Mixing Old World with the New @ Carbone

Get out your wallets. … it’s time for Carbone. Yes, Carbone is a splurge but in a pretty fantastic way. Even though you can’t get out of there with any sort of a cheap meal I will try to give you some tips on what to order to get the best bang for your buck. … and hopefully not (completely) break the bank. Before getting into the food – which is really what you’re here for – I will briefly make note of the ambiance. Think old school Italian without the cheese-ball and add extra class and sophistication. That is the kind of vibe you get from Carbone. White tablecloths, hand-painted Italian serving dishes and dark walls to give the restaurant that sleek finish. All the servers are suited up and fancy with everything neatly pressed  – I do not think I saw one waitress now that I think about it – and everyone acts like you’re part of the family. It’s authentic, not over-the-top and the people take care of you. Italian hospitality. … what else do you need?

Family style is the way to go. Don’t fight it – just do it. If you try to order by yourself you will be disappointed, probably over-order and end up with a bill you’re not pleased with. You’ll want to try a little bit from each section of the menu anyway. The menu is divided into six sections (eight if you include the daily seafood selection and dessert): Antipasti, Zuppa e Insalate, Macaroni, Pesci, Carni and Contorni. Let’s start from the top. Before you even get the food you order there will be a pleasant surprise coming to your table. A fresh bread basket with several varietals, thick chunks of parmesan, a little charcuterie and some pickled cauliflower for noshing purposes. A generous touch and a pleasant pre-dinner snack. Now, on to the main event. The Baked Clams appetizer is great for sharing. You get nine clams baked in three different styles – classic, casino and one variety topped with sea urchin. It was a little much for two people, but don’t worry we cleaned the plate. On the topic of salad, Carbone has a pretty impressive Caesar. Not too much dressing, not too heavy, great croutons and well portioned. I glanced at the Caprese served at the table next to us which looked delicious as well. Fresh mozzarella that the server sliced in front of the table with very ripe and fresh-looking tomatoes. A perfect summer treat and I am sure it tasted just as it would if you were on the Italian coast. OK, maybe not quite, but close enough.

Macaroni, Macaroni! This is no Kraft or Velveeta. … these pastas are far more impressive. There are many options, but I received a lot of menu guidance from friends before going to Carbone and every single person said Spicy Rigatoni Vodka. At first I thought this was too simple. Can’t you get any more original about what is considered the best pasta on the menu? And maybe it’s not THE best. … after all it’s the only one I got to try. … but it was a pretty tasty vodka. First of all, the portion was not overwhelming. Second of all, the sauce was used sparingly. This was no Penne alla Vodka with a sauce that is so thick it’s hard to muster up the energy to consume more than three bites. Carbone’s sauce used just enough cream and the spicy kick really makes the dish come alive. My mouth was a little bit on fire (I am more sensitive to spice than many people), but I think that’s what kept me coming back for more. All the pasta dishes are portioned as a middle courses and, therefore, your meal is not overwhelmed by carbs and you have room in your stomach for the rest of the menu. To round out the meal we went with something off the Carni section. Our server did recommend a number of the Pesci dishes, including the Shrimp Su’modo, but we went with the meat after seeing so much of it floating around us. Now, I am not a beef eater so we did not get to follow up with friendly pre-dinner advice regarding the Veal Parmesan. The table next to us – yes, the same one with the Caprese- got it though and it looked damn good. Huge piece of pounded and breaded meat topped with sauce and plenty of mozzarella. I almost went for it. …almost. In an attempt to not overwhelm ourselves at the end of our meal we kept it simple with Chicken Scarpariello. A classic with plenty of flavor and served with very tender white and dark meat, but it wasn’t necessarily the highlight of the meal. A good way to finish and not over-stuff ourselves.

So, we ended there and didn’t feel compelled to dive into dessert. It was that perfectly full feeling. The one where if you consume one more bite it could take you over the edge. A sage piece of advice. … always stop there. Easier said than done. Anyway, the most compelling sweet was the carrot cake. If it tastes nearly as good as it was displayed I am sure it was thoroughly moist with a perfectly creamy icing and sure to induce a sugar coma. There were other options as well, with the standard Tiramisu not to be forgotten, but Italian desserts never do excite me much so we saved the extra bucks and got the bill.

Speaking of bucks, other than ordering in family style and skimping on dessert, another way to save some cash if you’re on a budget is to go light on the booze. The cocktails and wine are quite pricey so maybe  limit yourself to one hearty glass of wine that you can enjoy throughout the meal. If you’re at a larger table order reasonable (oxymoron) bottles in accordance with that same rule – enough for everyone to have one. I had a red from the Umbria region and it coupled well with pretty much everything we ate. … and more importantly, I was able to stretch one glass throughout the meal’s entirety. It was skillful, but I promise you can do it too. Sorry Carbone, I am sure you don’t like my thrifty advice! If you have a special celebration, work affair or you’re a food fanatic like me, and save up for such decadent meals, then think ahead and plan a trip to Carbone. It took me a while to get there, but I am glad I did. Next one to add to the list. … the latest from this restaurant crew, Dirty French.

Carbone, 181 Thompson Street, New York, NY, 10012. Phone: (212) 933-0707.

When To Book: Carbone accepts reservations 30 days in advance on OpenTable. Yes, you need to book 30 days in advance if you want a shot at a normal eating time. … and even then it’s not a sure thing. You can also call the reservation line at (212) 254-3000. 

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