During the Formula 1 Miami Grand Prix in May, the owners of Carbone, the decade-old temple to red-sauce dining in Greenwich Village, opened a pop-up underneath a gigantic tent on the beach. Even if this was set to be a huge weekend for the Magic City, this kind of ambition—the kind that prompts one to prop up a cathedral of carbs in South Beach—has been in somewhat short supply since the pandemic crippled large swaths of the restaurant industry. For a lot of reasons Carbone Beach seemed particularly hubristic.
First, there already is an outpost of Carbone in Miami, just a short drive down Collins Avenue, one that’s large enough to pull off close to a thousand covers on a big night. The pop-up went head-to-head not just with itself but with a hundred other global hot spots for customers during the jam-packed race weekend schedule. Then there was the little issue of the cost. To eat at Carbone Beach, the price tag was $3,000 per person. Still, in the days leading up to the races, Jeff Zalaznick, cofounder of Major Food Group, the umbrella company that owns Carbone, was bullish.
“We’ve never seen demand like this,” he said, referring to the restaurant and Miami itself. “It’s going to be a very hedonistic experience.”
Zalaznick knew his market. Over the four-day Carbone Beach pop-up, the guest list was a remarkable cross section of American wealth and celebrity: real estate billionaires Stephen Ross and Richard LeFrak, oil heir Mikey Hess; media mega-dealer Aryeh Bourkoff; Gen Z Marvel hero Hailee Steinfeld; directors Michael Bay and Spike Lee; Derek Jeter; Venus and Serena Williams; Patrick Mahomes; and more. LeBron James alone managed to stop by Carbone Beach on four consecutive nights. Even deposed princelings Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were there, enjoying a rare night out insulated from sneering restaurantgoers who can’t afford to drop three stacks to get into dinner.
At 200 heads per night times four, Carbone Beach ostensibly grossed more than $2 million. The brick-and-mortar Carbone down the beach was booked from opening until closing.
At the center of it all is Mario Carbone, a perpetual kid from Queens now approaching middle age, who opened his namesake restaurant in 2013 at the age of 33. All weekend long in Miami—where he relocated with his girlfriend, the powerful TikTok star publicist Cait Bailey, during the pandemic—he was personally plating the rigatoni and flipping the steaks on the grills while also playing politician, greeting VIPs, and introducing the talent onstage.
Throughout the madness, Carbone remained the tastefully five-o’clock-shadowed big shot in chef’s whites, an Italian American culinary god to every foodie with a black card. He wears his restaurant world celebrity with the well-groomed mien of a guy with a few menswear podcasts in the Spotify queue. In fact, his side hustle is a fashion line, Our Lady of Rocco, and like both Carbones—restaurant and restaurateur—it wears its influences—Mean Streets, The Pope of Greenwich Village—on its sleeve. One particular Rocco item might be the key to inner Mario, an item that’s retrograde but forward-thinking, smile inducing, and thoroughly meta-Italian. It’s a simple ribbed white tank for guys that has been called a “wife-pleaser.”
For months, I had been speaking to Carbone in an effort to understand how his name had become shorthand for a very specific kind of luxe dining in the last decade—how he and his cofounders built and are now expanding a supper club that has so consistently lured not just the likes of LeBron and Jeter, Spike and Drake, Jared and Ivanka, but all the various moguls and machers and hypebeasts and influencers in their various wakes. At one point during our series of conversations, I ask Carbone if such extravagance and global influence seemed remotely attainable back when he and cofounder Rich Torrisi decided to open their first Italian joint 13 years ago.
“I don’t think we had any idea how it was going to happen,” Carbone says to me. “But if you would’ve told me and Rich in our late 20s, you guys were going to be fucking big, you’re going to be huge, we would’ve been like, ‘Yeah, you bet your ass.’ ”
Since restaurants gradually started to reopen in the fall of 2020, there’s been no spot on earth more perennially celeb-packed than Carbone. It’s as if the rich and powerful simply are not aware that other places exist to get dinner. This had been building for years; Carbone was the rare room that Leonardo DiCaprio could enter and maybe not be the most famous guy present. But it’s taken on a new dimension of late.
Rihanna’s pregnancy announcement was bookended by visits. Justin Bieber beelined there the day after the Met Gala in September 2021. Kanye West and Julia Fox went on their first date at the Miami outpost on New Year’s Day, and then followed up three days later with another date…at Carbone in New York, as they vamped for the paparazzi. The whole thing bordered on a work of performance art, with Carbone as a backdrop, seen on phone screens the world over. Over the course of a workweek, Page Six wrote no fewer than 17 stories referencing the couple’s dinners there.
The pair could not have chosen a better backdrop, a certain element of metatextual, post-everything exegesis having been baked into Carbone’s ziti from day one. The restaurant delivers its highfalutin versions of classic Italian American comfort food hits—ragu, ravioli, rigatoni, calamari, puttanesca, shrimp scampi, lobster fra diavolo, veal Parmesan—with a side of arch referentiality: the red-tuxedoed captain singing along to Frank while his bazooka arms mix a gigantic Caesar salad; the reddest, spiciest, booziest vodka sauce ever served over noodles on white tablecloth; the courtesy-of-the-chef wink wink nod nod free courses coming out to make you feel like you’re a made man in a mob hang.
The Carbone celebrity complex has been egged on by the dogged pseudo-reporting of the pandemic-era Page Six meets Gawker Stalker that is @deuxmoi, the gossip-spewing Oz of Instagram. In @deuxmoi world, Carbone is akin to this century’s Deux Magots, with Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson filling in for Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.
“I name a lot of different restaurants, and for whatever reason, they just latched on to Carbone, it’s become so synonymous with the account,” one of the founders of @deuxmoi tells me on a phone call. “Does anyone eat anywhere else? I get so excited when someone sends me a picture of their burger or something because I feel like all I post is Carbone.”
Carbone’s gone-Hollywood version of cooking linguine with clams arrived right as Instagram began to take off. Three months after the restaurant opened its doors in March 2013, the picture-sharing behemoth first allowed users to add video to their feeds. And Carbone is perhaps best seen as video streaming on an app, capturing this Sinatra-washed rigatoni fantasia, one that unfolds as if on a New York back lot in an L.A. movie studio filling in for Greenwich Village.
“Carbone’s like a movie set, where every waiter’s like an actor,” says Daniel Boulud, who once employed Carbone and Torrisi at his own Café Boulud. “Mario and Rich, they’re New Yorkers, and they have this nostalgia for classic New York, and it gives it this joie de vivre.”
The creators know this and relish the hell out of it. When talking about the restaurant, Carbone and Torrisi often bring up a concept they have dubbed “The Move.” The Moves are wink wink mini performances pulled off by the servers that weave together into a narrative, a series of over-accommodation that will charm and overwhelm and crescendo until you have been pomodoro-pilled.
“Generally it means unique service style moments, whether it’s the verbiage we use, how the captain guides you, the spiel they use to rattle off specials,” Torrisi says. “And people might not notice the Move, and that’s the point—the point is that you aren’t thinking about it because we got you, we captured your imagination, we’re pouring wine quickly and we’re getting you a cocktail and you’re having a great time and that’s why you’re coming back. That’s a Move.”
I had dinner at Carbone on the first Sunday of May, and the main takeaway, apart from the relentlessly euphoria-inducing fare, was something like: This is an unapologetically self-aware way to go out for a meal. Contra the boys, it’s not so much a series of Moves but a sequence of discrete actions unfurling as a narrative about the Move. The first Move is a meta one: leading us past the main dining room with tiles reminiscent of those in the restaurant in which Michael Corleone accepted his destiny in The Godfather, through the kitchen à la Scorsese’s direction en route to the best table at the Copacabana in Goodfellas. Another Move is a capitan greeting the table in a tuxedo, handshakes all around, launching into an antipasti assault: gratis salami from down Bleecker Street; a Brobdingnagian basket of various carbs topped with a square of grandma bread the size of a stop sign; oily, pepper-flecked cauliflower giardiniera; and fist-size chunks of Parmesan. Out comes the tableside-tossed Caesar but also a tire-size platter of extra-rich beef carpaccio speckled with ant-size chives. Out comes the spicy rigatoni vodka but also off-the-menu gnocchi slathered in fresh ramp butter. Out comes the lobster fra diavolo but also that famous veal Parm, cut tableside. Out come the coffees but also a bottle of Sambuca, dropped at the table for diners to use to spike at will.
Also a Move: that time the waiter handed over comically large menus and then rattled off the night’s oysters, a list as long as the names of who begat whom in the book of Genesis, ending with “New Brunswick—and that’s Canada, not Jersey! No offense to Jersey though.” Wink wink. One last Move: placing a Tesla-size basket of chestnuts and other unidentifiable shells on the table—“This is a nutcracker, and ladies, you only use them on these nuts.”
Carbone is akin to this century’s DEUX MAGOTS, with Kim Kardashian and Pete Davidson FILLING IN for Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.
But then the Move could not account for the fact that in the back room’s corner booth sat Aviv “Vivi” Nevo, the überwealthy Zelig-like investor with a self-fashioned mystique—for years, his top Google searches said that he was ungoogleable. Or that a tablemate came back from the bathroom to announce he had just been introduced to Olivia Rodrigo, the stratospheric 19-year-old pop star, who was sitting with, among others, the actor Sebastian Stan and Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli.
Here, though, are two variables that might get us closer to solving for Carbone’s gravitational force. Within hours of dinner, the Daily Mail and @deuxmoi had each reported that Rodrigo had been at Carbone on the night before the Met Gala, complete with Thompson-Street-as-runway snaps of her in a see-through chain-mail dress. That Nevo held court at a table in the back room wasn’t reported anywhere.
Unlike your usual celeb-studded clubstaurants—your Taos and your Buddakans and your Catches—the cuisine at Carbone has earned three stars from Pete Wells at The New York Times. This sort of critical appraisal is something of an important marker in the evolution of fine dining in New York. Krishnendu Ray, a professor of food studies at New York University and author of The Ethnic Restaurateur, explained that Italian cuisine is becoming one of the dominant forms of haute cuisine, gaining ground on French and Japanese. If you go to a globalized luxury hotel in Bangkok or Buenos Aires, the restaurant there is more likely than anything else to be serving Italian food. But this very often tends to be Italian Italian food, which means the food the wealthy eat in Milan or Genoa, not Italian American food. Spaghetti and meatballs was invented here by Italians who saw their jobs eliminated as the Industrial Revolution spread down the boot, forcing them to come to America in droves until the National Origins Act of 1924 limited immigration. Ray said that, to his knowledge, no one had seriously tried to elevate this cuisine to the peaks of gastronomy and hospitality until restaurants like Carbone did.
“Carbone is very significant, because it’s the food of the poor immigrants, and it’s fighting against the Northern Italian disdain,” said Ray.
Mario Carbone has none of this disdain, and despite the high-flying Miami lifestyle punctuated by bro hugs from LeBron, he’s still the kid from Queens who worked at local eateries through high school. The red-sauce joint on Thompson might be just one of the 30+ restaurants on three continents under the Major Food Group umbrella, but Carbone is the flagship restaurant and the one that bears his name.
“The idea to do what Carbone is, that’s more acutely Mario’s particular dream as a young chef,” says Torrisi, whose name graced their first restaurant, Torrisi Italian Specialties.
On a brisk Texas morning on the last day of March, I am sitting with Carbone at the new Carbone in Dallas, in the bones of a restaurant set to open, alarmingly, that night. It doesn’t look ready, but he is. Carbone was born to Italian Americans in a residential part of Queens, and his grandparents, who came over from Italy as adults, were always around, always cooking.
“My grandfather would wake up, he’d get dressed, and part of getting dressed, he’d put an apron on,” Carbone tells me. “And then, for the remainder of the day, he has an apron on, watching TV, gardening, doing something outside, actually cooking,” Carbone continues. “And my grandmother was his consummate doting sous chef…. So when they were watching me, I was always in the kitchen.”
Home-cooked Italian food was part of the culture, but he was also fascinated by the business model of a restaurant, the magician’s sleight of hand that happens in an invisible back room where you choose what you want and it miraculously appears. He worked at seafood joints in Queens to make pocket money for dates, and after high school decided to bet on cooking as a way forward. He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, the go-to incubator for kitchen stars.
“Everyone thinks they’re going to be a grand chef—everyone was going to be the four-star chef, the three-Michelin-star chef, the grand restaurateur,” Carbone recalls.
When looking for an externship, Carbone sent letters to all of the restaurants on a local magazine’s top 50 list and heard back from very few. Finally, he got a call from a chef at the recently opened Babbo, Mario Batali’s first hit restaurant. His job was to show up at dawn, scale fish, fetch coffee, say yes to everything, and leave long after the last service.
“I landed in an incredible place that was making a shit ton of noise,” he says. “Mario, that was only his second restaurant at the time. He was there every night. And I became the kid. I was the gofer. But I was like Rudy Ruettiger at fucking Notre Dame. I was gonna do it, and I was gonna do the shit out of it.”
Batali asked Carbone to join the team at his new spot Lupa, on Thompson Street. After a year came a spell at La Dogana, a storied must-hit in Tuscany, where he learned the ancient techniques of Etruscan cooking. When he got back to the States, he thought he had the stuff to make it in the kitchens stacked with chefs who would come to define the next two decades of restaurants in New York. First up was the flagship space of Boulud, who is in Carbone parlance “one of the LeBron Jameses of this thing.” Carbone had a surefire plan to get a gig. He’d go to Boulud’s four-sparkler East Side temple of Gallic haute cuisine and slip a résumé in his pocket to pass to the chef-owner. But he ended up having to call Boulud’s assistant every day before he got a spot to trail on the line. “He was very green at the start,” Boulud says.
After a few days during which Carbone passed as a legit employee, the executive chef made eye contact with a young Mario, a man he had never hired, standing in the kitchen. The chef happened to be Alex Lee. “About as intimidating a human being as you’re going to find,” Carbone says of Lee. “He’s yelling at other French chefs in perfect French. His build is stocky, shaved head. And he’s screaming in all languages. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m terrified of this man. I’m terrified of this man. And at the end of one service, he looks down the line at me. So I walk up to him. And he goes, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ Great question, chef. My name’s Mario Carbone. I was trying to get a job here, blah, blah, blah, blah. And he’s like, ‘I don’t have any positions here.’ ”
But Carbone did manage to find a spot at the less formal Café Boulud, which, while still a world-class joint, wasn’t as stuffy as the four-star dining room off Park Avenue. At the time, the kitchen was run by Andrew Carmellini, who would go on to open Locanda Verde in Robert De Niro’s Greenwich Hotel, The Dutch in SoHo, and the sprawling French bistro Lafayette in NoHo.
A fellow grunt on the line was a Korean American kid from a D.C. suburb named David Chang, who quit after his mother was diagnosed with cancer and who entertained hopes of striking out on his own. “Café Boulud was intentionally difficult,” Chang told The New Yorker in 2008. “It was chip-on-your-shoulder cooking, like, all these other restaurants have twice as many cooks, all this new equipment, and we’re gonna fucking outcook them with nothing but our sheer will and technique.”
Chang was the most immediate success of the pledge class, as he went on to open a noodle bar called Momofuku that begat a global empire. But it seemed as though all the young guys in Carmellini’s kill-or-be-killed kitchen were comers, content to sweat out the rough times and earn the scars needed to open their own places. Another Café Boulud employee was Torrisi, whom Carbone had met back at CIA, on the first day of orientation.
Boulud, who was very much aware of Carmellini’s activities over at the café, said he remembered the young chefs fondly. “They were a little bit of a clique,” says Boulud. “They were a part of this fuck-you generation, they were ready to do anything to get ahead, they were so ambitious.”
Carbone and Torrisi both eventually moved on: Carbone to wd~50, the Lower East Side mecca where Wylie Dufresne was cooking on the bleeding edge of molecular gastronomy, and then to Del Posto, the city’s first Italian Italian restaurant in decades to score four stars from the Times, courtesy of then critic Sam Sifton. Torrisi eventually went to work at A Voce, the first boîte helmed solo by Carmellini. But the two, Torrisi and Carbone, stayed close. After postshift drinks late one night at the Sullivan Street chef hangout Blue Ribbon, Torrisi told his bud he needed a place to crash. They became roommates and spent each morning getting ready for work, bitching about their jobs, perfecting dishes by woodshedding on the tiny stovetop, and communing with the cooking god on the television, Bobby Flay.
“So we would watch all things Bobby Flay and just talk about shit,” Carbone says. “And the assumption was at that time that he would go on and do his own thing and I would do my own thing. And we had entrepreneurial ambitions separately. I was going to do something. He was going to do something.”
“Carbone’s like a MOVIE SET, where every waiter’s like an actor,” says Daniel Boulud, who ONCE EMPLOYED Carbone and Torrisi at his own Café Boulud.
For Carbone, that was a project with Chang, but things got scuttled during the Great Recession. The roommates decided to join forces. They had spent all this time talking about their ideal menu, in their ideal spot. So they started looking around. They had some funds from their families and a few investors, they just needed a place, preferably somewhere downtown. Soon they found a former blue jeans store on Mulberry Street, spent months gutting it, and opened Torrisi Italian Specialties. After a spell serving sandwiches at lunch to modest returns, some press accompanied one of their first dinner services, and soon they were drawing lines around the block.
In time, a 27-year-old regular named Jeff Zalaznick approached them about getting drinks. Torrisi and Carbone knew the guy, they had grappa after tasting-menu meals at the restaurant sometimes, so it wasn’t all that strange. Carbone went for drinks with him at the Jane Hotel. Here’s what Zalaznick was proposing: What about opening what would become the greatest, fanciest red-sauce joint the city has ever seen?
Torrisi and Carbone were intrigued. More than that—they had a similar idea. In the lofted lobby of the Jane Hotel, the place that once hosted survivors of the sunken Titanic, an idea was born for a new kind of restaurant that would build on the buzz of Torrisi Italian Specialties but take it one step further by going two steps back. It wouldn’t be an Italian American place leaning on modernist techniques to get insanely fancy. It would be a place that was both insanely Italian American and insanely fancy.
“Torrisi was this real juggernaut—it was a sandwich shop, it was this incredible multicourse restaurant—and they were beside themselves with enthusiasm,” says Ben Leventhal, a cofounder of Eater who went on to cofound the popular reservation service Resy, on which you’ll be hard-pressed to find a table at a reasonable hour at Carbone’s flagship anytime soon. “They were energized and engaged coming off of Torrisi, and they just shifted gears into Carbone. And it was a rocket ship right out of the gate.”
Zalaznick had one thing the friends lacked: bona fide generational wealth. Jeff’s father is David Zalaznick, who cofounded property and investment company JZ Capital Partners with the financier Jay Jordan. His grandfather was real estate titan Paul Milstein.
And Jeff Zalaznick, who’d worked a bit in the industry, was looking for something new. “He went to Cornell, he tried banking, he hated it,” Carbone says. “And he just started showing up at Torrisi.”
After the meeting at the Jane, all three of them got together, this time at the Mulberry Street playground across from the bar Spring Lounge—Carbone called it Shark Bar, like any legit SoHo dweller does—and agreed to form a partnership that would turn into Major Food Group. “So then Jeff’s on squad, he’s making calls, he’s doing all sorts of shit—he’s figuring out how to be a restaurateur,” Carbone recalls.
First order of business was finding a space for their dream restaurant, their temple to Southern Italian comfort food as slick as a summer blockbuster. At one point, a friend who represented the building at 181 Thompson Street told Zalaznick about the site, that they were renting the retail space, which for 90 years had been held by a legendary but bygone Greenwich Village red-sauce joint called Rocco Restaurant.
The space had an earned-through-the-decades patina that could actually fulfill the trio’s spaghetti-wrapped dreams. When Rocco started serving pasta a century ago, the South Village was a nexus for immigrants from the Mezzogiorno—the southern part of the old country. They were drawn to the namesake restaurant opened by Rocco Stanziano in 1922, steps away from some of the first churches for Italian immigrants in the country, which served locals and the occasional Italian-descended royalty—Joe DiMaggio is said to have come along with Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s, and De Niro dropped in as late as the 2000s.
But in 2011 the landlord reportedly informed Stanziano’s grand-nephew Antonio DaSilva that his rent would be jacked from $8,000 to $18,000 per month, and the family balked. When Zalaznick told his two new partners that he had heard about a space at 181 Thompson, both knew exactly what he meant. Carbone had worked at Lupa right across the street. “I was like, Dude, I know that, of course, that space across the street with the epic sign outside,” Carbone says.
Torrisi describes it as the trio’s “oh shit” moment. “That sign was etched in my brain from eating in my early 20s,” he says. “We look to craft a story, and it’s a 100-year-old Italian American sign, a perfect location in the other Little Italy of Manhattan.”
Rocco provided the space that could be the canvas on which Carbone and his partners could create a postmodern red-sauce joint that could seize the zeitgeist—seize it not with Momofuku Ko’s Donald Judd–inspired minimalism or wd~50’s thing-that-looks-like-another-thing neo-surrealism, but with a novel pour of self-aware nostalgia.
“It was a young generation of people, ourselves, not doing something youthful,” Carbone says. “That was our space. And they said, ‘The new thing, that’s supposed to be your space. That’s what you were doing at Torrisi. You were taking an idea and you were being really youthful with it. I get it. I don’t get this. You’re doing something very old, when you’re young. You’re not supposed to be doing that.”
Other attempts to take New York’s Italian cuisine nationwide include Il Mulino, a go-to West Village upscale spot that was sold to investors in 2001 and expanded rapidly; its parent company declared bankruptcy for seven locations in 2020 amid the pandemic. (That place’s moment, it seems, has passed. In 2009, then president Barack Obama caused a stir by eating at Il Mulino with former president Bill Clinton, but there’s no indication Obama ever went back. Instead, he took time off from running the free world to share veal Parm and the porterhouse with his daughters at Carbone in 2015—then went back to Carbone again in 2017, this time after he departed the White House.)
But Il Mulino’s prelaunch build-out was no match for the conceptual rigor girded to the opening of an Italian American juggernaut like Carbone. When I asked Carmellini what he made of the Carbone concept when he first heard of it, he suggested it was ambitious to say the least.
“We kind of shared this Italian American background, and we joked that red sauce wasn’t quote-unquote real Italian,” Carmellini says. “My kind of mentors were Italians who hated Italian American cooking, because it wasn’t Italian.”
The Carbone trio enlisted Zac Posen to design the captains’ tuxedos. Art dealer Vito Schnabel curated the work in the space, commissioning a series of paintings by the critic and poet turned artist’s artist Rene Ricard. Part of the appeal is that after decades of putting up with mediocre Italian food just because it’s still homey and comforting to tuck into a plate of sauce-and-cheese-slathered carbs, New Yorkers were ready for a concept that understood what makes those kinds of restaurants so appealing while upping the food quality.
“Jeff said something interesting about people in New York,” Torrisi says. “People in this city love Italian American food so much that they’re willing to eat it badly, but they don’t care. They know that what you’re eating isn’t good food, but you have such a place in your heart for it that you love it anyway.” But with better quality food came bigger price tags. At Torrisi, the gang had initially been known for their $45 tasting menu, a direct response to the type of insanely expensive bill that came after dining at Eleven Madison Park or Masa.
“There was definitely a large group of naysayers, all of a sudden, that had never existed,” Carbone says. “There was a lot of ‘Good for you, kids!’ for a long time, the first couple of years. And then we came out with $50 veal Parms and tuxedos and they were like, ‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. That one thing cost more than that whole menu you used to serve.’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, I know, but it’s different. We don’t have to be those guys, we’re these guys now.’ I was like, ‘I don’t shine shoes no more.’ ”
In the week before the opening, the place got more press than a visiting pope. Alongside glossy write-ups in the Times and New York, though, there were early press pieces bemoaning Carbone’s maximalist approach as pastiche. The NIMBY crowd was particularly incensed that Carbone had a hand in elbowing out of New York the very element to which it was supposedly paying homage. Jeremiah Moss, the proprietor of an online historical concern called Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, accused places like Carbone of turning the Big Apple into “an Epcot Center Jurassic Park of a city.” Eater did a one-paragraph post about Moss’s rant. That story got more than 100 comments from angry anti-gentrifiers and supporters alike.
Then the restaurant opened in March 2013, and Eater couldn’t stop writing about it. In Carbone’s first two months of existence, the site published 25 stories about the place, often under the same rubric: “Carbone Fever.” “It was one of those restaurants where they got everything right,” Leventhal said. The commenters kept at it too. “Sheeple and celebrities = sweet spot,” one wrote. “An overpriced douchetrap,” read another. “$135 per person for FUCKING SPAGHETTI??? hahahahaha!!! douchebags, all of you!” went another.
Jay-Z and Beyoncé came in early and often, as did other celebrities. It was booked solid for the rest of the year. In December, Pete Wells at the Times named it the second-best new restaurant he’d reviewed that year, bested only by Sushi Nakazawa, a now-faded fancy sushi joint.
“I was not surprised at all personally,” Torrisi says about the immediate success. “We knew exactly what we wanted to say, how we wanted to say it. We believed it was missing from the fabric of New York.”
When I asked Carbone to explain the X factor that brings in boldface names more reliably than any eatery on earth—this is based on inexact science, to be sure, but it’s believed to be true by many experts of A-lister rubbernecking—he slipped into a pose that was maybe knowingly clueless, trying not to sound disingenuous while also protecting the discretion of his clientele. “It’s this sort of amazing thing that happened along the way, there’s no way to put the pieces together to create that as a result,” he says. “With celebrities, I think that we do a good job of preaching anonymity, and we welcome them and try to do our best to keep them in their own little world and bubble and take care of them as we would anybody else, as best you can. Some of them we know through the years now. It’s really hard to explain.”
Torrisi has a more direct theory. “Celebrities are just fucking people too—they might not be normal people, but they are people like anyone else,” he says. “And people love Carbone.”
A secret reservation list does not hurt: “We’ve created systems by which reservations happen,” Carbone says. “And people have contacts. And we can make shit happen on the fly.”(Nota bene to the rich and famous: Advance warning is key. In June, Justin Bieber played before a Barclays Center crowd and then reportedly showed up on a whim to Carbone with his wife Hailey for a postshow date, only to be told they were fully booked.)
Try as he might to not confirm A-list fans by name, Carbone was at times unable to not mention celebs who have transcended from regulars to family. “We also happened to be these young guys doing this old thing, which we didn’t realize crosses this really, really wide demographic,” Carbone says. “My dad loves it. And he’s sitting next to Jay-Z. That’s a very strange thing for all of us. But it works. And we’re all listening to Frank. And I can’t explain it sometimes.”
So pitched was Carbone Fever that within a few years, Major Food Group had a shot at the Mount Olympus of the restaurant world: the space in the Seagram Building that housed the Four Seasons. After building owners Aby Rosen and Michael Fuchs kicked the Four Seasons operators out of the landmarked Philip Johnson–designed space, Rosen started asking around about who could inject new energy into the bastion of influence that birthed the term “power lunch.”
Vito Schnabel helped him connect with Zalaznick in 2015, and Rosen—whose company also owns the Chrysler Building—was impressed. “The Major Food guys understand the importance of the show, of looking good, and the staff is entertaining,” Rosen later told Town & Country. “You’re there for a play; you’re part of an act. But you also get what you pay for, which a lot of times doesn’t happen.”
Rosen knew there would be backlash about telling the masters of the universe their $49 single crab cake would be made by guys in their 30s that food blog commentators loved to call douchebags. “I have zero issue with coming off as a villain in the press,” he told Town & Country.
Once it was announced that Major Food Group would take over the country’s most famous restaurant and turn it into The Grill, the criticism leapfrogged several social strata up from the comments section. Henry Kissinger, who reputedly spent decades of lunches at the same perch ordering the same baked potato with its own bottle of olive oil, complained to Rosen, as did Martha Stewart; the starchitects Robert A.M. Stern and Norman Foster reportedly urged him not to change a thing. Joni Evans, the former publisher of Random House, told New York’s Grub Street blog that it was like losing your childhood home—and learning that they’ve moved it to the Bronx. “I have no interest in going back,” she said. “I don’t want to see what they’ve done.”
Phyllis Lambert—the daughter of Seagram president Samuel Bronfman, who commissioned the building in the 1950s—wrote a blistering op-ed for The New York Times about the restaurant swap, saying “Mr. Johnson designed the Four Seasons to be soft and relaxing, unlike the hot spot destination restaurants that dominate Manhattan.” Nevertheless, a week’s worth of opening dinners were attended by titans of business and real estate, among them Robert Kraft, Jonathan Tisch, Leon Black, Steven Roth, and Henry Kravis.
“With The Grill, we fucking put our balls on the table,” Carbone says. “And it’s like, ‘We’re going to do it. Someone’s got to do it. It should be us. It has to be us.’ That was our thought process back then. It’s like, ‘This space is closing. It has to be us to take it. And we will be the ones to do it right.’ ”
Lambert eventually came around and had her 90th birthday in the space. The critics came around too. Eater’s Ryan Sutton made The Grill the rare non–tasting menu in the city with four stars. “At the moment, this is as close as you can get to a perfect New York restaurant,” he wrote in August 2017. “May we all be rich enough to eat here more often.”
Expansion of a global nature has, unsurprisingly, been an entire chapter of the Carbone playbook almost since day one. In 2014, a year after the original opened, young restaurateurs behind the dining group Black Sheep helped open Carbone Hong Kong. Carbone Las Vegas was a no-brainer, so by 2015 there was an edition at the Aria. A Carbone in the Mansard Riyadh, a Radisson-backed hotel in the capital of Saudi Arabia, will open later this year. Speaking of the Kingdom: There’s also a new edition of Torrisi Italian Specialties, simply called Torrisi, opening in 2022 in the Puck Building, which is owned by Kushner Companies, the real estate empire once run by Jared Kushner—whose firm recently took a $2 billion investment from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.
Then there’s the recently announced private Carbone inside a member’s club set for some not-too-distant future in Hudson Yards. (It already seems like it’s impossible to get a table at Carbone. But what if it actually…was impossible to get a table at Carbone?)
But before that, they had to open in the Kingdom of Texas.
“I’m not gonna lie, I don’t really know anything about Dallas,” Carbone says, sitting in the not-quite-finished dining room at the end of an oblong parking lot in the Design District of the Texas metropolis, 1,551 miles from Greenwich Village. A hundred employees fritter around, trying to turn two closed restaurants into open ones. They have a matter of hours.
“You know I love the sound of the drill at 2 p.m. on opening day,” he deadpans, leading me into the outdoor courtyard as a number of workers are eating into the earth and the beeping of a dump truck blares louder as it gets closer to us. “A construction site five hours before opening is the sort of adrenaline we’re looking for.”
Still, he seems a bit on edge. Investors were hoping that the Carbone essence could be successfully uncorked for the 10-gallon-hatted high rollers in Big D: AT&T executives, Cowboys and Mavericks, old-money art collectors with Twombly-dotted mansions. We walk into the kitchen, where young guys in oil-slicked chef’s whites are hammering away at their stations. “This is Chef Ed,” he says after one addresses him as “Chef Mario.”
As we walk through the cramped kitchen, Carbone tells me that the night’s crowd will be made up mostly of investors and friends and family, an elaborate cocktail party, he says. Beside us is a stack of about 500 loaves of bread.
“Tonight’s a little bit abnormal, but an opening nonetheless. Chef Ed, what’s going on with our great wall of bread?”
“It’s a great wall of bread, chef,” says Chef Ed.
“I can’t imagine we need it all,” Carbone says.
“It’s the order that came today,” says Ed.
“You might want to peel back,” Carbone says.
We walk out, and two guys, one older and one younger, have been standing on the restaurant’s asphalt. Carbone jerks a thumb toward them and swings his head my way to shoot me a “These your people?” stare. These are not my people. After a beat, the younger guy walks up. They are a father and son who have made the couple-hour drive from Longview to Dallas just to meet their hero, Mario Carbone, the man who charges Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid as much as $100 a plate for his gussied-up Italian American food.
“So we drove three hours,” the younger man says, stuttering a bit, clearly nervous. “I’m originally from Brooklyn—”
“Brooklyn’s further than three hours away!” Carbone says.
“—but my parents are from Sicily,” he says, turning toward his dad. “We’re in the restaurant business 43 years, my parents. We drove here just for a chance to meet you. I don’t know if you’d get in too much trouble, but I have some Our Lady of Rocco gear. Would you mind signing it?”
“Not at all,” Carbone says.
“You don’t understand,” the fan says. “My wife and I got engaged on Ellis Island six years ago and our first meal after getting engaged was at Parm.” The man, who is just over five feet tall, takes out a bag of cigars. “These are for you—sticks just to commemorate, and they should be right up your alley because I kind of know your profile,” the man says.
“You are right,” Carbone marvels.
As Carbone bends down to sign it, I get the uncanny feeling like this is something rehearsed—a Move. But then again, for a certain demographic, Italian American men who have a nostalgic vision of New York as a romantic postwar playground, maybe meeting Mario Carbone, whose conjuring of a version of this world is somewhat miraculous, is akin to an audience with a god—or at least a pope.
Did this sort of thing happen all the time? “Not all the time, but, I mean, that guy is acutely positioned to be a fan,” Carbone says as he watches the two men walk away. “I mean, that? It was like a 16-year-old and Taylor Swift right there,” Carbone says.
On the evening of Carbone’s first service in the Lone Star State, Lamborghini Murciélagos peel into the tiny Design District strip mall and their owners hop out, throw the keys to the valet, and walk into the cocktail party, which straddles both Carbone and the new restaurant concept next door, Carbone Vino, a wine bar that will serve Carbone staples—the Caesar, the rigatoni—along with, in a first, pizza.
“Just shaking hands and kissing babies,” Carbone, now in full-on papal visit mode, says at the entrance, dressed in chef’s whites. He points out that, against all odds, the horror show of a construction zone hours earlier has been replaced by a distinctly Texan display of conspicuous wealth: rhinestone blazers, cowboy boots, and looks fresh off the runway from Paris. Tux-clad waiters wheel around little tuna tartare bites and gooey rice balls, and at Carbone Vino is a cornucopia of treyf that exists at the end of a pork eater’s dream: San Marco 24-month prosciutto di Parma, Elevation coppa, soppressata piccante, Leoncini mortadella, and herb-crusted lardo that melts on the tongue for a moment of porcine bliss.
A few minutes later, the crowds are still a bit thin. A friend from New York who relocated to Dallas for a job in the art world says that in her experience, “Texans are very set in their ways, and the New York imports don’t really work here.” (Il Mulino New York lasted all of two years in Dallas and closed in 2006.)
“Dallas doesn’t like to pay high prices for Italian unless they are in New York or Los Angeles or Italy,” Nancy Nichols, a longtime local food writer, wrote after the spot closed. “However, they don’t blink at forking over $50 for an 8-ounce filet of beef. It’s a reality of how the majority of palates and pocketbooks in this city roll.”
Despite such doubts, the party starts to heat up. Several Dallas-based art collectors I’d met over the years appear at the Carbone grand opening, and they introduce me to a number of young museum trustees, who introduce me to socialites, who introduce me to the scions of AT&T executives—“All of Dallas seems to be here,” says one investor as servers whip around with trays of negronis and that ever-present spicy rigatoni vodka. The cocktail party becomes a full-on party, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Biggie Smalls blasting on the speakers, and eventually Carbone joins Torrisi and Zalaznick by the front, and they tell me that the place is booked out already for two months.
“This is how we fucking do it, my guy,” Zalaznick tells me, wine in hand. And then he yells for Carbone, and the two of them take me out to the parking lot—a Move—to take in the spread that he and the boys have created. Then another Move: Carbone takes out one of the cigars gifted to him, looks me in the eye, and lights it as Sinatra hits the last high note in “My Way.” Torrisi is standing nearby, downing a glass of wine. Carbone is feeling nostalgic, thinking about their Torrisi Italian Specialties days.
“We called [it] a 400-square-foot rocket ship, that’s what we told each other in our apartment before we went to bed each night,” Carbone says later. “This is not a deli. It’s a rocket ship. That’s what we said.”
And then one last Move.
“Right there, you see right there?” Zalaznick says, spilling a little wine as he gestures to an empty lot in the Dallas night. “Right there, we’re going to build our first Carbone hotel.”
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