Mario Carbone Is Expanding His Culinary Empire One City At A Time

Mario CarbonePhoto Credit: David Drebin

Mario CarbonePhoto Credit: David Drebin



It’s a rare sight: Carbone, the latest restaurant to enter the Miami food scene, is empty. For a few hours before opening, the room is silent, the tables are untouched and intricately set, and the famed dessert carts are yet to be rolled out for display. Outside, the patio chairs are still resting on top of the tables from the night before — all except one. A passerby asks in awe, “Is that the Mario Carbone?”

Sitting at the table with an espresso in hand is the esteemed chef and cofounder of Major Food Group (his partners are Jeff Zalaznick and Rich Torrisi). Carbone is posing with animated Italian gestures and pretending to inspect the menu, and his energy is so infectious, it’s no surprise he has built a culinary empire that is redefining the dining experience.

“We immediately came out with this style of fun fine dining, or the informal formality we do,” he says about the opening of the first Carbone in New York. “It threads the needle because we are charging prices that demand a high level of execution, but we also want the guests to feel really, really relaxed. To find that balance is difficult, and it took us years to get good at it, but we put a lot of pressure on ourselves by coming out of the box with big-ticket fine dining.”

At the young age of 32, Carbone stunned the New York scene when he bought a century-old Italian restaurant in the West Village, down the street from classic Italian culinary establishments like Il Mulino. Instantly deemed the new kids on the block, Carbone and his partners knew they had to do something different to stand out, so they turned the attention on themselves to up the ante. In doing so, they created an undeniable customer connection by letting the diners into their world, becoming celebrities in the food scene.

“We were coming off of success with two tiny restaurants, so the idea of Carbone was incredibly exciting but also terrifying because this was our first ‘real’ restaurant,” Carbone says. “The critics are the first ones to come through in New York — we didn’t have the fan base we have now — so early on, the critics came in, and they were a lot of the older generation journalists that would cast the ‘Who do you think you are?’ shadow on us,” he recalls. The moment Carbone really felt like it was going to work was when the New York Times finally gave the restaurant a 4ave review. “That was the celebratory and calming moment that we knew we were going to make it,” he says.

In the years since first opening the restaurant in New York, Carbone has been awarded Best New Chef in America by Food & Wine magazine.

Now, eight years since that opening, he’s brought the same energy and iconic Italian dishes to Miami’s burgeoning South of Fifth neighborhood, alongside legendary restaurants Carbone has long admired from afar. He’d spent countless evenings dining in the area, wondering what it would be like if one day his name could be displayed on the block, and sure enough, he made it happen. “I love the fact that I’m right behind Joe’s [Stone Crab]; that gives me such an amazing sense of pride and accomplishment to be in a spot — to have this brand facing that brand means everything to me,” Carbone says.

Miami, a city that was always on Carbone’s radar, felt like a natural next step for the rapidly expanding brand. Carbone Miami, designed by the renowned Ken Fulk, is the first Major Food Group property in Florida and the fourth location of the restaurant, joining New York, Hong Kong, and Las Vegas. “It’s a place that we love,” Carbone says. “It’s a sister city to New York — it always has been. A lot of our customers are going back and forth, but there’s also plenty of people here that we want to cater to as well. And we’ve always really loved the city; we’ve always loved the energy here.”

It is imperative to Carbone to make each location feel like it belongs where it is. “There are no fake New York bricks in here,” he promises as he points to the space’s rich malachite ceiling beams and columns. “What I love about this brand and the way we’ve grown it is that it is not cookie-cutterThe beauty of it is that everything is different, but it’s all the same.”

Though restaurants have taken a devastating hit this year, Carbone, like many entrepreneurs, managed to find a silver lining. “The pandemic did speed up the process of [our] opening in Miami,” he says. “We as a company had to make some really fast choices…. How are we going to pivot? How are we going to keep the wheels moving? How are we going to keep the momentum going in this awful circumstance? It became pretty obvious that we — [along with] as many of our staff that we could employ and all the people here [in Miami] that are out of work — could create something really great.”

After opening its doors in January, Carbone Miami instantly became the place to be, with its tables full night after night and reservations proving nearly impossible to secure. Locals and tourists alike flock to the restaurant for its iconic dishes like spicy rigatoni vodka, Caesar alla ZZ served tableside, and veal Parmesan. But it’s the energy that makes the experience unique to the Carbone brand. “You can close your eyes and picture a full restaurant, but when you’re actually standing in the middle of it, it still is every bit of the reward that it’s always been,” Carbone says humbly.

“When I walk out from the kitchen on certain nights and certain times, I’m taken aback by the energy in the room — the strength of it. This one is three times the size of the one in New York, but it’s still somehow pretty intimate. When it’s at its crescendo of the night, I’m driven back into the kitchen by the energy of it. It’s pretty incredible,” he says. Since day one, the mission of the Carbone brand has been to create a sense of familiarity. “At night, when the lights are down and the music is on and the veal Parm is on the table, it’s Carbone,” he adds. And that is what some call the Carbone magic.

Mario CarbonePhoto Credit: David Drebin

Mario CarbonePhoto Credit: David Drebin

Carbone lets us in on a little secret if you happen to have the pleasure of dining in his restaurant: “There’s a whole language of things that we make all night long that are pocket dishes. We call them pocket dishes because the captains [the servers] have them ‘in their pockets’ and can deploy them at any time — like roasted peppers with fresh mozzarella.

Things that we make that just happen to not be on the menu, but we do them all the time.” He will even make you a chicken parm, but you have to give him 24 hours’ notice. Carbone’s boyish sense of pride is both palpable and charming. From seeing his face light up when he speaks about the menu to the way he stops mid photo shoot to thank a courier for his work, his admirable demeanor is like no other. At a young age, Carbone took a chance on the food industry, and we are glad he did.

“I started cooking in neighborhood restaurants just for money in high school because I thought I might like it, and I caught a look into the industry,” he says. The native New Yorker bypassed the traditional route of college in search of a vocation. “The food industry wasn’t quite the popular, pop-culture industry that it is today. It was still a big industry, but it didn’t resemble the industry that we currently sit in. So I was taking a chance on something that might or might not pan out. But I knew [college] wasn’t for me.”

Carbone’s relationship with food began in his early childhood. There are pictures of him at just a year old in his grandfather’s arms, helping him cook. “I come from a family that puts a high level of interest and value in food and the table and the nature of that whole thing,” he says. “My grandparents were my first babysitters. Every memory I have of the two of them is in the kitchen. My grandfather would get dressed and immediately put an apron on and spend the entire day in his apron — whether he was watching TV or gardening or cooking, he had his apron on.”

He’s been involved in more than 20 critically acclaimed restaurants, so you may wonder how Carbone remains innovative in his menus, constantly reinventing modern cuisines. Finding inspiration comes with time, but he is acutely aware of looking for it wherever he finds himself. “My inspiration, as I get older, is much more heightened,” he explains. “I see things and I can categorize them in my mind, and I keep extensive notes on everything. Inspiration comes from absolutely everywhere and everyone. And I am constantly being asked to be inspired on demand for different things in different ways. The only thing I can equate it to is the cadence of a fashion designer.”

Fashion is something he has always been interested in: not just the clothes, but also the brands’ and design houses’ perspectives and how designers continue to seek inspiration. In fact, Carbone arrived on our set self-styled in his first look: Nike joggers, a Rowing Blazers T-shirt that had just arrived in the mail, and his signature K Kane signet ring with a “C” engraved.

It’s Carbone’s undeniable attention to detail that has set him apart. Right now, he is in the midst of folding the new season into his menu, thoroughly inspecting each ingredient to ensure it meets his standards. “Beautiful produce has become a real exotic. It’s always exciting when it comes through the door, and it’s nice to cook something different [each night],” he says.

Carbone recognizes the beloved reputation of his brand and its diverse flavors, which is why Major Food Group, in collaboration with industry veteran Eric Skae, just launched a new consumer packaged goods brand, Carbone Fine Food, which is making its debut with a line of pasta sauces — no reservations required. Customers can now bring the acclaimed flavor of Carbone home, which will always feel surreal to him. “It’s exciting and incredibly humbling to know that the family name and sauce is now on supermarket shelves — and at some point soon, nationwide — it’s a crazy thing,” Carbone says as his expression shifts to nostalgic happiness, as if he’s back in the kitchen with his grandfather.

“Similar to the first time I saw the Carbone name on an awning — and I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s my last name’ — the idea of me in Stop & Shops is equally strange but amazing,” he says. “I think the idea that we can bring a little bit of the restaurant across the country is the coolest.”

And he’s not stopping at the three sauces currently available in stores. Carbone is in the midst of figuring out how to bottle the highly sought-after spicy rigatoni vodka sauce, which is proving to be a bit more difficult (though we have full faith he will nail the execution). He is also considering adding pasta or gelato down the line.

The Carbone Miami opening is just the first phase of Major Food Group’s expansion this year in South Florida. This month, it is opening ZZ’s Sushi Bar, a modern Japanese restaurant and membership club in the Miami Design District, offering the same unparalleled hospitality as its other restaurants. Aiming to set a new standard for sushi and Japanese cuisine, Michelin-starred chefs Masa Ito and Kevin Kim will take their craft to the next level with innovative signature dishes like caviar temaki and Miami-centric dishes including handmade lobster dumplings. Loyal followers may recognize the name ZZ’s from New York’s intimate Greenwich Village restaurant ZZ’s Clam Bar.

Beyond Miami, Carbone and his partners also have their eyes on Dallas for the next Carbone location and more locations throughout Texas. “Now it’s about telling the story of expanding and really capturing the spirit of it,” he says. There’s truly no stopping him as he continues to pave his path in the industry, revolutionizing the dining experience while remaining true to his purpose of evoking feeling through food.

Mario CarbonePhoto Credit: David Drebin