Following the path forged by Rao’s, NYC hotspots Carbone and Rubirosa are getting into the consumer product game
Rao’s, the century-old 10-table Italian restaurant in New York City, is one of those places where most people, myself included, need not bother trying to get a reservation. (It is, by many reports, a challenge.) Despite that, Rao’s has succeeded in becoming a known name in far more homes than its capacity would allow, thanks to the pasta sauces it started selling in 1992. As of August, Rao’s Homemade, a line that sells sauce, frozen meals, and pizzas, is reportedly on track to become a billion-dollar brand.
Given Rao’s success, the only surprising thing about Carbone, the perpetually buzzing NYC Italian American restaurant, creating its own line of pasta sauces was the fact that it took so long to do so. Carbone, the crown jewel of the Major Food Group restaurant empire, opened in 2013 and became “an impossible reservation almost instantly,” Helen Rosner wrote in the New Yorker. In the years since, Carbone has grown into “the most celebrity-studded restaurant on Earth,” according to Vanity Fair; an NYC export; a singular example of the whimsies of the elite; and a social media phenomenon (the search term has over 1.4 billion views on TikTok). Rao’s and Carbone aren’t just any restaurants; they’re restaurants that make lists for celebrity sightings and where the powerful share meals.
“The sauce category is a crowded one, but what it is lacking is a premium product that can stand up to what’s served in restaurants,” CEO of Carbone Fine Foods Eric Skae claimed — perhaps boldly, in the purview of Rao’s fans — in a press release at the line’s launch in March 2021. Now, that premium sauce category expands further: This month, Rubirosa — another of NYC’s hot-table red-sauce joints, known for its throwback menu of pizzas, pastas, garlic knots, and chicken parm that entices TikTokers and celebs alike — is launching Rubirosa at Home, a line of pasta sauces and an olive oil. The new product line extends what Rubirosa has been doing through its collaborations with Fila or T-shirt designer Deer Dana: leveraging the restaurant’s name toward more lifestyle-oriented, impeccably branded products.
Hovering between $7 and $14 where many sauces are closer to $4, these options rely on a sense of affordable luxury — if Ragu is adequate, Carbone’s is special by comparison. Justifying this price hike are the idea that what comes out of the jar is vetted by the same esteemed chefs behind the establishments, and the lure of the red-sauce restaurant experience. “They found a way to jar the Carbone experience,” Skae added in the press release. Rubirosa’s line is billed similarly, but tacks on the idea that you’re being let in on a secret: It preserves the “specialness of a Rubirosa meal, while sharing cherished legacy recipes with home cooks nationwide,” its promotional materials read. Where Carbone debuted its sauces with a deal in place to sell via a website, Amazon, and Stop & Shop (it has since expanded to other grocery stores), Rubirosa is, for now at least, a direct-to-consumer operation: Sauces will only be available for purchase online and at the restaurant.
The rise of jarred restaurant red sauce feels like the convergence of a few trends. Where a previous wave of pasta sauces relied on the success of celebrities (chefs Emeril Lagasse, Lidia Bastianich, and the now-disgraced Mario Batali have all, at one point, had jarred pasta sauce lines, and there is, of course, actor Paul Newman’s line), these restaurant red sauces attempt to bottle up the niche cultural cachet of an NYC hot spot and translate it into something more mass-market. As Naomi Tomky has written for this website, restaurants have sold pantry supplies for decades, buoyed by the perception of a more sophisticated product, but the category has seen a spike in recent years (chile crisp from Momofuku, tinned fish from the team behind the NYC restaurant Hart’s). That’s in part because restaurants, hit by the pandemic, needed to diversify their revenue streams, but also because they see the value in owning a direct relationship with an expanding customer base.
Simultaneously, there’s been a resurgence of nostalgia-tinged interest in red-sauce restaurants across the country, with openings like Cafe Spaghetti in NYC, Caruso’s Grocery in D.C., and Gigi’s Italian Kitchen in Atlanta, and dishes like chicken parm increasingly appearing on new menus. Ease of assembly and practicality may be motivating the latter, Grub Street has suggested, but there is undeniably sentimental appeal. “Everything comes back around, and people are nostalgic for the red sauce foods they can’t get at restaurants anymore,” said author Ian MacAllen in an interview about his recent book, Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American.
In any case, by selling jars of red sauce, these sceney NYC restaurants seed fans and brand familiarity equally among people who might not be able to take part in the original experience, and those who might not care about another city’s dining scene but appreciate a product with a sense of prestige. Either option bodes well for a restaurant like Carbone, which, as it expands to other parts of the country and offers nationwide shipping, seems motivated to make itself a household name. Rubirosa isn’t yet at the same level of name recognition, but there’s a clear path forward for restaurants like it: To break out of the NYC bubble, get onto the home pantry shelf.