"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Monday, March 21, 2011

Torrisi Italian Specialties - March 17, 2011

“Italian-American” was a bad word; it had been one of the premier, primary and predominant red-flag and red-herring words to watch out for in navigating through the myriad restaurants in New York. “Italian-American” translated to saccharine rainbow cookies, ax-proof canolis, sodden penne alfredos and uncouth spaghetti meatballs. Such ox-headed fixation over inadequate food had never ceased to dismay, sadden and confuse me as I walked, quickly, past and out of Little Italy. The early immigrants were of a less fortunate social stratum, which, only to be expected, had less differentiating palates and skilled hands. Yet, good food does not have to be expensive or haute; a simple pappardelle bolognese is enough to make me weep. However, when such group was transplanted in a new world, with unfamiliar ingredients and lack of access to authentic condiments, and further encumbered by the daily toil of survival, the quantity of food was naturally prioritized over the quality. In addition, in order for the culinary arts to truly flourish, there must also be fertile historical and cultural contexts – e.g. the Italian Renaissance – of which the United States was also lacking at the time of the influx. Under such unaccommodating conditions, the second generation grew up, exposed to less than optimal standard of food – an uncertain portion of which was cooked, not by dedicated and talented chefs, but by ordinary people for the sole purpose of earning a living and otherwise not suited for such métier. This negative cycle has continued, and as a result of which, there are shockingly few good Italian restaurants in New York today, despite the large Italian population. This nascent theory of mine has so far proved applicable to many foreign cuisines in many countries: For example, the Chinese food in New York is generally despicable; the pho sold in New York will find no takers in Ho Chi Ming City.

Nevertheless, a phoenix is born occasionally out of such primordial soup, or shall we say, a crystal from this American crucible. Torrisi Italian Specialty is not Italian-American due to compromises; It is proudly and righteously Italian-American because it is traditionally Italian in its method, but American in its use of new ingredients.

Mozz, Davero Olive Oil, Milk Thistle

I knew I heard it right, “made-to-order,” not “homemade,” but I had to wonder because how such a busy establishment could be making mozzarella all night, to order no less, although technically feasible. The texture of the bulbous mozzarella, despite being freshly made-to-order, was slightly harder than expected, reminiscent of those gaily colored bubble gums.* Nonetheless, the soft and bouncy semi-sphere was elastic and yet yielding – I was almost sorry to cut into it delicate flesh – and exuded a tantalizing milkiness, spiked by the grainy sea salt. The light olive oil did not obstruct the glory of the cheese but gently slicked it for smooth passage. The intriguing milk thistle, however, was missing from the house tonight. Although one waiter – upon being inquired as to the mysterious whereabouts of the herb – said that the milk thistle was in the milk, I suspected that the correct hiding place was more likely to be in one of the kitchen cupboards.
*I had neglected to ask whether the mozzarella was bufala (buffalo milk) or fiori di latte (cow milk). A quick search on the internet indicates bufala, however.

Cukes New Yorkese

It was an impressive avant-garde display of the life of an urban cucumber, from the fresh to the pickled. Acute flavors of the tang and sweetness were stimulating; the surprising creaminess of the whisked mustard vinaigrette elegant; and the refreshingly minty dill very clean.

Tomato Bread

The thin, crispy bread was fragrant with tomato, instead of garlic, which was produced by tomato powder no less. The unaccustomed fiery spiciness – which was to recur later on twice more – made me perk up a little, sit straighter a little, and look for the next course even more longingly.

Mussel Salad, Grilled Lemon Juice

The plump mussels were dressed in a light sauce of tomato and lemon, on which the tender sweet onions danced on hot pepper (second appearance of the hot chili). Topped with abundant green onions, the seafood salad would keep anyone on their toes much longer than the torpid and tired versions, deli-style.

Liver and Onions, Soft Pretzel

The milky and velvety pink paste tasted fresh – like everything else was – but otherwise too clean and cleansed to retain any of the down-to-earth organ flavor. While the grilled slices of the pretzel bread gave off a nice charred savoriness to the dish, the pink liver mouse failed to excite the palate.


Raffetto's Baby Shells, Calamari Peperoni

Be warned of these cute babies; they came with an attitude, feisty with the spicy peperoni and armed with the tentacles, they meant business and they wanted to get you. The crumbled peperoni clang in the little nook of the shell, so that there was no way your bite would escape the chili treatment. Although the pasta provided much amusement and a certain amount of excitement, it did not inspire a sense of wonder nor did it provide a homespun comfort; I would prefer another offering from the venerable Raffetto the next time: How about their wild mushroom ravioli?


Striped Bass, Pickled Green Tomatoes, Olives

The green salsa of sour pickled tomato and tangy green olives was demiurgic. The chef’s sensitivity glittered like a snow crystal in purity and also complexity: The acid, the tang and the crunch all paid tribute to the flaky fish, while a bouquet of piney rosemary and pungent scallion scented them all benevolently; and, the melting slices of potato contrasted unobtrusively against the fish.

Island Duck, Mulberry Mustard

The gently roasted rose flesh had the perfect texture, although the skin could have been crisped further; the sprinkle of sesame cracker crumb crunched on the skin to make up for the lack thereof. The domesticated bird had a tamed flavor, to which the bold and bitter broccoli rabes and the sweet caramelized onions supplanted the missing savor. In any case, the highlight of this dish was not the food but the waiter, who knew what the crumb was made of.

Palete Cleanser

The petite soft-serve testing cups were mounted high with mini icecaps of refreshing lemon Italian ice, which were a little too icy and lumpy like the real thing.

House Pastries

Tricolor cookie was more like a seriously well-made moist marzipan cake, dipped in chocolate and brightly colored in the spirit of the Italian flag. The ubiquitous canoli turned Belgian at this Italian-American establishment; the chef used waffles instead of the hammer-proof canoli shells, to my great relief and surprise, I must admit. The canoli was then filled with ricotta from Salvatore in Brooklyn – flavored with anise – and then decorated it with some chopped candied orange peels. The mini cheese tart sat adorably in a graham dais topped with grape-nuts and marmalade. The sugar cookies – daisy-shaped and dull – reminded me of cookie tins from childhood, while the over-liquored soggy cream puff, under-age drinking.

Torrisi begins a new Italian-American tradition with incredibly genuine cooking – unmarred by superficiality and megalomania – and truly fresh ingredients, sans the bulky curriculum vitae. Much kudos to the waiters, who had learned the menu inside out, except the one who foolhardily attempted to camouflage his ignorance in a tall tale – just like the milk thistle and the mozzarella – the takeaway of which was that neither his intelligence nor the milk thistle was present that night. 

Torrisi Italian Specialties
Address:  250 Mulberry Street, New York, NY 10012
Phone:  (212) 965-0955

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