You arrive in the soft effervescence of the light. In the mottled grey and brown and yellow of New York, there it is: Carbone, glowing in shades of Italian red and green. Outside, on the “sidewalk”, is an al fresco dining space. This will not do. It is where the castaways and hangers-on are invited to sit. They will have the Carbone meatballs but they will not have Carbone.
Inside, a red-jacketed man will greet you enthusiastically but without any cloying glee. He has an accent like Tony Soprano; he has to. If he didn’t, your mind would conjure one regardless. But he does. He really does. And the interiors of the place are Carmela herself, glamorous and bathed in candlelight. It is busy — it is always busy — but everyone seems relaxed. Mario Carbone knew what he was doing when he built his glittering temple to la dolce vita.
Why am I telling you all this? Because, after a long run around the rumour mill, Carbone is reportedly coming to London. A branch of New York’s famous “red sauce Italian” has been lined up to open in the Chancery Rosewood near Piccadilly next year. As yet, information is sparse, but a menu similar to that of New York is expected. Prices, too.
Bookings, I suspect, will be Devonshire-esque. That is to say, extremely difficult to get — just as they are in New York, where people flock to enjoy spicy rigatoni on colourful patterned plates on white tablecloths. Visit the restaurant website and try to make a booking now. You are unlikely to succeed. The fact is, getting anywhere near a table is notoriously difficult. The New Yorker published a piece not so long ago about how to get one, in which the author talked about a “secret” email, one they described as difficult to come by. I managed. How? I cannot possibly say. All you need to know is I got a spot somewhere near the bar, in the thrum of things, at 8.15pm. And so I know a little of what London might expect.
Our waiter said his name was Joey. He was a garrulous but rapidly efficient man from Brooklyn. More Paulie than Tony. He brought a breadbasket, chunks of good Parmesan and a plate of curled salumi to “get things started.” On the house, which is possibly normal. My Manhattan was pitch perfect and there was a pinot noir from Oregon. I really liked Joey.
And there was an atmosphere, the sort only found in the buzziest joints — those trumpeted by film stars and musicians and people with a lot of followers on Instagram. Middle-class types would call it an ambiance. Some might find this desire to be among such vibes a little taxing — they will think it all nonsense and will say so. I reckon they are either boring or lying or upset that they can’t get in. Anyone of good health would have a time of it at Carbone
Was it worth it? Absolutely. One of the most memorable dinners of my life. The food surpassed expectations, other than an artichoke heart dish which tasted only of vinegar. The heralded rigatoni alla vodka was everything you imagine it to be, simultaneously comforting and chic; the meatballs were juicy and their tomato sauce a hilly stroll through Tuscany; my portion of calamari came crispy and enormous, the squid tender, the batter light; a side salad was a side salad, but with much better leaves than you would anticipate in the US, where food is mostly corn syrup.
A red-jacketed man will greet you. He has an accent like Tony Soprano; he has to. If he didn’t, your mind would conjure one regardless
Afterwards, you will leave the restaurant’s frenetic embrace feeling worldly. It is a warm place, despite being a little contrived, and its charm pours out into you as you step out into the fuzziness of New York a cocktail, two wines, and a double espresso down. I am sentimental and nostalgic; those less so might instead think, “That was fun,” and move on. Either way, roundly enjoyable.
And yes, you could be cynical and say this is just about wanting to go where David Beckham, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Beyoncé like to go. In part, true. But there’s a reason it became so popular in the first place: because, as the chef Daniel Boulud said in Vanity Fair, Carbone is “like a movie set, where every waiter is like an actor... Mario and Rich, they’re New Yorkers, and they have this nostalgia for classic New York, and it gives it this joie de vivre.”
That’s right. For a few hours, you are Sophia Loren, or Frank Sinatra, and the world outside does not exist. That is what great restaurants are for. And so, when it opens here, if there is a secret email, there is only one thing to do: get hold of it.
Carbone is set to open at the Chancery Rosewood, 30 Grosvenor Square, W1K. rosewoodhotels.com. Based on prices in the US, appetisers are likely to start at £20, mains at £40. A house glass of wine might cost £15.