If you passed him on the street in any of Manhattan's envelope-pushing downtown neighborhoods where his restaurants are located, you might not give chef Mario Carbone a second look. He could be any hipster in a denim jacket and plaid shirt, sporting a second- or perhaps third-day growth of beard under dark, friendly eyes, a spotless, uncreased baseball cap perched on his neatly trimmed head like a crown. But, at the age of 36, Carbone is something else entirely: a rising star in the New York restaurant firmament.
Only a few years removed from opening his first restaurant with the company Major Food Group, Carbone and his partners now have 12 eateries to their credit, including Carbone, the New York restaurant that has made its namesake a culinary comet. Now Carbone and his partners are poised to make the boldest move in their still-young careers: taking over the iconic Philip Johnson-designed restaurant space formerly occupied by The Four Seasons Restaurant, in Manhattan's landmark Seagram Building.
"That's the pinnacle," Carbone says of The Four Seasons. "I mean, I played baseball as a kid—but I never thought I'd be standing on home plate at Yankee Stadium. That's what this is like."
"This is why we play the game—for big, exciting opportunities like this," says Jeff Zalaznick, one of his partners in Major Food Group. "It's definitely daunting, because it's a huge project, with a huge amount of history and significance. Those are all reasons why we wanted to do it."
Carbone (who opened his first restaurant just before he turned 30) once worked under the tutelage of superstar chefs such as Mario Batali and Daniel Boulud. Now he counts them as colleagues and peers. The fact that he is accepted as an equal by his mentors and idols still blows his mind a little bit.
"I've gotten to know Jean-Georges [Vongerichten]—someone I never worked for—and to have a social relationship with someone like that is amazing," Carbone says. "Mario, Daniel—to have these guys who pushed me see me as a colleague is really an honor. I'd give a week's paycheck just to have dinner with Daniel and understand what's going on in his head."
And when one of his interactions with the reigning giants of the food world also features a good cigar, so much the better. As it happens, Carbone's first encounter with a truly memorable cigar occurred at the intersection of fine food and fine tobacco.
It happened after a languorous meal at The French Laundry, Chef Thomas Keller's multi-Michelin-starred outpost of French cuisine in Yountville, California, north of San Francisco Bay.
"It was this long, extraordinary lunch and, afterward, Chef Keller invited us to his courtyard for dessert," Carbone recalls, sitting in the backroom of his Greenwich Village restaurant after a recent lunch rush. "I didn't realize Chef Keller had a cigar collection but, before dessert, he took me in and showed it to me."
"He had pre-embargo Cubans. I had a Partagás robusto—and I smoked the shit out of that cigar. I had smoked enough to appreciate a good cigar like that. But I also loved the story of the cigar even more, that it was a pre-embargo Cuban."
Cigars, the mild-mannered Carbone says, provide "a great moment of calm. It feels like an hour when nothing can be thrown at you, when you shut down a little and just relax."
"Whether he's into something or not, Mario is generally a curious person—but he's very into cigars," says his partner, Rich Torrisi, who met Carbone when they were both students at the Culinary Institute of America, quaintly referred to as CIA. "He's been teaching me about cigars, how they create a time where you can stop and enjoy the moment a cigar creates. These days, a moment like that needs to be planned a little—you've got to have it dialed in. Mario gets into a mindset where he can create that moment with a cigar."
The cigar moments happen "maybe weekly," Carbone says, because his restaurants keep him too busy to do it more often. Carbone and his partners, Torrisi and Zalaznick, operate as the Major Food Group, with 12 restaurants under seven distinct brands. Beside its flagship Greenwich Village location, Carbone has self-named outposts at Aria in Las Vegas, as well as in Hong Kong. Parm, the casual sandwich shop Carbone and Torrisi created, has five locations in New York City, including Yankee Stadium.
There's also Dirty French (their take on a French bistro), Santina (coastal Italian, leaning toward seafood and vegetables), Sadelle's (a bakery whose dinner menu emphasizes fish and Russian caviar) and ZZ's Clam Bar (the name says it all)—each located in Manhattan.
The cornerstone of this burgeoning culinary empire is the original Carbone, the Thompson Street restaurant that took old-school Italian-American cooking from the New York of the 1950s and added 21st-century magic to the dishes. The restaurant, with its red-and-black linoleum tile floor, is like a time machine, carrying the diner back to another era. Servers wear maroon tuxedos, the playlist is all Rat-Pack-era hits and the menu is filled with Italian-American staples like veal parmigiano, chicken scarpariello and pork chops with vinegar peppers. (The prices—north of $60 for some of those entrees—reflect both the quality of the ingredients and the massive portions of each dish.) Carbone takes dining into a sensual realm well beyond the matter of the food on your plate.
When it opened in 2013 (in a space long-occupied by the Rocco Restaurant, whose cuisine inspires the food of its successor), the new eatery earned a three-star review from New York Times critic Pete Wells, who called it "a fancy red-sauce joint in Greenwich Village as directed by Quentin Tarantino, bringing back the punch-in-the-guts thrills of a genre that everybody else sees as uncultured and a little embarrassing, while exposing the sophistication that was always lurking there."
Chef and restaurateur Mario Batali has eaten at the restaurant "many times." A longtime mentor to the chef, Batali says Carbone is "smart and whimsical. They offer variations on classic Italian dishes, using a lot of both Italian and American ingredients. And it's very, very tasty."
The restaurant's dedication to tradition springs from its namesake. "As a chef, Mario is all about the classics," says partner Zalaznick. "Mario sees it as his goal in life to take all the great Italian dishes, the heart and soul of New York, and bring them back to life. It will be the way people remember the food of the original places, but better than any dish they ever had.
"That approach comes from a soulful place. He's taking dishes we, as New Yorkers, have memories of, accurate or not, and he's bringing them back better than they've ever been."
While his restaurant may offer affectionate nods to a bygone era, Carbone is quick to point out that there is nothing ironic or mocking in the approach that he and his partners take.
"First and foremost, it's not a joke—it's not a shtick," Carbone says. "This is a real culture. This kind of cuisine only lasted for a short period; we're celebrating mid-century Italian-American cuisine, the first and second generation of Italian Americans, when they really put their stamp on the country.
"There are a lot of others who go into it as a kind of cartoon shtick. For a long time, this cuisine was a joke—reduced to spaghetti and meatballs. But this is a serious, real thing. We're showing what it really was. This restaurant is really about the food of my childhood."
Growing up in Queens, Carbone was always drawn to cooking: "I was a little kid in the kitchen with my grandparents," he recalls. "I was always enamored of that. When my family would go to a restaurant, I was curious about how things happened; I was always wide-eyed. When I was in high school, I needed pocket money so the natural first job for me was in a kitchen. This was a little before it was cool to do this, so I had to lie to my friends about what I was doing.
"Those local restaurants were where I got the first feel of a professional kitchen environment. That's where I learned about the rush that goes with working in a kitchen, with firing tickets and everything else that's part of cooking professionally."
If Carbone was drawn to food, he also had a clear eye about his own future from an early age: "I was a poor student in high school," he says flatly. "So I had two options. I could go to some mediocre college and make a mediocre life for myself. Or I could try to be a professional chef, which was an unorthodox choice. No one in my family had ever done that. Figuring that my other choices sucked, I went with the interesting choice to see what happens."
He went to CIA, doing an apprenticeship at Batali's Babbo and working in the kitchen of another Batali restaurant after graduation: "When he came to me, he was young and impressionable, hard-working and detail-oriented," Batali recalls. "I hired him because I can see a good work ethic in a candidate's eyes in two minutes. He had it in spades. As a chef, he's calm under fire in a very specific way. He sees the big picture at all times."
"Mario showed me that this is a business," Carbone says of Batali. "He would say, ‘We operate at the corner of Art and Commerce.' I got to him as an 18-year-old and considered myself an Italian—but he taught me what the word ‘Italian' meant. And he's still teaching me. I thank him every day for that."
What does it mean to be Italian, when it comes to cooking? "Less is more," Batali says. "Confidence in your ingredients is more evident in simple presentations. And shopping and preserving are as important as technical pyrotechnics."
After his first stint with Batali, Carbone lived in Italy for a little over a year, working in restaurants to learn more about a culture he thought he already knew.
"That was a life-changing time for me," he says. "I lived in northwest Tuscany. I grew up with the language but I didn't speak Italian. I became part of a town where most people didn't speak English so I had no choice but to learn it and it didn't take long. To spend that kind of time there, it changes your whole outlook. At 21, you're just a sponge. I learned about a culture of food and about my own culture, what it means to be Italian."
He returned to the United States and was hired by French master Daniel Boulud at Cafe Boulud, where Carbone wound up working side by side with CIA classmate Rich Torrisi. Because they'd been in different classes at the school, they didn't really know each other until they teamed up in the kitchen at Cafe Boulud.
"There was this instant camaraderie," Torrisi says, "and we quickly became good friends."
"That was the first real military-style kitchen I'd ever worked in, where precision was the only acceptable outcome," Carbone says. "It was competitive cooking. It was so tight and disciplined that you felt you were part of a team—and sometimes you needed to lean on that team to get through the dinner rush. Daniel pushes you to your limits. I learned a lot about myself. I probably look more fondly on it in hindsight than I did when I was there."
Carbone moved on to be part of Batali's team opening Del Posto, the über luxurious Italian eatery in the Meatpacking District—but he and Torrisi stayed in close touch, because they both seemed to be at a similar juncture in their careers: still working under other chefs, while they chafed to create food and restaurants of their own.
"Mario and I both reached the same point," Torrisi says. "He realized he didn't want to work for somebody else, and I was thinking the same thing."
"I wanted to make it in New York," adds Carbone. "I didn't know what that meant, but I wanted to make my name, to have something of my own. I wanted to work with great people, have great mentors and catch a few breaks. When I really got an understanding of how difficult this industry is, making it became about having a business that stays open, one that works, something that people like and appreciate. And this whole thing has evolved into all the things I hoped for."
Using money they'd saved and borrowed from others, Carbone and Torrisi started small, opening their own version of an Italian deli/sandwich shop on SoHo's Mulberry Street for the lunch crowd, called Torrisi's Italian Specialties. Before long, Torrisi's was also serving in the evenings, a small prix-fixe tasting menu of authentic but reimagined Italian food, which earned them serious attention from food critics.
"We decided we were going to make Italian food, without using imported Italian ingredients," Carbone recalls. "We were using regional sources, so it became about where do we find a decent olive oil or a good olive to eat, without importing it. And that introduced us to the world."
Torrisi's Italian Specialties eventually began to focus on its fine-dining menu, and sandwiches became the province of Parm, a spin-off sandwich shop which has grown to five locations. Torrisi's eventually closed, even as Carbone opened and expanded internationally. With 12 restaurants already open and The Four Seasons about to be added to the mix, how much further expansion does the team plan?
"How many is too many? We'll know," Carbone says. "I'm not interested in building too many more.
"I've got a very strict schedule of meetings so that each restaurant gets face time, even if they don't all get equal time in any one week. The meetings are about tastings, general upkeep, things like that, so that every restaurant gets time from us to go over the week's events and numbers and anything they're working on. I only get to the Hong Kong restaurant a couple of times a year; I get to the one in Las Vegas every other month."
And what does the star chef cook for himself when he has the rare night off at home? "I live by myself and I don't cook at home," he says, smiling sheepishly. "The food at my house is very simple, a lot of nonperishable items: cereal, oatmeal, salad. I eat most of my meals at my own restaurants."
The busy schedule of owning a dozen restaurants has changed the day-to-day duties of his job. "I do wish I cooked more than I do," Carbone says. "I'm not a line cook anymore; they need the muscle memory to make the same thing fast 30 or 40 times a night. I don't work as many dinner services as I used to, but we do dine in our restaurants a lot. I pick up a lot of notes from being a customer."
The Four Seasons presents a new challenge, including what to call the reimagined space: "We come up with a different name every week," Carbone observes with a laugh. "The only thing we know for sure is that it won't be The Four Seasons."
The division at the new restaurant will be clear between its two distinctive dining rooms. Torrisi will explore the gastronomic future in The Pool Room, the restaurant's see-and-be-seen showcase. In The Grill, Carbone will give a modern treatment to classic dishes. In creating a culinary aesthetic, Carbone spent time researching old menus from The Four Seasons (which opened in 1959), to find long-forgotten dishes to reinvent. Stroganoff with rare beef, anyone?
"Our job is to respect the heritage of the house," Carbone says. "We want to continue to make the customer base happy while drawing a new generation to the brand as well."
Given the number of balls that Carbone is juggling at any particular moment, it's a wonder the chef ever has the time to devote to an exceptional cigar. But he tries to make it a priority, keeping a humidor roughly the size of "a dorm fridge" in his apartment, with room for about 30 boxes. His eyes light up at the mention of a walk-in humidor: "We'll get there," he says.
When Carbone was growing up in Queens, his father was a pipe smoker who transitioned to cigars: "I remember the smell in the house," he says. "These days, he and I will sit in his backyard and have a cigar. It's one of the great pastimes we share.
"I'm sure that when I was growing up, he was probably smoking the cheap ones. Now, his favorite thing is to smoke whatever he steals from my humidor. He still lives in Queens and, on a Saturday afternoon, when I'm working at one of the restaurants, he'll send me a selfie of himself with a cigar and a Scotch, sitting in the yard."
Carbone, however, is usually too busy for much leisure time: "Cigars are my only hobby," he says with a shrug. "Cigars and fashion."
Carbone doesn't have a go-to cigar, preferring to approach tobacco the same way he approaches cooking: by trying to figure out what it is that makes a classic a classic.
"I've really only been an avid cigar smoker for a few years," he says. "You'd probably call me an exploratory smoker. I like to find the cigar that experts think is the best of what that company offers. I want to smoke the thing the brand is the most proud of.
"Then I'll buy a box of those, instead of just a couple. I might smoke one when I buy the box and then have another one years later and surprise myself all over again. The box is a reminder. If I only bought a few, I might only remember that cigar for a short period. The box reconnects me to what I thought the first time I smoked it. That's how I'm teaching myself about cigars."
Carbone does have what he calls "the holy grail for me" among cigars.
"My best friend works for former-President Clinton," Carbone says. "I know that Jackie Kennedy gifted Clinton with a humidor that belonged to JFK, with what was left of Cuban cigars he bought before he signed the trade embargo on Cuba. I believe they're Upmann petit coronas. And what was left of those was in that humidor.
"Because of his heart problem, President Clinton doesn't touch cigars anymore, so I'm betting there are some left. So every time I see my friend, I say, ‘Did you get me one yet?' "
Contributing editor Marshall Fine is critic-in-residence at The Picture House Regional Film Center in Pelham, New York.