Parmville! How Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi Made Ziti Cool

The rise of Rich, Mario, and Little Italy's hottest two-tops at Torrisi Italian Specialties and Parm.

“We figured the deli would be a great way to introduce ourselves,” Mr. Torrisi went on. “We weren’t going to come out and force our ideas about food on everyone.”

That deli introduced New York to what Eater founder Lockhart Steele emphatically described to The Observer as their “flat-out triumph” of a turkey sandwich. It’s where they also began developing the chicken- and eggplant-Parmesan sandwiches that recently became the signature offerings at Parm. The beloved heros are indicative of the Torrisi boys’ appealing take on the downmarket comfort food of their youth. Not only does the kitchen utilize Progresso bread crumbs, it does so proudly; empty boxes line the walls.

Although they’d originally planned to serve high-end Italian food, the idea bored them. “One day we just got really annoyed with those menus,” Mr. Carbone recalled. “We thought, well, why we are just cooking things that we’ve already done? The first word that really triggered it for us was pastina, which is it’s a huge part of Italian-American culture.”

“But you never see it on menus,” Mr. Torrisi interjected. “The culture of the city and Italian restaurants are so strictly set upon being authentic Italian. That’s not us.”

Until the recent opening of Parm, the sandwiches were served up at Torrisi during lunch only, doled out personally by Mr. Torrisi and Mr. Carbone. Lines were regularly out the door. For those not vigilant about staking out a table, sandwiches would often be eaten upright in the neighborhood, sometimes “on a dumpster,” Mr. Torrisi said. At night, the sandwiches went away, and out came the prix-fixe menu.

In April 2010, only a few months after the restaurant’s opening, the partners received their first major review, from New York‘s Underground Gourmet team: five stars. The magazine heralded the four-course, eight-dish meal as “nothing short of revolutionary.” Others followed suit. Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton called the food “ethereal,” and dubbed the use of store-bought bread crumbs “awesome.” Sam Sifton of The Times saw their dishes as “edible paintings” that are “towering in ambition.”

The ingredients are all sourced from America, as is the attitude: a mischievous eagerness for sneaking tastes considered pedestrian or tawdry into a fine dining experience, the culinary equivalent of bringing your teenage graffiti crew to the Oscars.

Spaghetti alle Vongole gets licked with a fiery splash of Tabasco. Grilled lamb shoulder with fried Jerusalem artichokes is a tribute to Roman cooking crossed with a Jewish joke: a Manischewitz glaze. Oysters Rocafella? Named after Jay-Z, of course, whom they quote when referring to those mourning for the “old days” of Torrisi (“Buy my old album”).

In addition to almost every critic in New York City, the Torrisi boys are beloved by their culinary contemporaries. David Chang, who spent time in the kitchen at Cafe Boulud with them, was emphatic with his praise: “These guys are extraordinarily talented cooks, and decided to cook something that was meaningful to them,” he told The Observer. “They could’ve opened up anything, and it would’ve been fantastic.”

“They’re just really solid cooks that love to eat,” Andrew Carmellini said. “They have a passion for the business, and inherent talent, too.”

In 2011, Torrisi Italian Specialties was a James Beard Award finalist for Best New Restaurant. And they recently appeared in an episode of HBO’s Treme, a rite of passage for some of the country’s most critically lauded chefs (the show’s primary food-related plot consultant is Anthony Bourdain: another fan). Mr. Torrisi laughs at the mention of his appearance, recalling his lines: “Tim!” And then, more seriously, “Tim. How is everything?

Getting the Torrisi guys to laugh is, admittedly, oddly gratifying. Yet, as they’re read aloud the penultimate passage of their June 2010 New York Times review—a two-star love letter crowning them “The Fusion Kings of Little Italy” —we come to a line that gives them pause.

“Mr. Carbone and Mr. Torrisi are in a burst of creative excellence, and reinventing themselves daily,” Sam Sifton wrote. “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.”

After a brief moment of silence, Mr. Torrisi scooted his chair back and looked up.

“He’s a hundred percent right,” he said.

The Torrisi Boys are already building a dining dynasty. In addition to the Rocco space, there’s a plan in the works, Mr. Zalaznick admitted, to “hopefully open Parms around New York and elsewhere, and open more formal restaurant concepts in the years to come.”

Of course, it’s difficult enough for a great restaurant to maintain the level at which it rose to prominence. With only three partners and soon, three restaurants, the Torrisi boys may find themselves spread a little thin.

The cynics will line up, too. The former editor of NBC’s The Feast, Ben Leventhal, fired off a series of Tweets in October: “Huge mistake to change-up lunch program at Torrisi. Lunch-dinner, hi-low contrast big part of its edge. Also fairly comical that a place built on value and under-promise-over-deliver rule is now offering lunch as $60 prix fixe.

With all the growth, are they concerned about the possibility of “falling off,” as Mr. Sifton put it?

“Not at all,” replied Mr. Torrisi.

Mr. Carbone stepped in: “There’s an air of challenge in it.”

On Tuesday, they appeared to have met Mr. Sifton’s challenge. The New York Times‘s review of Parm went live on the paper’s website. Pete Wells, Mr. Sifton’s successor, handed the restaurant two stars, the same as Torrisi.

fkamer@observer.com | @weareyourfek