Lunchtime Munch Time at Torrisi Italian Specialties and Despaña


It’s rare that the vegetables overshadow the meat at a hero shop, but Torrisi Italian Specialties is not your ordinary deli. Belly up to the counter, and your eye goes straight to the brilliant green broccoli rabe peppered with red chilies. To the marinated mushrooms tossed with startlingly verdant celery. To the giant off-white Corona beans studded with gigantic, fat-streaked hunks of bacon. Are those roasted potatoes seasoned with ground pepperoni and pickled shallots? You want those, too. Maybe you’ll order too much, but you’ll be happy for it later when you reach into the refrigerator at midnight and pull out a carton of salty, pork-fatty spuds.

Two recent downtown additions—Torrisi and Despaña’s expanded café—are neighborly establishments that serve solid, cared-for food, dishes with a distinct sense of place. At the moment, the two are daytime spots, serving lunch only.

Torrisi is owned by Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi, two up-and-coming chefs who have cooked with Boulud and Batali. Instead of going the predictable fine-dining route, they’ve opened this appealing deli, which offers Italian-American food using only domestic products. While at first this seems akin to cooking with one hand behind your back—no Parmesan or Pecorino! No imported olive oil or tomatoes!—Carbone and Torrisi accomplish it with ease, making their own mozzarella, simmering American heirloom beans, and stuffing sandwiches with meat from domestic charcuterie makers.

From the outside, Torrisi looks like an early-20th-century shop: gold lettering, sausages hanging in the windows. Inside, the walls are lined with shelves of goods, like Market Table. (Lest you think they’re taking themselves too seriously, the products include Progresso Bread Crumbs and good old Stella D’Oro cookies from the Bronx.) At tables around the room, eaters nibble on sesame cookies and sip strong coffee while checking their BlackBerries or reading the paper.

The heroes are better-quality versions of the deli staples, helped along by nostalgia for red-sauce cooking and beautiful cold cuts, like pistachio-flecked mortadella and spicy sopressata. The Italian combo stuffs charcuterie two inches thick into a crusty seeded roll. To take a bite, you have to unhinge your jaw like a python—but you can’t really taste all that excellent ham, salami, mortadella, sopressata, and pepperoni. The effect is more like: Meat! Shredded iceburg lettuce (retro!) adds crunch. Don’t forget to ask for the sandwich spicy, which yields a smear of hot red-pepper paste.

But unless you have a fetish for old-school sandwiches, you’re more likely to go back for those excellent vegetable antipasti or the meat lasagna—a massive, torte-like beast that sits on display until someone orders a slice. It must weigh 20 pounds, and is as thick as a health care bill. The best parts of this meat-pasta-cheese layer cake are the blackened crisp edges, the pasta crunchy-chewy, the tomato sauce darkened and reduced to a paste. Inside, a rich mix of ricotta and mozzarella melts into tomato sauce and fennel-scented ground pork.

Torrisi also serves its version of tri-color cookies, those neon-hued rectangular treats often flavored with marzipan. It’s a good trick, because tasting Torrisi’s rendition makes you realize how mediocre most tri-color cookies are. These are moist and not too sweet, slightly grainy with almonds, and crowned with dark chocolate. It’s a reclaiming of a standard.

Meanwhile, just two blocks south, on the Soho-Chinatown border, Despaña has expanded its small retail space, adding a seating area and many more tapas, pintxos (Basque-style canapés), salads, and sandwiches than were previously offered. It’s an agreeably casual setup—tell the taciturn woman behind the counter what you’d like, pay up, and Styrofoam plates filled with food are placed on a tray for you to take to a table. There’s no messing around.

The dishes run pan-Spanish, freestyling with traditions from around the country. There’s a pintxo dubbed “Asturiano,” after the state of Asturias, and one name-checking Navarre; a Catalan sandwich contains butifarra, the blood sausage from that region. Grazing on a bunch of these plates with good company makes an excellent lunch. A glass of wine would make it even better, and Despaña is working on that, too, in the process of adding a wine shop and bar next door.

Don’t miss the assortment of hot tapas, which sit in earthenware dishes on top of the display case. Most of these revolve around pork, pork, and more pork. Choose from the chorizo braised with chestnuts, which cook up creamy and sweet; fat hunks of chorizo stewed with cider and brunoise of apple; small, sea-green verdina beans tossed with bits of Serrano ham; and, best of all, morcilla (blood) sausage in tomato sauce.

Within the glass display case, a selection of tortillas beckons. These dense egg cakes, popular all over Spain, are uniformly moist and well-seasoned here, with the exception of one layered with unpleasantly spongy shrimp salad. On the other end of the spectrum is the stellar tortilla with pickled green Basque peppers, very hot.

Of the large array of pintxos, we particularly liked the pintxo brandade, a crust of bread topped with a pâté of salt cod, potatoes, and cheese. A simpler option combined cured pork loin, Manchego cheese, and quince paste, to meaty-salty-sweet effect. The Navarrico had two small lengths of chistorra sausage (popular in Navarre), with roncal cheese (hard, sweet, grassy) and strips of piquillo peppers. If you like blood sausage, don’t miss the Asturias, which looks like a cartoon hot dog, morcilla sausage squirted with a wavy line of mayo and joined by more piquillo peppers.

Despaña’s pintxos are authentic in their simplicity, fun to pop in your mouth one after the other. But in Spain, pintxos are often self-serve, speared up with toothpicks and sold on the honor system, the counterman tallying up your toothpicks at the end of the night. Are New Yorkers honest enough for self-policing? We’d need a brave restaurateur to find out.

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