Carbone- Trying to take it back to the Old School

Carbone NYC

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Buttons Bursting

Pants at a Glance
  • scene: Slick Hollywood movie set of an old-school Italian joint
  • sip: Wine, limoncello,
  • savor: Maccheroni with vodka sauce; veal chop
  • sit: With your napkin tucked into your shirt and anyone who will do the same
  • spend: $$$
  • address: 181 Thompson Street
  • phone number: 212-252-3000
  • website:

So, in a true feat of calories and devotion to Italian food, the Pants visited Don Peppe’s in Queens on Sunday, and then went to Carbone on Monday. Anyone familiar with either of these two places know that this is varsity level Italian food chowing. Although a little unfortunate for our wedding diets, this pairing actually set us up for an in-depth comparion of the two places: the juxtapostiion of a truly old school, red sauce Italian joint, and its newer, flashier cousin that leans towards paying hommage but can’t help but show off a little.

Don Peppe’s has been a favorite of ours for years, for the food, but the novelty doesn’t escape us: The food is Italian and the crowd and decor is pure Queens. The wine is made in the back, but there are white tablecloths and the waiters are kind of dressed up; the art is unique to say the least. Now, this kind of Italian is very near and dear to our hearts- it reminds us of our favorite kind of food from growing up in NJ. All jokes aside, New Jersey has no shortage of solid red sauce joints, not a few of them featuring waiters in tuxes and faux Venetian plaster, columns, and old school doo-wop playing on the radio. Growing up, we were blissfully unaware that these places were anything but awesome, but that was before we moved to NYC and were introduced to the idea of throwback irony.

Anyway, Carbone is definitely purposefully aiming for the atmopshere of Don Pepe’s, in something we would like call “fauxthentic”. The waiters are dressed up, but they are designer outfits, and there is art on the walls, but they are Shnabels, and the soundtrack is old hits, but it is contrived. All that said,Carbone is still a really nice place; and fancy artwork, designer uniforms and free cheese help explain the high prices. When we were young I thought that Caesar salad made table-side was so fancy, because it was elegant and unexepected, but I sense that Carbone treats it more like a novelty. It doesn’t mean that the salad doesn’t taste great, or take the sting out of the $15 price, but their motives for this piece of theater can be questioned. Anyway, back to our meal; our waiter was super charming and friendly, and actually from Jers (points for that). The sommelier helped us find a “reasonably” priced bottle of delicious wine, that i saw him suggest to another table. (The wine program at Don Pepe’s consists of white or red, and it is served in unlabeled bottles and cold). We were given free chunks of parm (but no drizzle of balsamic like at Il Gabbiano), some yummy pizza-ish focaccia and some smoky ham. Later we were given some pickled veggies and more bread.

We knew that we wanted to try the massive veal parm, and we needed to try the clams for a showdown with DP’s, so we filled in from there, adding the aforementioned fancy Caesar and the maccheroni with vodka sauce. I was a little surprised by the clam situation- we were given three different preparations and three clams of each. There were clams casino, clams with uni, and clams oreganato. Uni! There is definitely no uni at Don Pepe’s, so this was a prime example of Carbone trying to elevate, not imitate a classic dish. My favorite was the oreganato, Sister liked the casino, and we both enjoyed the uni but were also a little surprised by it. The baked clams at DP’s are legendary, and these were all different enough to not really compare or challenge that title. Table-side Caesar was a perfect Caesar salad, with a garlicky dressing of perfect consistency that coated, not drowned the lettuce. Simple, and right.

Clams man

When Sister was younger all she ate everywhere she could was vodka sauce. She could write a book on the stuff, but what we experienced at Carbone left even this vodka sauce expert ( I, on the other hand, am an expert at vodka and getting sauced) impressed. Two words: Spicy breadcrumbs. The textural depth and spicy twist that the breadcrumbs added to this dish were a revelation, and proof of how Carbone can elevate a relatively common favorite to the next level. Also on the next level was the veal parm- it is pricey, but is it gigantic. This flattened continent of veal is served on the bone, breaded, and covered in mozz and red sauce. It is not a light dish, but you just read the ingredients, so you know it is a good one. I stopped eating veal over a year ago, and I think I lost a taste for it a little, but Sister had no complaints. I recommend this dish to everyone.

This is the veal deal my friends

Shockingly, we were full after this meal. However, we did partake in the free after dinner drinks (mama loves her some limoncello), and tried the fig grappa, which was really smooth and not painful at all. Did we mention that we ate at Carbone at 530 because it was the only time we could get in? So the upside of our feast was that we left while it was still light out and were able to walk home easily; there is no shame in that game, just check out Don Peppe’s at 5 pm on any given Sunday. Mangia!

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