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  • Nick Lander
Written by
  • Nick Lander
24 Dec 2010

This article was also published in the Financial Times.

For my lunch at Torrisi Italian Specialities in SoHo, New York, I joined the queue at the deli counter, placed an order for a chicken parmigiana, paid, took a ticket and a seat.

Five minutes later I was served a sandwich stuffed with thin slices of grilled chicken breast, tomatoes and melted mozzarella, the pleasure of which was enhanced by the medley of Beach Boys, Motown and Frank Sinatra and the banter I always associate with this city's delis.

At 9 pm the following evening we returned for dinner. The lighting was lower and the music softer, although the shelves were still full of packets of pasta and olive oil.

But two fundamental changes had taken place during a frenzy of activity when Torrisi closes its doors between 4 pm and 6 pm.

The deli counter had been completely transformed, the fridges dressed and the area behind the counter converted from a sandwich preparation area into a 'garde manger', the area in the kitchen responsible for all the cold dishes.

And a pert waitress was on hand to explain the US$50 four-course menu that was written on the blackboards close to the shelves. There was a selection of antipasti, including some very fresh mozzarella and a beetroot salad with sour cream and crisp brussel sprout leaves; baby shell pasta with calamari; a main course choice of trout with okra and polenta or duck with broccoli; and finally a plate of cookies, including cannoli, Sicilian-inspired pastry tubes filled with ricotta, made on a Brooklyn farm.

Torrisi is the creation of Rich Torrisi, 31, and Mario Carbone, 30, who met more than 12 years ago at the Culinary Institute of America and then earned their culinary spurs cooking for two of the city's most respected chefs, Daniel Boulud and Mario Batali.

During the time they were not cooking, they shared a flat and talked restaurants. They realised that, as Carbone explained, 'they were ready to run' but their savings were small and rents, they knew, were high.

But by focusing on their own restaurant as the ultimate goal and maintaining their obvious friendship (they still live only a floor from each other in the same block), Carbone and Torrisi may have inadvertently created a new business model for young, like-minded chefs.

The two biggest challenges for such enthusiasts are firstly finding the right premises at the right price and secondly finding a formula that will generate the necessary volume of business during both the day and the evening when customers' demands are so very different. Torrisi the Deli that transforms itself into Torrisi the Very Informal Restaurant does just that.

The deli came first. Carbone and Torrisi are Americans of Italian descent with strong, happy memories of the food they enjoyed around their own family tables but they were aware too of how so much good Italian food had been corrupted as it had been transported across the Atlantic.

A former clothing store with two large bay windows on Mulberry Street seemed to provide the ideal site for the deli. A father's best friend handled the conversion; eBay provided half the fixtures and fittings; and US$400,000 later - 'a lot in mistakes' Carbone confessed - their deli with eight tables was ready to open.

It was at this stage that Carbone and Torrisi had the first of two ideas that make their venture not just original but also a potential blueprint for others.

The first was their solution to how to fill the deli in the evening, when most café, sandwich and coffee bars close their doors.

They took the collective decision 'to chef it out', Torrisi explained. The kitchen may be very small but they knew there was something they could offer to a high standard in the evening even if it was with only a limited choice. And so they opened for dinner.

Nobody came. Whether it was the prospect of walking into a deli at night that put people off or the prospect of the limited choice in a city where customers are used to a proliferation of everything, Carbone wasn't quite sure. And those that did come, expecting to order a sandwich, looked at the menu and, most disconcertingly, got up and left. Judging from the tone of Carbone's voice, this was obviously a very painful period.

Then suddenly last spring customers began to read the blackboard and enjoy the food. And, most importantly, they began to tell their friends so that Torrisi the Very Informal Restaurant began to provide a service, particularly to the neighbourhood. Business is now very good, Carbone added with a smile restored to his face, serving 200 customers between 10 am and 4 pm and another 75 in the evening.

In a city where Italian restaurants proliferate, these two chefs have also brought a distinctive edge to the food they serve. Although their recipes are highly authentic, none of the ingredients they use is imported from Italy.

They both believe that as the very best food in Italy is regional, they should only use what is grown and produced on the farms in the New York region, hence the local mozzarella, duck and vegetables. There is a local Chinese supplier for their noodles while the inspiration for the beetroots, sour cream and apple served as an antipasti came from the local Jewish neighbourhood (and certainly would have delighted my late Russian grandfather).

In opening Torrisi, Carbone and Torrisi believe that they have created their own culinary footprint. The financial model behind this, however, may even be applicable worldwide.

Torrisi Italian Specialities, www.piginahat.com.