped open Babbo, Lupa and Del Posto) and Andrew Carmellini (Mr. Torrisi, 31, spent four years at Café Boulud and helped open A Voce.)
Their spare, 20-seat restaurant sells straightforward sandwiches and Italian-American staples during the day. At night, they let loose, preparing a set menu that wanders farther afield. They recently delighted in putting a dish called “tomato and English muffin porridge” on the menu, because the name sounds horrible and the finished dish is a triumph, a chilled scoop with the texture of perfect pappa al pomodoro and the flavor of the toaster oven pizzas they used to eat as kids.
One afternoon, Mr. Torrisi pulled out of the oven a giant soft pretzel, except it wasn’t: it was a terrine en croute shaped to look like one, a pretzel dough crust filled with a paté that was seasoned like a New York hot dog. It was in development for a “Welcome to New York” dinner they were planning for René Redzepi, the chef at Noma in Copenhagen.
To prepare for San Gennaro, the crew in the kitchen at Torrisi has been testing and adjusting for the last couple of months, coming up with a menu that will play well at the feast, even as it tweaks its nose.
“It’s basically a pop-up restaurant,” Mr. Torrisi said, “and I can do whatever I want and it’ll be over.”
“We started kicking things around,” Mr. Carbone continued, in the way that the two tend to bob and weave (they met in back 1999, when they attended the Culinary Institute of America, on a “forced triple date” to the River Café in Brooklyn.) “And we do a fairly good number of dishes and ideas where we’re reaching to Chinatown for our nighttime service — we go there and get stuff. We do broccoli rabe with dried scallops and chilies and in our mind that’s totally Southern Italy at the same that it’s Chinatown and it’s Little Italy. It works.”
But the rabe with dried scallops was scratched because, as Mr. Torrisi put it, “we actually need to sell some food at this thing.” The long beans got nixed early — bean salads and street fairs don’t mix.
On a shopping trip to Chinatown, Mr. Carbone picked up a wedge of ghostly white winter melon as long as his arm, but it and prosciutto didn’t make magic together.
“Then I was, like, it’s a Neapolitan feast for the patron saint of Naples,” he said, explaining the train of thought that led him to put wok-fried mozzarella sticks on the menu. “In Naples, there’s a lot of street food. A lot of it is fried food.”
In some of the better friggitorie — bars that specialize in fried foods — “they fry in what is essentially a wok,” he added. “The culinary advantage of frying like that is that it’s a shallow fry; a few uses, then discard it and refresh the oil in the pan — not like deep-frying in five gallons of oil that never gets changed.”
Mr. Carbone will be frying mozzarella that he makes himself, coated with Progresso flavored bread crumbs and served with a dipping sauce of grated raw tomatoes from Rick Bishop’s farm in Sullivan County. It will be served in white Chinese takeout containers. (A recipe is at nytimes.com/dining.) Fried mozzarella will be the appetizer to a roast pork sandwich that is a sly take on char siu bao, a food close to Mr. Torrisi’s heart. His father worked as a court officer in the Manhattan Criminal Court building in Chinatown, and when he’d take his son to work, he’d often securely sequester the boy in an empty jury room with a box of Chinese roast pork and custard buns for companionship.
Fried mozzarella will be the appetizer to a roast pork sandwich that is a sly take on char siu bao, a food close to Mr. Torrisi’s heart. His father worked as a court officer in the Manhattan Criminal Court building in Chinatown, and when he’d take his son to work, he’d often securely sequester the boy in an empty jury room with a box of Chinese roast pork and custard buns for companionship.
For weeks, Mr. Carbone and Mr. Torrisi worked with Aaron Israel, their in-house Chinese food expert and sous-chef, on getting the pork and the glaze just right. They started with pork loin but quickly moved to shoulder; added red food coloring to get that trademark char siu color; basted the meat in bottled Chinese barbecue, vinegar and hoisin sauces; then captured the best of each and developed their own recipe to make in-house. Using their special controlled-vapor oven, they get shoulder that slices like tenderloin. (Low-temperature poaching does the trick at home.)
The meat is tucked into semolina rolls from Parisi bakery on Elizabeth Street. “They’re sweet like the bread in baked roast pork buns,” Mr. Torrisi noted. A garnish of sweet roasted peppers echoes the sweet, mushy onions in the char siu bao from Manna One Bakery on Catherine Street, his favorite Chinese bakery, and they also turned it into a take on pork and peppers, a San Gennaro staple.
Those sorts of connections are the kinds that these chefs love. So, they rounded out their offerings with custard cream puffs.
“When we were doing research for this place and going around to all the pastry shops in town, in the boroughs, we found there’s some crossover in Italian-American pastries that are specifically French,” said Mr. Torrisi, who cooked French food for four years at Café Boulud. “The cream puff is one of them: totally French. But you can get it at any Italian-American pastry shop.”
They assigned Katherine Beto-Albanese, their pastry chef, the task of taking a French pastry beloved by Italian-Americans and making it taste Chinese. The results of the first test batch were exceptional: cream puffs engineered to taste like custard buns, or custard buns engineered to be as light as cream puffs, pretty enough for the window of a patisserie.
With the menu set, the last job was to rent a booth. They went for one with “a gaudy amount of lights,” Mr. Carbone said, and bought some AstroTurf to style it out.
Their finishing touch: a 10-foot red banner with “Italian Food” written on it in giant, bright yellow Chinese characters.