My teacher in middle school once asked us if there was one food you could eat for the rest of your life, what would that be? Without hesitation, I said that my choice would be spaghetti and meatballs, an answer that was met with approval by all of my classmates. I loved all things red-sauce Italian–spaghetti, lasagna, ravioli, chicken parm, etc. It didn’t matter if it came out of a Stouffer’s box or from the sketchy school cafeteria, I would eat it all.
Italian cuisine is clearly a broad field that extends beyond red-sauce classics. Spaghetti and meatballs is like the gateway drug to more interesting offerings like squid ink pasta, orecchiette or cavatelli. The only places in the city that specialize in the Italian of our childhood seem to be those questionable restaurants in Little Italy that have not received a local or a Michelin Star in quite some time.
Carbone, however, is bringing classic Italian back to the people of New York City. There’s no shame in ordering huge plates of crowd-pleasing favorites like spaghetti and meatballs here. Instead of shirking from the stigma of being old school Italian, they wear it proudly as a badge of honor. Waiters in tacky burgundy bow ties try to smoothly upsell you on their house specials while “That’s Amore” blasts in the background.
Despite the kitschy Italiano concept, the food here is all business. It’s basically the most elevated form of old-school Italian American culinary excess that’s out there, and by a long mile. It doesn’t do justice to put Carbone in the same league as a Tony’s DiNapoli or a random Mario/Luigi/Giorgio’s restaurant because it’s a category killer. Yes, the portions are big and things are coated in mozzarella and parmesan cheese, but not in a way that is oversalted or heavy-handed. Anything done in excess serves to enhance the main ingredient on display, so that your focus is on how good the food is, rather than on how fat you feel.
They say with food, presentation is everything, and that’s certainly the case with the tableside preparation of caesar salad, which I really enjoyed. Many people have raved about the caesar salad here, and while I didn’t find it quite worthy of the highest praise, I did appreciate the creamy texture and the surprisingly mild and muted flavors in the dressing, which generously coated the fresh romaine lettuce leaves. The anchovies provided some nice salty accents, and the croutons were dense, salty and fantastic. Overall, a great start to the meal.
While Carbone is famous for its over-the-top culinary presentation, I actually preferred their more low-key dishes. My favorites were the raw scallops, a special catch of the day, and the spicy rigatoni vodka. I’m not sure where Carbone gets their scallops, but from the taste of them, it seemed like they dove right into the coast that morning and brought them back to the restaurant the same day. You know how when you eat a really good piece of sashimi, it almost melts in your mouth, because something about being fresh from the ocean gives it that amazing quality? That’s what these scallops were like. You didn’t even have to do much to them because they were so good to begin with. Just some great olive oil and citrus were all that was needed to let the scallops shine.
The spicy rigatoni was another simple dish that really left an impression. The pasta was al dente and coated in a spicy tomato sauce, which at first doesn’t seem like anything special. But this was quite possibly the most well-balanced tomato sauce that I’ve ever tried. Tomato sauces can be weighed down with savory meat and garlic flavors, or they can fall on the other end of the spectrum with a light sweetness lacking depth. I’m not sure how Carbone achieves it, perhaps vodka is the magical ingredient, but the spice, the sweetness of the tomatoes and the cream were very bright and pleasant.
The humble meatball also gets the VIP treatment here. This isn’t a meatball that uses crumbly, low-grade meat parts in its preparation. When you cut into it, it’s remarkably smooth and almost pate-like in its consistency. I felt like i was eating a light and porous ham, as opposed to a hamburger patty densely rolled into a ball, which is a common pitfall of many mediocre meatballs.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the road back to excess with the arrival of the enormous veal parmesan and the thick slab of pork chop. This Goliath of a veal parmesan was no joke–it was pretty intimidating, the way it came with the bone still on and coated in a generous layer of melted mozzarella cheese. While they call it veal parm for two, it really takes at least 4 people to crush it, which we did. Even beneath the veil of cheese and sauce, however, you could tell that the veal was tender and flavorful. This isn’t just an exercise in gluttony, it’s a thoughtful presentation to enhance the protein without getting weighed down by the rich accoutrements.
As if that weren’t enough, we also split an order of the pork chop & peppers, which was a delicious slab of richly marbled meat. I was pretty impressed by how closely it resembled rib eye; this isn’t the lean and meek pork chop loin that we’ve come to expect. It was so unabashedly big and rough and primitive in its presentation. But like Ron Swanson, it may be large and rough on the inside, but it’s tender and all heartfelt on the inside.
Despite its humble Italian American origins, the prices at Carbone are anything but. All in, and without alcohol, lunch came out to an aggressive ~$60-$70 a person. A meal here is definitely for an occasion, and one that you only do once. It’s sort of like the time that I ran a half-marathon last year. It was intense, it was extreme, and I felt accomplished, but I wouldn’t ever do it again. And that’s how I feel about Carbone. I checked the box and loved doing so, but time to move on.
181 Thompson Street (between Bleecker and Houston)
New York, NY 10012