top 100: torrisi italian specialties

torrisiBuzz 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.

made to order mozzarella

potato millefoglie

fusilli dirty duck ragu

country pork muffaletta

monkfish, pepper marinara

rainbow cake


burning up the ship

Cruise liner, Duke of Lancaster

Three monkeys dressed in suits crouch on bulging sacks of money, striking the pose of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.” At more than 30-feet tall, the giant gangsta chimps are the size of a three-story building and joined on all sides by similarly fantastic and macabre creatures, from skeleton divers to slobbering pigs. Welcome to the Duke of Lancaster, an abandoned ship on the Dee Estuary in north Wales, which has become a canvas for some of the most renowned graffiti artists in Europe, including France’s GOIN and Latvian KIWIE. At a whopping 450-feet long and seven stories tall, the former British passenger ferry – built in the same Belfast shipyard as Titanic – is a haunted, rusted out sight. Graffiti collective DuDug approached the ship’s owners with the clever idea of turning the abandoned vessel into an arts destination. With their approval, artists from across Europe began spray-painting the decrepit ship with surreal artworks of punk geishas and bandit businessmen, using cherry pickers to scale the towering walls. DuDug is now campaigning to have the site opened to the public as the centerpiece of an arts festival. At the least, it would be the largest open-air gallery in the UK. If the organizers don’t manage to get anywhere with the local arts council, perhaps they should give the folks at Carnival a call. An open sea gallery off the coast of Italy might make a fitting end to their Costa Concordia troubles.

Duke of Lancaster grafitti


new week, new shoes


just published: spa couture

You love designer duds, covet a closet full of fashionable shoes and handbags – why would you even think of staying anywhere other than a designer hotel?  That’s exactly the thinking among a handful of the world’s top fashion houses, including Armani, Versace, Bulgari, Missoni, and Moschino, who are boldly taking the idea of lifestyle chic where no hotel and spa has gone before. Haute holidays have arrived. Here’s our peek at the new chic: vacationcouture.

READ MORE (pdf download)


eataly yum yum

Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s Italian food emporium, Eataly, has to be the oddest resto-market combination in the city.  Sprawling over 50,000 square feet in the Flatiron District, it’s a grocery store, gelateria, pizzeria, macellum, bakery, and handful of restaurants rolled into one. (There’s a wine shop, too, with it’s own separate entrance.) As visually appealing as a funhouse – and equally confusing at first – it’s a sensory overload of pasta, olive oil, cured meats, and  Italian specialties tailor-made for the hungry shopper.  Anyone familiar with Batali’s Otto will recognize the stand-up salumeria, where you can order a healthy board of salume and a bottle of wine at a reasonable price without the hassle of sitting down to a formal meal.  I should put formal in inverted commas, however, as the fish, pizza, and pasta eating stations appear to have all the casual appeal of a food court at the mall.  Having finished a generous snack of meat and cheese – plus a trio of crostini topped with oil-cured tuna, cannellini beans, and spaghetti squash, respectively -  I still had a glass half-full of Montepulciano.  So I did what everyone else seemed to be doing and took my drink, grabbed a basket, and went shopping.  Suddenly Eataly went from being more than a market, more than just another foodie clusterfuck – it became a cocktail party.  Trust me: it’s much more fun to talk to the cheese monger about the provenance of fresh ricotta when you’ve got a drink in your hand.


holiday ho-ho-hotel deals

Since I just had two pretty fantastic – and unexpected – hotel experiences in both Rome and Costa Rica, I thought I would share some details on a few money-saving deals they have going on.  Just in case anyone’s got a spare bit of  dosh over the holidays and needs a splurge!

Rome Cavalieri Planetarium suite terrace

Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts has a winter escape offer valid now through March 31st which includes daily breakfast, and a $50 activity credit per consecutive two-night stay. For example, stay for two nights and get a $50 credit, stay four nights and receive a $100 credit, and so on. The credit can be used towards resort activities, spa treatments, and select dining venues within the hotel. Rates at Rome’s Cavalieri begin at 350 Euro, per room, per night, based on availability.  Or pony up for one of the Imperial floor rooms which start at 420 a night – it comes with access to the Imperial lounge, which has free computer access, a dedicated concierge, and a copious all-day spread of complimentary food and beverage that can more than make up for the  price increase. Plus, you can use that $50 credit towards any of the one-off experiences the hotel can arrange, like tooling around the city in your own Ferrari, a private visit to the Sistine Chapel, or even gladiator training. To book at the Rome Cavalieri, visit


Starting January 3rd and valid through April 30th, 2010, Paradisus Playa Conchal is offering a 4 night/5 day Spa Getaway Package which includes an in-room welcome gift, a 30-minute facial treatment per person, a private yoga class for two, and an 80-minute signature Shell Massage for each, plus free use of the wet areas and 15% any additional therapies at Ahuia Spa. I can’t recommend the Shell Massage enough:  Tiger Clams are filled with local beach sand, then warmed and used in the same way as hot stones.  The texture of the clamshell is slick however, so there’s no drag against your skin – making the massage that much more relaxing.  Prices per person, per night include all food and beverage as well as most activities, starting at $318 for a Junior Suite.  Opt for a Royal Service Suite – from $398 – and you get a butler, concierge, private pool, and a lounge with computer access and drinks & nibbles throughout the day.  Royal Service also gets you preferential seatings at the hotel’s restaurants, which always comes in handy.  Book the Getaway by calling the hotel directly at (506) 2654 4123 or by emailing


bucket list: 2009 edition – November



GUANACASTE:  Since I have already posted a number of entries on Costa Rica, I thought I would try something different and find a photo that encapsulated some of the spirit of my recent trip.  The country is so “green” – so conscious of how important its natural resources are to the people and the economy – that nearly a quarter of the country is protected by either the government or private concessions.  One of the upshots of such studied conservation is that wildlife is not only abundant but also part of the experience of daily life.  To wit:  a random walk one afternoon brought me face to face with this giant iguana, soaking up the sun in the crook of a low-lying palm on the side of the road.

Gladiator training

ROME:  I’ve already live-blogged extensively about my return to Rome a few weeks ago, so indulge me as I post this photo once again and relive the fantasy of being a well-muscled warrior in the service of Caesar Augustus.  This is, after all, a bucket list!


live blog: arrivederci roma

arrivederchiIt’s hard to say goodbye.  It’s even more difficult to be cavalier about leaving the cushy confines of the Rome Cavalieri.  Yet my time in Rome has come to an end.  As promised, I’ve eaten my body weight in pasta, consumed enough wine to float my way through the holidays, and am feeling like an extra out of 8 1/2.

More significantly though, I’ve had the chance to reconnect – albeit briefly – with the curious seventeen year old who long ago wandered the city’s maze of streets in awe of this world and the world inside him waiting to be born.  I may be filling my suitcase with pasta and coffee to take back home, but sitting here on my balcony and taking in the birds-eye view of St. Peter’s and the city spread out before me like a sumptuous buffet, I’m thinking I’ve already got myself the best of souvenirs.


live blog: we who are about to die salute you

beforeWhile there is some dispute as to its veracity, today’s headline is said to be the phrase with which gladiators heralded the emperor before engaging in battle.  What is not in dispute, however, is the authenticity accorded to the life and times of the gladiators by Gruppo Storico Romano.

Warrioris Toolsswords

The Scuola Gladiatori Roma  – an arm of the Gruppo Storico – teaches you how to fight with the same weapons handled by the gladiators of ancient Rome.  Kitted out in sandals, a tunic, and the appropriate armor, you learn how to use the gladius, or typical battlesword. (the word gladiator is itself derived from the word “gladius”.)

But first things first:  let’s warm up with a few cigarettes and cups of espresso.

trainingFirst things First

Then it’s on to training.  Mixing culture and sport you’re trained by doctores (the gladiators’ trainers) before crossing swords in mock battle, trying the deceptive nets and tridents, and studying the methodology of hits and movements in what is a really intense discipline.

Mock battle

Mopck Battles

There’s a reason those gladiators were so ripped:  this stuff is heavy. The best benefit of a few hours thrusting and sweating in the sun with fifty-plus pounds of armor on your back is the guilt-free amount of pasta you can consume later.

we who are about to die

Though I have to confess the Latin geek in me got the biggest rush out of being presented with a certificate granting me the  citizenship accorded to a free man of the Roman Empire – the traditional just reward given to a gladiator victorious in battle.  Veni, vidi, vici!



live blog: to die for

P1010451Rome’s Capitoline Museum is a classicist’s nirvana.  Spread across three buildings in a piazza designed by Michelangelo atop the Capitoline Hill , it abuts the Imperial forum of ancient Rome and in one fell swoop binds the Renaissance to its forbears in antiquity.  Recent excavations under the hill have revealed the foundations of the precursor to what stands there now and the preserved balcony provides a view over the forum that’s worthy of an emporer.

The museum houses a bucket list of classical sculpture – along with a few mediocre paintings that are best avoided – and as a self-confessed Latin geek, it was easy for me to spend the better part of an afternoon here thoroughly enrapt.  Three pieces in particular have haunted me for many years for many different reasons:  The Dying Gaul, Cupid & Psyche, and an unknown warrior falling in battle.  Click the images for greater detail.

the dying gaulthe dying gaul - rear

cupid n psyche

torqued warrior


live blog: bernini or bust

Bernini ChristIt’s well nigh impossible to visit Rome and not come into contact with the work of Bernini, the Renaissance sculptor and architect who was one of the leading artists of his time and a successor to the mantle of Michelangelo.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was a genius – let’s just get that out of the way.  Moving beyond the creation of mere objets destined for adoration, he took into account the setting in which each piece would be situated, synthesizing sculpture, painting and architecture into a coherent conceptual and visual whole.  He used light in a revolutionary way, much like Carravagio did a generation before:  hidden, the light source was able to intensify a moment of religious adoration or enhance the narrative of a dramatic moment.  In marble, don’t forget; the man was able to bring this bear while working in marble.

Enjoying the patronage of the Popes, Bernini’s output was vast:  he designed the piazza and colonnade outside St. Peter’s, the Ponte Sainte’Angelo across the Tiber, a handful of massive fountain complexes that to this day remain a focal point of daily Roman life, and hundreds genre-bending sculptures admired for their dynamic movement.  The man also revolutionized the art of marble portraiture, eschewing the stony silent bust in favor of presenting his subjects in mid-conversation or leaning out of the frame.  To put Bernini’s life into a global context, understand that in his later years he was invited to present designs at the court of the Sun King, Louis Quattorze.

Above, the bust of Christ is his last known work.  Completed shortly before his death at the age of 82, it was discovered only recently discovered along the ancient Appian Way, inside the Church of St. Sebastian.  For a little contrast, below is a detail from the gargantuan Fountain of the Four Rivers that dominates the Piazza Navona and the Ecstasy of St. Theresa, which depicts Theresa of Avila anticipating the angle’s arrow and the piercing of God’s love.



live blog: hottest saint ever

mishima-st-sebastianHands down, the honor goes to St. Sebastian.  Tied to a stake – or sometimes to a tree – Sebastian is never depicted as anything less than young and beautiful, a precursor to the ethereal beauty of Wilde’s Dorian Gray.

What’s so disturbing – or hot, depending on your mindset – is the juxtaposition of death against that useless beauty, because Sebastian is almost always depicted at the point of his martyrdom:  bound and shot full of arrows, the perfection of his alabaster flesh marred only by the bleeding wounds.  His face retains a glow of serenity, sometimes disinterest, and more often than not an almost pre-orgasmic ecstasy.  It’s as though, yes, this moment of immolation is inextricably tied-up with his desire.  Death and le petit mort become one.  The homoeroticism can’t be denied:  St. Sebastian is an S&M fantasy come to life.

Poor guy.  All he did was convert a few prisoners to Christianity.  Unfortunately, that happened to draw the ire of Emperor Diocletian and Sebastian was doomed from that point forward.  What intrigues me, however, is how many painters and sculptors were continually drawn to representing the duality inherent in this sainted sebastian appia antica2



live blog: non rompere le palle!

Gladiator training

Just a little teaser today.  Come back over the weekend for my adventures at Gruppo Storico Romano.


live blog: tea with tiepolo

teaAfternoon tea is one of those fabulous traditions more closely associated with Great Britain than Italy, yet at the Rome Cavilieri they do a gold-plated high tea against a spectacular backdrop:  a triptych of Tiepolos.

The three large Renaissance panels by Giambatista Tiepolo were bought by the owner of the Cavilieri at an auction of the contents from the Venetian Palazza Sandi.  The Sandi family commissioned Tiepolo back in 1723 and the panels had been hanging in the family home ever since.

Tea with Tiepolo2Under the hammer at Sotheby’s the triptych – Hercules suffocating Anteo, Ulysses discovering Achilles among the daughters of Lycomedes, and Apollo skinning Marsia – set an auction record for a painting in Italy:  7 million euro.  As cultural patrimony they’re considered priceless and recognized as one of only fifty Italian works of art unable to leave the country without approval from the government.

Twenty euro for a proper tea is a steal anyway, but getting a private audience with your own Renaissance masterpieces is priceless.  Dressing like the Doge, alas, is optional.


live blog: ara pacis

ara pacisMy favorite monument of classical Rome is without question the Ara Pacis.  It is a humble piece of architecture but to me it represents the height of what Roman civilization was able to achieve under Caesar Augustus, aka Octavius.  Just imagine:  an altar dedicated to peace.  For an empire that had been continuously at war for hundreds of years, the concept of a public temple – for that was what the Ara Pacis ultimately was – dedicated to the peace and stability of a flowering empire was unprecedented.  Even today, the idea of any government paying lip service to – let along dedicating a monument to – peace is unimaginable.  It showed the citizens of Rome that a) Augustus was so powerful a leader that he could actually bring about a lasting peace that for once closed the doors to the temple of Janus, and b) that with peace across the Empire, a civilization could germinate: philosophy could reason, science enlighten and art reveal the people to themselves.  Without fear, society could flourish.  These are lessons learned over 2,000 years ago, yet still we struggle with such simple self-evident truths.

ara pacis exteriorAmerican architect Richard Meier’s travertine housing for the Ara Pacis has been as controversial as Mussolini’s decision to move the altar from it’s original location in the 1930’s.  Yet despite the contremps, Meier’s glass box is as refined as Pei’s Louvre pyramids; respecting the altar and the juxtaposition against Augustus’ neighboring mausoleum while contributing a breath of modernity into a city too often mired in its historical fantasy.


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