Buzz can be a great thing for any restaurant that’s finding its sea legs, but it really puts the kibosh on the element of surprise. Since opening in the spring of 2010, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone’s homey Torrisi Italian Specialties has been greeted with the kind of lavish praise that has helped make it one of the tougher tables to procure in this city. (It doesn’t help matters that the slip of a dining room seats only about 20 diners at a time.) Which is why I found myself having dinner recently at the ungodly hour of 5:30pm. On a Saturday, no less. Naturally I arrived with expectations. In a city littered with half-assed Italian restaurants, the promise of something revisionist, or just plain properly executed, gets a man salivating quicker than you can say red sauce. I wanted to love Torrisi. Moreover, I wanted Torrisi to love me for loving them. But the feelings of Sunday supper evoked by storefront windows hung with lace-curtains and an elegant, old-school script end outside the door. Despite the kitschy charm of warm wood interiors set off by mismatched china, it’s business as usual inside. (Perhaps there is something to be said about the downside of success.) That’s not to take anything away from the food, which is delicious and lovingly executed – just imagine your good luck to have an Italian Grandma with a degree from culinary school – but the hipster wait staff is efficient to the point of being brusque, it not downright condescending. Feed the myth, Torrisi: where’s the old lady in her sauce-stained apron? The four-course tasting menu varies seasonally, and I expect now that spring has sprung the chefs will be taking full advantage of baby this and baby that, but I hope for your sake the warm, made-to-order mozzarella is a constant. A puddle of barely-set cheese, drizzled with olive oil, it’s like slurping primordial soup. Earthy, silky, and bubbling with the beginnings of fermentation, it’s intoxicating to say the least. Three more appetizers arrive in succession – you have no say in the matter – and while pleasing, they’re not nearly as hypnotic as the mozzarella: blackened tuna with eggplant; crisp, savory potato millefoglie; and oddest of all, a grilled Boar’s Head sandwich with pickles that reminds me of a concoction I might have dreamed up as a child. Fusilli in a dirty duck ragu is a toothsome pasta course, not nearly as rich or as heavy you might expect, but wholly satisfying. (And properly portioned, thank heaven – enough to sate, not stuff.) Both choices of entrée were winners: country pork muffaletta served with roasted and pickled variations of cauliflower, and monkfish in a zippy pepper marinara with shellfish. For dessert, it’s hard to pass up a rainbow cake, which, though not extravagant, provided just enough sweet to round off the meal in that particularly almond-flavored, Italian way. For the quality of the cooking Torrisi’s $75 set menu is a bargain, plus the wine list is equally reasonable. God knows I’ve had much lesser meals at three times the price. And for all my griping about sitting down to dinner before the sun sets, there was an upshot: I made it to Midtown for an 8pm curtain with nary a hitch.