Having lived in Greenwich Village for more than 25 years, I did a double take when I saw the neon sign that was always a point of reference on Thompson Street. The Rocco's sign was still there but it had been superimposed with its new owners' name: Carbone. Upon entering you'd swear it had been around for at least 50 years with its brick and wood interior and black and white tiled floors (which The New York Times reported were modeled after the one in The Godfather). The welcoming waitstaff were dressed according to function in either black, burgundy, or white tuxedos. Sinatra and Motown on the PA made for the perfect soundtrack. We were shown to a table in the large dining room nearest the kitchen in what had been part of the even larger former kitchen of Rocco. The maître d’ commented that "Carbone's kitchen was only half the size of Rocco's kitchen, but that the food was twice as good." Before I get to the food, I want to address a debate in the blogosphere sparked by the opening of Carbone.
There are those who have questioned whether a '50s style Italian American restaurant conceived by 20-something-year-old chefs with 2013 prices is a good thing. They argue that the demise of Rocco, a victim of real estate rent hikes by the landlord, adds insult to injury. They also question Carbone's "authenticity."
I had never eaten at Rocco, which had operated there for some 90 years as a beloved red sauce joint. Now, I love old-school red sauce joints; John's of 12th Street is my go-to place, continuously operating since 1908. Like my friend, Jeff Zalaznick (formerly of Always Hungry NY, and a founding member of The Daily Meal) who invited me in and is one of the owners of Carbone, you might say I'm an honorary Italian though Jewish. As someone who has studied and lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years and who supports the historical preservation of Greenwich Village, I'm here to quiet the haters.
Carbone pays respect to places like Rocco. Zalaznick, Rich Torrisi, and Mario Carbone idolize Italian-American cooking. They study it religiously, try to preserve it, and seek to elevate it. From the gigantic menus at Carbone styled after the old-school Mama Leone's menus, which I collect, to the garlic bread, prosciutto, homemade focaccia, and complimentary Parmigiano-Reggiano wheel brought tableside at Il Mulino that’s served practically before you even sit down at the table to the "Chinese Chicken" shout-out on the menu to Don Peppe in South Ozone Park, Carbone is all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T to the past, and the "moves" of these New York classics. It's no different from Keith McNally (a Brit no less) reimagining a classic French bistro a few blocks south and calling it Balthazar or preserving historic American Minetta Tavern around the corner but making it better than the original.
While Carbone's menu has all the traditional-sounding dishes, you can choose many that your grandparents from Sicily could not have envisioned in their wildest dreams. Some dishes have elements of both traditional and 21st-century cutting-edge gastronomy. Case in point: the baked clams. You get nine clams of three different preparations: traditional oreganata, casino-style minced with bacon and red peppers but draped with a veil of lardo (a nod to fellow modern Italian chefs White and Batali), and "fantasia style," sweet little necks made sweeter still by being paired with uni.
My other antipasto made me do yet another double-take. I don't recall ever seeing sweet breads Milanese on any Italian menu, '50s or modern. The generous serving of perfectly lightly fried sweet breads with a micro salad of arugula and roasted cherry tomatoes on top à la Milanese made me swoon (I know I sound like Gael Greene, but it did).
Our waiter Sam from Boston, our constant attentive dining companion in his swanky burgundy Zac Posen vintage-style tuxedo recommended we share two different pasta dishes before main courses. The black bow ties with lobster sounded old-school but were anything but. Torrisi and Carbone must have woken up one day and said, "What about squid ink farfalle?" And as usual, they answered themselves with, "Why not?" Huge chunks of delicately butter sauce poached lobster accompanied the black bow ties that would have looked good with Sam's tux and were given a crunchy texture with Calabrian chile pepper toasted breadcrumbs. Next up Ravioli Caruso, which (sorry Gael) made us sing. A roasted plum tomato was the sauce for six large chicken thigh meat and liver mousse overstuffed ravioli.
The menus main dishes span whole fish and shellfish and every imaginable meat that could be charcoal grilled to your temperature preference. Another dish you shouldn’t miss is the grilled shrimp carabineros, which are offered by the piece. Mislabeled "shrimp carbonara" in New York Magazine’s preview last week, these are the giant scarlet Mediterranean red shrimp. They’re bigger than gambas, langostinos, or even cigales and give you an idea that Carbone knows no limits in sourcing the finest ingredients (they're expensive and fairly rare even in Spain). In choosing my meat entrée, I was looking at the Delmonico steak when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was probably Sam the waiter but it felt like my dad's and I swear the menu moved like a Ouija board until I pointed to the veal Parmesan.
The gargantuan shrimp held more flavor in their elongated heads than any shrimp I've ever tasted (my wife cringed at my spirited head-sucking technique). The veal, while perhaps the most traditional item on the menu, was no Olive Garden veal. This was an entire perfectly grilled veal chop with sweet but acidic tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella on top, not the little breaded cutlet of my childhood. Served with the bone already separated for easier gnawing, I saw my dad's look of approval in Sam's eyes.
The contorni consisted of a casserole dish of polenta that was as creamy as any risotto and broccoli rabe, which had been zeppole-battered and fried — the perfect accompaniments to the entrées.
By the time dessert was served we were singing Volare along with the waiters. Dessert was a blur. We were served the best and most strangely constructed carrot cake my wife had ever had (it resembled an Escher drawing) and the Platonic version of tiramisu followed by complimentary limoncello — the smoothest and strongest I've ever sipped.
Though sad to see an icon like Rocco go, when one sees all of the Subways and 7-Elevens opening around the neighborhood, I am even more thankful for Carbone's opening. It’s the perfect bridge from the past to the present.