Carbone is not your grandma’s Sunday dinner, but the New York restaurant’s sophisticated yet deliciously simple menu is a welcome addition to Hong Kong’s return to quality, made-with-heart dining.
Perhaps I speak for myself, but if you’re someone that’s serious about their food, and I mean real food – hold the gluten-free, dairy-free, raw fads – then you’ll understand when I say that the thought of a classic Italian family-style spread is the stuff of dreams.
Cured meats, pasta dishes lovingly ladled with various homemade sauces, some fresh, simply-prepared seafood, a carnivorous piece de resistance and throw in a veal parmigiana because it would be rude not to.
New York chef Mario Carbone takes it back to a time before Italian-American food became stigmatized as “red sauce” with an overenthusiastic heaping of cheese on just about anything.
“Carbone is a restaurant that’s intended to be set in the late 1950s New York. I’m an Italian American and that time period is something that I find fascinating for dining, for culture, and I wanted to celebrate my passion for it in a restaurant,” says Carbone. “What’s interesting about that era is that it’s the first generation of Italian Americans. Before that there were just Italians that fled Italy, many of them landing in New York and other cities on the East Coast. They set up families and had children, those children grew up and now you’re talking about the late 1940s early 1950s – the beginning of this hybrid Italian-American.”
As such, Carbone offers its guests a taste of nostalgia for a time when family meals were a warm, hearty reminder of home and a way for America’s first Italian immigrants to holdfast to their ethnic and cultural identity.
The importance of food in Italian and Italian-American culture is well known and well documented in movies and TV shows, from The Godfather to Tony Soprano’s ongoing love affair with food; a pervasive subplot in the series. Even on the Italian- American butchering that is Jersey Shore, mealtime meant serious business and a time to acknowledge your Italian roots. A time for exaggerated hand gestures, adoringly overbearing maternal figures on a mission to butter you up and wisecrack banter thrown across the table.
But I digress.
Mario Carbone – along with his partners Rich Torrisi and Jeff Zalaznick – opened their first restaurant Torrisi Italian Specialties – described by New York Magazine as ‘better than grandma’ – followed by Parm, an Italian-American soul food eatery that has expanded to three locations since 2011. In 2013, Carbone was born. Slightly
ritzier than Torissi and Parm, Carbone evokes ‘mid-century Italian-American fine dining’ at 181 Thompson Street in New York’s Greenwich Village.
“Funny enough, the Italian restaurant that used to be in that space – it was there for 90 years – was Mario Batali’s first head chef job,” Carbone, an ex protégé of Batali’s, tells me. “He met his wife in that restaurant, he was a chef there before anyone cared about him. Mario Batali is probably my greatest mentor and still someone I can pick up the phone to call and ask for advice. He’s still just as honest and open with me as he was when he was teaching me how to make a pasta dish.”
With many dishes prepared table side by waiters dressed in fabulous burgundy Zac Posen suits, Carbone is the product of the skills Mario learned from working under the likes of Daniel Boulud, Wylie Dufresne and Mario Batali, paired with his passion for simple dishes prepared using quality ingredients after spending years working at La Dogana, a cozy, family-run restaurant in Tuscany.
“I’d already worked in a couple of fancy New York restaurants, then to go and work in a little Italian mom and pop restaurant to learn to appreciate the simplicity and importance of cooking really humble food... it changed my entire life,” says Carbone. “I remember I ate there the night before I started working. I was given a raw shrimp preparation and they were still moving on the plate, I was like “whoa. That’s f*cking fresh.” The restaurant didn’t look like anything but a dish like that takes real understanding, skill and know-how. I wasn’t expecting that.”
Carbone expanded out of New York for the first time in 2014, bringing Carbone to Hong Kong with the help of Black Sheep Restaurants. “They’re young guys like us and run a few restaurants but at the same time, they’re rattling the cage, doing something a little different. We learned about Carbone and thought that concept would do well with our clientele in Hong Kong,” says Asim Hussain, co-founder of Black Sheep Restaurants, which operates restaurants such as Motorino, Chom Chom and La Vache.“The way the restaurant moves is not dissimilar to how fine dining Cantonese establishments were; abundance, big portions, back and forth banter with the captains...every night is a celebration.”
Carbone didn’t skimp in bringing its unapologetic excess to Hong Kong – burgundy suits, leather banquettes, black and white checkered flooring, Neanderthal sized cuts of spectacular quality meat and all. Not to mention Carbone’s gigantic menus that fold out to be about the size of a broadsheet newspaper, with daily specials introduced to guests by staff, including Mario’s charismatic, wise-cracking cousin Louie, who flew to Hong Kong to act as Carbone’s now beloved Maitre-d.
But big as the menu may be in size, the selection of items on the menu itself is small and finely curated to include Carbone classics such as Rigatoni Alla Vodka, Veal Parmigiana, Carbone’s special Caesar salad made tableside with warm garlic bread croutons, two types of anchovies and three types of cheese, Lobster Fra Diavolo and an impressive prime porterhouse steak for two.
“The quality of ingredients is key to this restaurant. I’m the kind of cook who likes to make things people are familiar with and I just push my team and myself to make the best versions of those. I’m not trying to pound my chest and make something that’s never been made before – as a chef, I don’t get much pleasure doing that. So when doing simple food at a high level the first thing you have to do is buy the very, very best ingredients,” explains Carbone, who says one of the things he’s most excited about is using ingredients from in and around Hong Kong.
“I’m using things that I can’t get in America. For example I’m doing a really simple Italian crudo with olive oil and celery leaves, but the fish is coming from Tsukiji. I’m doing a t-bone Fiorentina using wagyu from Australia. Fresh grouper from my fish guy is still moving in a bucket of water when it gets to me –I’m doing picatta with it – or a really simple pasta dish like aglio olio pepperoncino. A common ingredient here is a fresh green peppercorn, which I can’t find in New York and if I do, it’s outrageously expensive and comes in a vial. Here, there’s piles of them on the street. It really doesn’t get better than this for a chef.”