Mario Carbone On The Rise Of Major Food Group & His Perfect Meal

The chef behind America’s hottest red-sauce restaurants reveals the ultimate dinner order from his eatery empire.

Major Food Group cofounder Mario Carbone at Contessa Boston (Major Food Group)

Mario Carbone’s Major Food Group hospitality brand continues to burn hotter than the signature spicy rigatoni at his wildly popular Carbone restaurants.

Founded with fellow chef Rich Torrisi and entrepreneur Jeff Zalaznick in 2011, MFG has grown from an intimate downtown Manhattan eatery, Torrisi Italian Specialties, into an ever-expanding global luxury powerhouse that’s set to span restaurants, members-only clubs, hotels and even private residences.

Major Food Group famously boasts an empire of eateries in New York, Miami, Dallas, Boston, Las Vegas and beyond, courtesy of enduringly trendy tentpoles Carbone, Sadelle’s, Torrisi, ZZ’s Club, The Grill, Contessa, Dirty French and Parm. 

The in-demand restaurant brand has branched out from its early elevated red-sauce concepts with elite venues including The Crown Club at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, a planned luxury condo building in Miami, and a Carbone/ZZ’s hybrid destination in New York’s Hudson Yards.

I recently caught up with Mario Carbone to talk about future plans, advice for hospitality entrepreneurs, and the ideal meal from his favorite MFG spots.

Martini and steak at Dirty French Steakhouse in Miami (Major Food Group)

From New York’s original Carbone to Miami’s Contessa and Dirty French Steakhouse, your restaurants all have a distinctive look. Is there a unifying design theme or philosophy for Major Food Group?

I would say that the unifying thought is telling a complete story and what that means to us. We’re obviously very passionate about each and every restaurant that we build, and we love to get gritty in the details. Something I say often is, “the closest parallel to what we do is theater.”

Your goal in theater is to build a very believable set for the story that you’re telling. You create a script, you make costumes, and you put on the exact same show at the exact same time every single night for a different audience. We trade in theater and I think that’s something that’s palpable to our customers and a big reason why we have the fanbase that we do at this point.

Carbone Miami (Douglas Friedman)

You’re about to open the seventh Carbone–this time in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. How many Carbones would you like there to be around the world?

I don’t think we think in terms of numbers. It’s more about when an opportunity comes up, is there something exciting about this? For various reasons we need to answer that question. But there was never even a second in mind after the first Carbone.

The goal was to do the one that’s in front of you, do the best you can and good things will come from it. I don’t think we have a number in mind that we want to get to or what we want to stop at. But thankfully we’re still a young company and great opportunities still come our way.

Carbone’s signature Spicy Rigatoni (Major Food Group)

You’re launching both a ZZ’s private club and a Carbone inside New York’s Hudson Yards later this year. Can you describe the concept of this location?

In Hudson Yards, the restaurant on the ground floor will be the ZZ’s Club that we first built in Miami’s Design District. And then as you scale the grand staircase, on the top floor will be what we’re calling Carbone Privato. This is something that warranted a bespoke moment.

Spicy Tomahawk steak at ZZ’s Club (Seth Browarnik, World Red Eye)

Carbone just turned 10, and I really was antsy to just update the product a little bit, and this is the perfect opportunity to do that. So it’s going to be a one-of-one Carbone. All of the traditional dishes of the restaurant will be there, but I’ve also spent a great amount of time working on the details that surround that particular play and give it sort of a fresh look. So that’s very exciting.

Major Food Group is also building The Villa, a 58-story residential tower in Miami, to follow up the Crown Club at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and the food and beverage program for Boston’s Newbury Hotel. Are there more plans for private residences, members clubs and hotels?

Absolutely. Within the space of hospitality, there’s multiple avenues that we’re growing in. The members’ club model is something we now have our own version of, and so yes, absolutely that’s something we’re excited about. Forever our calling card was the traditional brick and mortar restaurant. And now we are really excited about applying our brand of hospitality to all these other sub-sectors.

The maximalist bar at Dirty French Steakhouse (Douglas Friedman)

What happens when we take our brand of hospitality and we apply it to a hotel? Where are we catering to someone’s needs from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to sleep? How does it apply to branded residences? How would I design their kitchen, what do I like in my kitchen? It’s a whole new set of challenges and we love that stuff. So branded residences, hotels, members clubs, restaurants, consumer packaged goods. All these arenas we’re present in, and we plan on growing, for sure.

Lunch spread at Contessa Miami (Major Food Group)

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in the restaurant business?

You have to focus all your time and effort on the product. Good things will happen from producing something that is excellent. But if you don’t have something excellent on your hands, then you’re not gonna get any of that positive momentum that happens after that. The goal wasn’t to create this exclusive restaurant on Thompson Street, with the original Carbone. The goal was to make an incredible restaurant that was a new iteration of this Italian-American thing that we grew up with.

When you make something great, good things happen. You can’t start with trying to get likes on Instagram or stars from Michelin. Those are by-products of the product. You just have to make something great. If you follow trends, you’re a prisoner of them. You have to have the knowledge and the wherewithal to just trust your gut.

Contessa Boston (Douglas Friedman)

Are you making something that you truly believe in or are you making something where you’re just trying to make a buck? Because invariably that trend is going to fall out of fashion and you’re going to be left with something you’re not that happy with. So make something you really believe in and don’t follow trends.

Major Food Group partners Rich Torrisi, Jeff Zalaznick, and Mario Carbone at Carbone Miami (Camila Rios)

What’s your absolute perfect meal from across Major Food Group’s restaurants?

When I sit down for a meal with friends, I generally like to start with at least one cocktail. My favorite cocktails in the company right now are at Torrisi. I love that sort of Campari-based, Italian, bitter, Negroni aperitivo hour. I think we do that incredibly well at Torrisi, and so I’d have their Negroni Sbagliato.

Then I like to start a meal on the lighter side with raw bar and crudo. That leads me to the ZZ’s brand, where we do beautiful sliced raw fish, shellfish on ice, raw fish on toast, carpaccio. We have a myriad of ways to eat raw and clean.

Salmon Carpaccio at ZZ’s Club (Major Food Group)

Pasta-wise, I would go with Carbone as my pasta of choice with Contessa being a close second. I generally like to eat around the rigatoni because I’ve had it more times than I can count. So I would pepper in the Orecchiette Vito and all sorts of other things from the pasta category at Carbone.

Then entrée-wise, maybe a bigger slab of red meat from Dirty French Steakhouse. I would go with côte de beouf or a lamb saddle, those are two of my favorite cuts. Again, this is a decadent evening. And then, probably when I’m pretty close to exploding, just a scoop of stracciatella gelato from Contessa.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Maxim magazine.