If you purchase an independently reviewed product or service through a link on our website, Rolling Stone may receive an affiliate commission.
When it comes to food, few chefs in the U.S. have amassed a following quite like Mario Carbone. The 42-year-old has won as many accolades as he has social media mentions for his namesake Italian restaurant, which draws lines outside its locations each night that run as long as the contact list in the tastemaker restaurateur’s phone.
Carbone (the restaurant) has earned the praise of both reviewers and casual foodies alike for its old world-inspired dishes, which find new life in a refreshingly unpretentious setting. Along the way, Mario Carbone has become a poster child of sorts for the “nu celebrity chef,” trading catchphrases and gimmicks for a laidback, soft-spoken appeal, and white aprons for tailored suits and white kicks.
As the managing partner of Major Food Group, alongside Jeff Zalaznick and Rich Torrisi, Carbone has also helped to open other restaurants and build brands in the hospitality space, with Major now overseeing hotspots like ZZ’s Club (where Kanye was spotted the other night) and Sadelle’s (a favorite of Dua Lipa’s). Carbone, meantime, is expanding into Dallas, with a new restaurant concept opening this month.
Mario Carbone’s latest event brought him to the South Beach Wine and Food Festival last weekend, for an opulent “Sunday Supper,” as part of The NYT Cooking Dinner Series. As with everything Carbone touches, the multi-course dinner was one of the most exclusive events at SOBEWFF, with tickets to “Sunday Supper” selling out within hours of going up online, and well-intentioned publicists left to field desperate calls and texts from people looking for a way in.
Rolling Stone caught up with Carbone from Miami to chat about the pressures of living up to the restaurant’s buzz, the move to “democratize” Carbone by selling products online, and why every night is a special occasion, no matter who’s coming through the door.
When you first opened Carbone in 2013, did you ever think it would still be one of the most popular restaurants in America almost a decade later?
Carbone: You know, it was a very scary undertaking for us; we were sort of putting it all on the line. We had gone from these young upstarts with these little cute restaurants that were garnering attention, to starting to throw stones a little bit at the bigger establishments and the bigger fine dining world. My goals were really to build something that was well-respected [and] warranted that sort of category that we were trading in, one that would earn the admiration and respect of our colleagues. And certainly, we wanted a place that was busy and did well and it was nice to see, a wonderful New York Times review and things like that along the way. But I could never have predicted this.
Aside from great food, was there a particular type of restaurant or concept that you were inspired by?
The whole purpose was to build this restaurant because it was a dying breed. Going to the Carbone of my neighborhood growing up, it was always a great location and a night out. And these [restaurants] were sort of falling away because the next generation of kids didn’t want it passed on to them. They didn’t want to run these restaurants. So you know, the older generation was like, ‘OK, well, let’s pack it up. We’ve done for the restaurant for a hundred-plus years, we’re going out of business.’ And that style of fine dining Italian-American was starting to die. So we wanted to make sure that we built something that would continue on. It would be an example of that restaurant for the future. You didn’t really see that old school thing run by young people these days.
I feel like that “old school meets new school vibe” is a very accurate way of describing Carbone.
A very wide demographic of people love the restaurant for different reasons, and that makes it dynamic. My dad loves it because that style of food and that style of Fifties, Sixties music reminds him of being a kid. You know, people may love it because there’s a whole scene with all their friends in the dining room, and it turns into this sort of social currency thing. And then at 11 o’clock, we play hip-hop. And so we have a little bit of everything for people in that restaurant and that’s kind of why we’ve been able to fill it for so many years.
Speaking of music, how important is the music or soundtrack at Carbone?
Music, I believe is one of the pillars of that restaurant. I think it sets the stage, sets the mood and I think it’s absolutely essential. The music that we listen to at Carbone is of the period that I want the restaurant to feel like it’s from — the period between the late Fifties and early Sixties. It crescendos over the course of the night and picks itself up during the course of the night. The style of music you listen to in the restaurant is music that I was familiar with growing up from my parents and family, that sort of Sinatra-era music, which I’ve adopted and love myself these days. But you know, it very much fluctuates between Frank Sinatra and Biggie Smalls in a night.
You came out with a Carbone pasta sauce during the pandemic, which is now available for people to purchase online. Was it always in the plans to launch a product line?
It was an opportunity to package something and reach an audience that maybe doesn’t have one of these restaurants anywhere near them, when they’ve heard about it. It’s the opportunity to bring a little bit of Carbone at home, like all of a sudden, you have a little bit of the “shrapnel effect” in your in your home kitchen when you’re making some dinner. So that was a real point of pride that we were able to do that and I feel really good about the product. I get great pictures from customers and friends and family at the supermarket, buying [the sauce] in bulk. And it’s such an amazing new endeavor for us and the audience that we’re reaching. It feels very democratic, you know?
Celebrities like Rihanna and J. Lo seemingly come through every night and Carbone is considered a big “celeb hotspot.” Is that a good or bad association for you?
What I say about celebrities coming here is that it is a point of pride, because they have access to anything they want. They can go anywhere they want and their people can call people and they can get into any door. And they’ve chosen your door. They’ve chosen you. So you know, it’s a point of pride that they’re coming to you tonight. And certainly the guests get a kick out of [spotting celebs] but you know, we don’t do anything particularly different for them. I mean, it’s just nice to be wanted.
Have you seen the Instagram account Deux Moi? They post celeb sightings all the time from Carbone.
I’ve actually never heard of that before, and I’m sure it exists, but I’m a dinosaur [when it comes to social media]. I don’t put a ton of currency in that.
Has there been anyone that’s come into the restaurant that you’ve been starstruck by?
Tony Bennett’s the biggest one that I’ve ever met, that I’ve come forward to his table to shake hands.
What do you attribute the success of Carbone to?
It has to start with the product for us, that’s goal number one, to put out a world-class product of food, beverage, service atmosphere. We attribute it to like, you know, old restaurant associates of the Sixties where people built these theatrical restaurants that were an experience. It’s a night out onto itself, and that was something that was really important to us — the theater of it all. It attacks all of the senses, I think, when done well, when done right.
I mean, Carbone is still the hottest reservation in town.
You know, I take a lot of pride and care in those people that are celebrating something, if they’ve chosen to celebrate the occasion with you. That’s a really big thing. I’m aware of how difficult it is to get a reservation, so that means that they planned it well in advance or they’ve saved up for it; maybe they traveled for it or waited and waited on line. The last thing you want to do is spoil that or give them a bad experience. Those [guests] are really important to me, and that’s just as important as Leo DiCaprio coming in. And so all of that is pressure for me — I need to make sure we live up to that.