Entries in Torrisi Italian Specialties (3)


Should the Star Ratings Take Price Into Account?

At the bottom of every New York Times restaurant review is this blurb, essentially unchanged for many years:

Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.

The paper never explains exactly how price is “taken into consideration.” Presumably, it means that a restaurant could receive a bonus star for being an exceptionally good value, or be docked a star for being too expensive.

I’d like to challenge that. Should the rating be price-sensitive? I can state at least four good reasons why not.

1. It is Open To Manipulation. In many notable cases, restaurants have raised their prices—sometimes substantially—just after they received a glowing New York Times review. For instance, when Frank Bruni awarded four stars to Eleven Madison Park, the prix fixe was $88; a year later, it is $125. Sam Sifton awarded four stars to Del Posto just a month ago; now, they have dropped their à la carte option, locking customers into a (minimum) $95 prix fixe.

I am not suggesting that either restaurant would lose the fourth star if the critic went back today, but these are hardly isolated examples. Country raised its prix fixe from $85 to $110 after Bruni gave it three stars. Fiamma went from $75 to $95 (later partly rolled back after Bruni called them on it). At Falai, a two-star restaurant, Bruni likewise saw a noticeable price increase (beyond the rate of inflation) when he returned two years later. In a blog post, he surveyed several other examples.

Now, I do realize that anything can change at a restaurant. But a talented chef is probably going to stay talented; an attractive dining room is probably going to remain that way. Prices, on the other hand, are merely the function of what a manager types into a word processor.

2. It Depends on Factors the Critic Can’t See. According to Joe Bastianich (partner with Mario Batali at Del Posto and many other restaurants), food is only 30 percent of the price—the rest being rent, labor, miscellany, and of course profit. The critic can see the food on the plate. He generally has no idea if the restauranteur got a sweet rent deal that enables him to undersell comparable restaurants. The restaurant might be saddled with union labor, which tacks on added costs. Restaurants that are part of larger empires might have the flexibility to run at a loss for a while, an option that independent outfits don’t have. Restaurants in hotels might be subsidized.

Lower rents, of course, are the reason why the dining scene has flourished in neighborhoods not formerly known for fine dining, like the Lower East Side, the East Village, and Brooklyn. (The same was true twenty-five years ago in Tribeca, but it clearly isn’t now.) But those chefs don’t deserve bonus stars, just because they choose to locate in a low-rent district. Critics review restaurants, not rent deals.

3. It Makes Comparisons Much More Difficult. It is already hard enough to discern whether a pair of two-star restaurants are really comparable, when one four-tiered system needs to accommodate every genre and cuisine. But it only adds to the confusion when there is a mysterious price element in the mix. Is the two-star Torrisi Italian Specialties really punching at the same weight as fellow Italian two-stars Maialino and A Voce Columbus? Or is Torrisi getting a bonus for serving a bounty of pretty good food for just $50? It’s quite a bit less than you would pay at the other two places, but is it actually as good in the absolute sense?

4. Critics Should Evaluate Quality, Full Stop. Think about the other disciplines in which The Times employs critics: music, dance, film, theater, books, fashion, architecture. In no other, does the price of the product figure in the review. A critic gives an informed reaction to the product, independent of its economics. The Times doesn’t give better reviews to plays that open in cheaper off-Broadway houses; it reviews the production, not its price.

I am not suggesting that diners don’t, or shouldn’t, care what the meal costs. Of course we do. But value from the customer’s perspective depends on factors the critic can’t easily assess. For all of the above reasons, I think The Times ratings should be based on quality, full stop. The reviews, of course, would still show price ranges (as they do now). Diners can decide for themselves if the restaurant is “worth it.”


Torrisi Italian Specialties

Note: Torrisi Italian Specialties closed at the end of 2014. It is expected to be re-vamped as a fine dining restaurant, and to re-open with a new name in 2015.

The review below was written when Torrisi was still serving a downscale Italian comfort-food menu that many people loved, but I found overrated. It was later remodeled and upgraded, and also started taking reservations. By the time it closed, the restaurant was probably better than the one star I gave it, but I never made it back for another look.


At 7:25 p.m. the other night, a man walked into Torrisi Italian Specialties, and asked, “How long for a table?”

“Ten fifteen,” replied the hostess.

“Ten or fifteen minutes! That’s great!!” the man exclaimed.

“That’s 10:15 at night,” the hostess corrected him.

The crestfallen man departed without leaving his name. He was unwilling to make the hours-long commitment required for the privilege of a prime-time table at this twenty-seat restaurant, which does not accept reservations.

I suspect that Torrisi Italian Specialties has raised the fortunes of every bar in the neighborhood, where diners cool their heels waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the hostess to call when their table is ready. This has been the story for the last few months, ever since Robin Raisfeld and Rob Patronite awarded the improbable restaurant five underground stars in New York, and Sam Sifton awarded two stars in the Times.

Torrisi Italian Specialities occupies an old-school Little Italy storefront. (The neighborhood is called NoLIta today, but it was squarely in Little Italy a century ago.) By day it’s a sandwich shop; by night, a prix fixe restaurant—fifty bucks for eight courses, which change daily. Your only choice is meat or fish for the entrée.

The restaurant plays from a script we’ve seen before: chefs who cut their teeth at three-star restaurants (Del Posto and Café Boulud), now working in the humblest of surroundings, where all the trappings of fine dining are stripped away. They’ve got a smash hit—the equivalent of a Broadway show sold out months in advance.

If you want to dine here, your best option is to show up at around 5:30 p.m. Your margin for error is slim. On a Friday evening, there were already about a dozen people in line at that hour. A few minutes more, and I would have been too late for the first seating.

The hostess, whose watch is synchronized to an atomic clock, emerges at exactly 5:45 to take names. At 6:00 on the dot, she starts escorting diners, one party at a time, into the tiny sandwich shop. They keep the lights low, perhaps to confer a bit of romanticism in such humble surroundings. (The ploy works!)


The hardest review to write is of a restaurant that is good—yet, not as good as it’s cracked up to be. I don’t want to give the impression I’m panning the place, because I’m not. Dinner at Torrisi Italian Specialties is enjoyable—once you get in—and you won’t go home hungry. Nobody in town is serving an eight-course Italian feast, especially this good, for just $50.

But objectively speaking, the kitchen is not as accomplished as at nearby Peasant or Locanda Verde, both of which have nailed the rustic Italian genre into which Torrisi fits. And both offer much broader menus, without locking you into an eight-course format. You’ll pay a bit more, but the food will be better, and you can eat at reasonable times without waiting for hours.

And let’s be honest: the chefs, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, drastically limit their degree of difficulty, by limiting your options to a choice between two entrées. To make up for that, they really need to ace every dish, and they don’t.

Every meal has the same format: five antipasti, a pasta, an entrée, and a plate of dessert pastries. Among the antipasti, I counted two winners, two that were merely average, and one dud.

The first antipasto is the only that does not change every day (above left): garlic bread with tomato powder, and warm mozzarella with DaVero olive oil, milk thistle cream, and I believe a dash of sea salt. If you’re accustomed to mozzarella served cold, this is a revelation.

The second was the only dud: calamari marinara (above right). Served cold, it was goopy and bland.

The next two were of no particular distinction; you could probably make them at home: a Broccoli Rabe alla Panama (above left) and a Pickle Salad New Yorkese (above right). The suffixes “alla Panama” and “New Yorkese” weren’t explained.

The antipasti finished with another winner: Fresh Ham drizzled with melted Cheddar (above left).

The pasta course was Sheep’s Milk Ricotta Gnocchi (above right). My reaction was that if you add enough garlic and butter, you can’t go too far wrong. Once again, a good Italian cook could make this at home.

Barbecue Lamb Shoulder (above left) with corona beans and collards had such a haunting smoky flavor that I wondered if the chefs had an unlicensed smoker in the back yard. The server said that it was just a dry rub, left to marinate overnight. (The fish entrée, for the record, was a black bass in Fulton chowder.)

There was a tiny scoop of homemade ice, served in a paper cup, followed by a generous selection of Italian pastries (above right).

The wine list fits on the back of a laminated card, and if you order by the glass—as I did—there is just one each of bubbly, white, rosé, or red, served in a water glass. Service is friendly and efficient, but silverware is not replaced until after the pasta course. By that time, there’s a coating of ooze on the table, where your knife and fork have repeatedly been put down after each plate was cleared.

I can understand the critics’ rapture for a restaurant serving such an enormous amount of food, most of it pretty good, at such a low price. (The prix fixe was just $45 when New York reviewed it.) But Torrisi Italian Specialties is not a two-star restaurant, and the Times does the real two-star restaurants a disservice by saying so. Quite apart from the many amenities it lacks, far too much of the food is rather simplistic.

The menu changes daily and is posted every morning on the restaurant’s website, the cheekily named piginahat.com, so you can decide if it’s worth standing in line for. I’d love to try a few more of the entrées, but to do so, I’d need to sign up for the whole $50 production all over again. I’m not sure if I’m up for that.

Torrisi Italian Specialties (250 Mulberry Street at Prince Street, NoLIta)

Food: ★
Service: ★
Ambiance: ★
Overall: ★


Belated Review Recap: Torrisi Italian Specialties

This week, Sam Sifton gave the expected twospot to the miraculous hit restaurant, Torrisi Italian Specialties. We’ve not dined there—and with reports of two-hour waits and reservations not taken, perhaps never will—but the review was in line with everything else we’ve read:

During the day, Torrisi is a sandwich shop modeled on those of the neighborhood old school. You can get a good chicken parm or an excellent turkey hero there, some flavorful contorni, a can of beer, a small bottle of Coke. The dishes are all smart upgrades on classics, beautifully cooked, humble Italian-American lunch fare for an era that respects the form.

At night, though, the room is transformed into a restaurant of around 20 seats, in which artists make work and customers consume it. The prix fixe for this is $50. The food is still beautifully cooked, still aggressively Italian-American…

Sadly, we think this conclusion is absolutely on the money:

And how long can that last? The Torrisi project as it stands surely must run its course, the way any performance does, the way any combination of kinetic energy and art must eventually fall off its axis. (What happens if the money gets tight? No one counts on the tears.) Presumably Mr. Carbone and Mr. Torrisi will cook this way until it gets boring, and then will do something else.

Which means the time to get to Torrisi Italian Specialties is now.

Here’s our usual weekly list of Sifton’s lazy prose and odd exaggerations:

  • …Torrisi Italian Specialties, a tiny and terrific new restaurant…
  • …an excellent turkey hero…beautifully cooked…
  • But the dishes…are edible paintings
  • …the restaurant shows itself to be towering in its ambition
  • There is always warm, just-made mozzarella…outrageously good