Updated: Sep 7
On March 24 I started working on a project called Take Out Only in response to the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on restaurants in my area. In my work as a food photographer, I work with a lot of restaurants, both established and new. This is a huge hit for them. When most restaurants fail in the first year, something like this can put even a restaurant that has been in business for years out of business...fast. The impact of this virus has touched so many industries, my own included. I wanted to bring attention to the places that I've worked with, and the ones that I have never even been to. To let people know what they're dealing with, how they're still operating, what they're doing to stay safe, both for themselves and their customers. Using what I can out of my talent set, this is my way of saying thank you, we know you're struggling, how can I help.
I am of Italian descent on my mother's side. Her father's parents, my great-grandparents came from Avellino, located in the Campania region of southern Italy. Mom's maiden name was D'Addio. I always thought it was a pretty cool name, but as an adolescent in the 50's, it could bring some jabs, she told me.
We had some Italian food that were staples in our home, but none was as special as my Grandmother Arline's sauce. She would make it every month or so and it was special. She'd call us up and tell us she was making it the day before we were to come. It took all day to simmer, with her meatballs poaching in its depths. That was a siren call that was irresistible. Wear your stretchy pants, People.
I was hoping to check in with some chefs I have worked with in the past, so I reached out to Chef Xavier Santiago. I met him when I covered a charity dinner he did in partnership with Chef's Carlos Perez and Sean Butler. I was impressed by the way the three of them worked together and struck by X's (as he's called) intense immersion in his work. I have a shot of him filling a tube of crispy pastry with chicken liver mousse that rivel's a surgeon's acuteness.
When I caught up with X he was now working at Carbone's Prime in Rocky Hill as executive chef. Visiting a fine dining Italian restaurant during this time was new for me and connected me to my roots. I'd seen X post about the Wednesday night fried chicken special at Carbone's. It comes with mac and cheese, truffle honey, and cornbread. It looked golden, crispy, and just plain enticing. Fried chicken is not what I expected at an Italian restaurant, but part of what X has brought to the table.
Carbone's had been closed for regular dining, as most restaurants were. Take-out only here, too. However, on June 17th, they were reopening. A Grand Re-Opening, they called it.
When I got to the restaurant, it was 1:00 pm. They were opening at 3:00 pm for their first service. The door was locked and I had to knock to be let in. I was greeted by a masked gentleman who was smartly dressed in a blue button-down shirt and navy slacks. I told him who I was and that I was there to see Xavier. He let me in and lead me through a very grand entranceway that featured black & white archive photos of the original Carbone's in Hartford. The ceilings were high and dark, wrought iron asymmetrical light fixtures with Edison bulbs drew my attention upward. Framed news articles and old photographs peppered the walls. telling of the history of the family-owned business.
I waited about 30 seconds before I was greeted by Vinnie Carbone, the owner-chef. He greeted me so warmly, I felt like I knew him for years. He's tall and fair for an Italian, with big-heartedness that feels like a hug. I liked him right away. We couldn't shake hands but did the elbow thing and laughed. He told me X would be along soon; he was really busy in the kitchen. Servers milled around, dressed in black head-to-toe, all busy with a task.
I thanked Vinnie for letting me come and asked him how they were faring. He said it's been hard. They had to lay off a lot of staff. It was strange. Strange not to have people come in and sit, but only order food to go. It was not the way they wanted to have their guests experience the food and hospitality of Carbones. I got the sense that it really pained Vinnie not to be able to do that. He told me at Carbone's they want diners to feel at home, making a come in gesture with his hands. It was important and not to have that, was not what they were in this business for. But, they were still going and determined to keep it that way.
Usually, when I go visit a restaurant during this time, I don't have much access to the kitchen, plated food or the staff. At least not since things got really hairy. It was a treat to come in and get to walk around. I was masked and stayed back, but I was still in and getting to experience the energy and excitement of this place as they somewhat got back to "normal".
X and Vinnie had some new dishes that were being introduced today and the staff was going to have a tasting to familiarize themselves with the new food. In the meantime, I went into the kitchen and was finally able to greet X. He greeted me with a social-distance hug and took me back to the bustling kitchen.
The kitchen was vast and clean, orderly, and running like a well-oiled machine, everyone was at their stations and busy. Loaves of Italian bread peeked out of white paper sleeves, stacked high on a cart. Spices sat neatly on a shelf, each jar filled to various degrees. Fresh endive was washed and ready for chopping on a nearby cutting board. I nestled into a corner and watch, staying out of the way while I shoot.
X was working on the fried chicken with a sous chef. The same chicken I had seen in his post. It was soaking in some milky-looking goodness. Flecks of spices floated in the sunset-colored liquid. X and his sous started pulling out pieces of the chicken and tossing them in a mixture of flour and secret spices, readying them to be poached in the hot oil before put aside to be finished for customers. He told me he was going to send me home with some too, for my family. Yes!
Vinnie jumped behind the line as I moved through the perimeter of the kitchen. He had a giant bowl and was beating the contents vigorously. Another chef was tossing freshly fried potato chips in vinegar salt. I captured them in mid shake, flying through the air as they were seasoned. A waitress with a deep tan and very blue eyes was setting up the drink station. Fresh focaccia was proofing in a box, big trays with growing dough pressing against plastic wrap, bubbly and white. The kind man who ran the raw bar was spreading clams, shrimp, and oysters across ice and tossing kelp across the shells with black-gloved hands.
Soon, the plates started coming out for the staff to taste. They were brought out to the raw bar and put on the granite countertop for me to photograph. If I could get to them first, that is. The staff all swooped in with forks at the ready, tasting each dish and discussing it with each other. Hearty nods and claims of "so good" rippled like waves across the room.
I had a fork in hand too, and got to taste along with the staff. The broth on that mussel dish was diving. The puttanesca set off my taste buds with the tang of olives, onion, and Calabrian chili delivered on soft ribbons of pappardelle. The gnocchi bolognese; Oh. My. Lord. The softest little pillows of potato and other magic.
Along with each dish, there were new drinks featured in the bar. Beverage director Paul Kelley gathered the crew to demo the new cocktails and everyone was intently watching him mix and pour as he described each one. He produced a trio of jewel-tone drinks that some servers photographed with their phones. I'm not sure if it was to help them explain them to the customers or to post on Instagram.
I looked at the clock and it was almost 3:00. It seemed like the staff was just itching to get to it. To have customers come again. To sit and eat. Linger and talk. Enjoy.
I grabbed X from the kitchen when I saw my chance and took him into an empty dining room off to the side. He told me that previously this space was an outdoor patio that they just had enclosed to expand their indoor space. "Good timing, huh?" he said, laughing. We did some portraits and then I had to let him go. It was time.
Time for me to get out of their way so they could get to what they were itching to do. They were waiting for people to return to them so they could take care of them. Right at 3:00, the first reservation showed up. It was an older couple who were dressed to the nines, the women wearing a sequined mask as they were shown to their table by the hostess. I approached and asked if I could take some photos of them, I was documenting the re-opening I told them. They were happy to oblige. As as they settled in, we chatted a little. They said they'd been waiting to come back, they were regulars here and loved it. They come for both the people and the food, they said. I thanked them and left them to peruse the new menu and the difficult task of making a choice from all the stellar offerings. Good luck with that, My Friends.
More people were coming in, so I went to grab my gear and say my goodbye's. X told me that he had a bag for me in the kitchen and indeed, he did. It was full. It was a big bag, heavy, warm, and delightfully aromatic. He added two desserts in before I left the kitchen. I hoped the bag held together. I gave him a COVID "hug" and he disappeared back behind the line.
Passing by the pizza oven the pizza chef handed me two boxes, stacked on top of each other. "Don't forget these," he said with a smile and a bow of his head. I took the weight of the boxes in my free hand and adjusted the bulging bag from X. Wow. This was such a generous gesture to someone that they had just met and was there so they could help me with my project.
Grabbing my gear, and somehow throwing my bag over my other shoulder, I spied Vinnie sitting at a table in the private dining room. Papers and a calculator were on the table in front of him and he looked deep in thought. I didn't want to interrupt his work, but I had to say thank you before I left. He rose to his feet and I had to laugh at how I must have looked, weighed down with so much food! His eyes sparkled and I had to think it was because he could see my appreciation, for the food and his time.
Closing and not doing business, as usual, was hard here. You can feel it. It's not what they thrive on. Carbone's is not just about the food, it's about the experience as well. It's about making people feel at home, stirring memories with food and tradition. I think that's what makes Vinnie happy and is a Carbone's tradition.
And today, they can finally get back at it. No leftovers allowed.
Visit Carbone's three establishments:
Please note: I practice social distancing guidelines, shoot with long lenses to look like I'm closer than I am, get in and get out to stay out of the way and do not go into kitchen's unless invited, stay far back from food and I check my temperature before going out
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