Archives for posts with tag: Coco

Back in 2009, while I was still at Phaidon, I worked on a cookbook called Coco, which I’ve probably mentioned here before. It was part of the 10×10 series Phaidon publishes, whereby ten heavy hitters in their field (be it architecture, graphic design, fashion, etc.) each select ten emerging talents in that field. Coco was the first food book in that series, and the curators selecting the underlings included Ferran Adrià, Mario Batali, Alice Walters, and René Redzepi.

For his selection of up-and-comers, Batali stuck to his coterie of former chefs and sous chefs, and among the emerging talent he chose was Mario Carbone. Truth be told, I hadn’t heard of Carbone before then, even though he had cooked at Del Posto, Babbo, WD-50, Café Boulud, and a personal favorite, Lupa, in the West Village. Quite the pedigree for someone not even thirty years old. (That’s his spread in Coco, below.)

The funny thing is, Carbone was somewhat between restaurants at the time. And to be featured in Coco, each chef needed to be currently head chef at a restaurant. Carbone was technically heading up Aeronuova, a new Italian restaurant in Terminal 5 at JFK. It was a little unusual, but my guess is he was brought on to put together their menu and do initial recipe consulting. When I was compiling the directory of restaurants I didn’t even know what address to publish: Terminal 5, JFK Airport, Queens, New York? But I knew something was up his sleeve, and Batali’s sleeve, because they seemed to suggest a new restaurant was in Carbone’s future, but it just wasn’t open yet.

And sure enough, as Coco hit the bookstores, a little red-sauce joint known as Torrisi Italian Specialities opened on Mulberry Street, near Prince Street, in December 2009, serving Italian-American staples like meatball subs and eggplant parm at the counter. Carbone and his co-chef and co-owner, and former Boulud colleague, Rich Torrisi, have created a kind of post-postmodern mecca of ziti and antipasti in Little Italy. Amidst all the fading tourist-trap pasta joints and clam bars on Mott and Mulberry Street. It’s a throwback to your Italian grandma’s Sunday suppers in Queens (or New Jersey, or Long Island), gravy and all. But the ingredients are good. Really good. Not imported from Italy, but all domestic and/or made in-house, like mozzarella made to order and house-cured olives. Olive oil from California that’s so good they should serve it in a demitasse cup for dessert, sprinkled with sea salt from Coney Island.

All this time I’ve been wanting to see what the buzz is about. In the meantime, Torrisi and Carbone opened Parm next door to Torrisi, a more casual restaurant serving some of the old favorites (like the subs), without the long waits and hard-to-get reservations of Torrisi, which now only serves a tasting menu or prix fixe but no more a al carte at dinner.

Good thing my friend Daniela came to town. Super foodie, blogger for Eater LA, trained pastry chef, food writer, this woman eats professionally. It was the perfect opportunity to try both Torrisi and Parm. So within a span of a few nights we dined at each place, allowing for a side-by-side comparison of the more upscale Torrisi, and low-brow Parm. (In the photo up top, Torrisi is on the left, Parm on the right.)

At Torrisi we were greeted with four antipasti for the table, including the famed mozzarella, hand-pulled to order, drizzled in that delicious, fruity olive oil and crunchy sea salt. When left to rest at the table, the mozzarella became more enjoyable, softer, and more buttery, then when it was first set down. It was served with four small perfect pieces of garlic bread: saltier, crunchier, cheesier, more garlicky than you’re expecting. When our busser cleared the empty plate we both nearly lept to keep the dish so we could lick the crumbs. We stopped ourselves. As part of our antipasti, a warmed parsnip cider was served in an espresso cup with a cool apple foam on top. Raw fluke Americain provided a clean, fresh bite between all the cheese and dough. Lastly, for the antipasti, was a rustic rabbit terrine served with pickled vegetables.

The pasta course, spicy sea shells di mare, was solid—the fish and shellfish were all cooked well, the pasta al dente, the sauce salty and spicy. It didn’t knock my socks off but it was darn tasty. For our main courses we were served skate giardinia and local duck with mulberry mustard. But by the time these mains came we were, well, stuffed like shells. I thought the main successes of the night were served at the bookends, our antipasti and the pastry: butternut squash custard, pizzelle cannoli, almond rainbow cookies, celery cake with green jelly and peanuts (a take on ants on a log), and a chocolate-mint truffle.

We arrived at Parm a few nights later (shot of the bar above), rain-soaked, hungry, and in need of some comfort food. We had come to the right place. We only waited twenty minutes at the bar for a table, then ordered up what seemed to be the must-haves: eggplant parmesan with a “Sunday salad”—iceberg lettuce, hot pickled peppers, cucumber, and red onions, served with a vinegary dressing—a veal-and-pork meatball platter served with ziti and meat gravy; Brussels sprouts; cauliflower; and the plate-licking garlic bread we’d had on Tuesday. (Brussels sprouts in the shot below.)

The favorites were the eggplant parmesan, which really did taste like my Italian (step) grandmother used to make when I was little, the Brussels sprouts, and the cauliflower. The sprouts were caramelized and served with thin crunchy slivers of red onion, parmesan, sea salt, and garlic. The cauliflower was nicely browned and seasoned and honestly tasted like candy in that way that only really good cauliflower can. Again, like my Italian grandma used to make. These guys are good.

The only sore spot in the evening at Parm came with the meatballs. First off, they were served flattened, and stacked, like a double hamburger. Maybe this is typical in some nonna’s kitchens but I know them to be rounded, and sized somewhere between a golf ball and baseball. The main issue, however, was that they were not properly cooked. The meat was verging on rare, cold in the center even. Our server argued with us, saying he was sure they were cooked through and that’s how they do it here. Minus two points.

Using the four-star system of the Times, I’d give Torrisi two stars and Parm one star. Two to Torrisi for the service, atmosphere, antipasti, and pastries. One to Parm for the tasty eggplant, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, garlic bread, and friendly hostess. Tell your nonna, Little Italy is back.

I had to cheat and use this photo below from the Torrisi website, so I could show you two of my favorite dishes, the mozzarella and the garlic bread, since my shots came out too dark. Buon appetito!

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The fun continued on Sunday as I met up with my friend Daniela, blogger for Eater LA, and general gourmet extraordinaire.

Sunday 11 am

Daniela picks me up from Maison 140 in her shiny new Prius and whisks us off to Suzanne Goin’s newest restaurant, Tavern, for brunch in Brentwood. We eat lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberry compote and a smoked fish plate with toasted rye and goat cheese. We gawk as servers pass by with house-made desserts like a softball-sized sticky bun and mile-high carrot cake.

1 pm

Off to the main event! Daniela has to attend a charity event for Alex’s Lemonade Stand, which raises money for childhood cancer research. It’s a chef’s cookout, bringing out the likes of Gabrielle Hamilton (who’s book I just read), April Bloomfield, Jonathan Waxman, Michael Tusk, Paul Kahan, Nancy Silverton, David Lentz, and more. The event is hosted by Neil Patrick Harris and Jimmy Kimmel and raises over $400,000 in one afternoon.

I introduce myself to Coco alums Russell Moore of Camino in Oakland, Bloomfield, and Tusk (below), and help myself to farro salads, roasted lamb, blue cheese toasts with fennel slaw, and desserts by Zoe Nathan of the Huckleberry Cafe.

4 pm

All chef’ed up and ready to go. The plan is for high tea at José Andrés’s Bazaar at the SLS hotel. When we get there we realize we could barely ingest tea, let alone little sandwiches and scones. Not only am I still digesting pork belly sliders from last night’s meal at Animal I’m also now digesting pork belly from this afternoon’s bacchanalia. So we sneak into the restaurant which we’re told is closed until 5:30. Daniela shows me around the Alice-in-Wonderland-esq landscape of neon skulls, oversized chairs, and general doo-dads. On our way out we shut the door by accident and lock ourselves in. It really is like Alice in Wonderland now. We sneak out through a service door, and a long hallway later slip out through an exit near the dumpsters. I don’t think José wanted us to see that.

8 pm

We’re meant to have dinner at Robata Jinya in West Hollywood, a Japanese grill joint that also promises to serve tofu made before your eyes (as Jonathan Gold found so delightful). But we’re tired (and full) and sore and achy from lots of walking around. I know, walking around? This is LA. I should be in a car. So we book it to Thai Town for massages in a strip mall where all the other businesses are Thai restaurants. Thai Sabai didn’t disappoint, $45 for an hour of pulling, kneading, and hot stones.

We ditched our reservation at Robata Jinya and brought home Thai food from the beloved Jitalda instead, located around the block. We order off the Thai menu instead of the American menu and are practically sweating in the car just smelling the stuff. (If you click on the link to Jitalda’s website you’ll see a post from Oct. 20th that says, “Yes we were robbed again last night at gun point, thankfully no one was hurt.” Interesting.

That’s all she wrote folks. The next morning I was whisked via Prius to the lovely LAX and sent on my way back to New York. Until next time Los Angeles.

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