How New York’s Top Italian Restaurants Are Going Mass-Market With Pasta Sauce

Rao’s, the century-old, 10-table Italian restaurant in New York City, is one of those places where most people, myself included, don’t have to try to get a reservation. (He is, by many reportsa challenge.) Despite this, Rao’s has managed to become a household name in far more homes than its capacity allowed, thanks to the pasta sauces it began selling in 1992. Since August, Rao’s Homemade, a line which sells sauce, frozen meals and pizzas, is would have on its way to becoming a billion-dollar brand.

Given Rao’s success, the only surprising thing about Carbone, the perpetually bustling Italian-American restaurant in New York, creating its own line of pasta sauces was the fact that it took so long to do so. Carbone, the flagship of Major Food Group’s restaurant empire, opened in 2013 and became “an impossible reservation almost instantlywrote Helen Rosner in the New Yorker. In the years that followed, Carbone became “the most famous restaurant on the planet”. according vanity lounge; a NYC export; a singular example the whims of the elite; and a social media phenomenon (the search term has over 1.4 billion views on TikTok). Rao’s and Carbone are not just any restaurants; these are restaurants that make lists for celebrities and where powerful meals to share.

“The sauces category is crowded, but what it lacks is a premium product that can stand up to what’s served in restaurants,” said Carbone Fine Foods CEO Eric Skae – possibly boldly within the reach of Rao fans – in a press release when the line launched in March 2021. Now, this premium sauce category is expanding further: this month, Rubirosa – another of New York’s hot table red sauce joints, known for its retro menu of pizzas, pastas, garlic knots and chicken parmesan that attracts TikTokers and celebrities – is launching Rubirosa at Home, a line of pasta sauces and an olive oil. The new product line extends what Rubirosa has done through its collaborations with Fila or the t-shirt designer Deer Dana: leverage the restaurant name towards more lifestyle-focused and impeccably branded branded products.

Ranging between $7 and $14 where many sauces are closer to $4, these options are built on a sense of affordable luxury – if Ragu is adequate, Carbone is special by comparison. This price hike is justified by the idea that what comes out of the pot is controlled by the same esteemed chefs behind the establishments, and the allure of the red sauce restaurant experience. “They’ve found a way to disrupt the Carbone experience,” Skae added in the press release. The Rubirosa line is similarly priced, but builds on the idea that you’re being privy to a secret: it preserves the “specialty of a Rubirosa meal, while sharing cherished heirloom recipes with home cooks across the country,” reads its promotional material. Where Carbone launched its sauces with an agreement in place to sell through 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 in restaurants.

The rise of pot restaurant red sauce looks like the convergence of a few trends. Where a previous wave of pasta sauces relied on celebrity success (chefs Emeril Lagasse, Lidia Bastianich and now-disgraced Mario Batali all, at one point, had potted pasta sauce lines , and of course there’s actor Paul Newman’s line), these restaurant red sauces attempt to bottle the niche cultural cachet of a New York hotspot and translate it into something more mainstream. As Naomi Tomky writes for this website, restaurants have been selling pantry supplies for decades, buoyed by the perception of a more sophisticated product, but the category has spiked in recent years (chili crisp from Momofuku, canned fish of the New York restaurant team Hart’s). This is partly because restaurants, affected by the pandemic, needed to diversify their sources of income, but also because they see the value in maintaining a direct relationship with an expanding clientele.

Simultaneously, there has been a nostalgia-tinged surge of interest in red sauce restaurants across the country, with openings like Spaghetti Cafe in New York, Caruso’s grocery store in DCand Gigi’s Italian Kitchen in Atlanta, and dishes like Chicken Parmesan are increasingly appearing on new menus. Ease of assembly and practicality can motivate the latter, Grub Street suggested, but there is undeniably a sentimental appeal. “Everything is coming back, and people are nostalgic for red sauce foods that they can’t find in restaurants anymore,” said author Ian MacAllen. in an interview about his latest book, Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American.

Either way, by selling pots of red sauce, these quaint NYC eateries are seeding fandom and brand familiarity also among people who might not be able to partake in the original experience, and those who may not care about another city’s food scene but appreciate a product with a sense of prestige. Either option bodes well for a restaurant like Carbone, which, as he expands to other parts of the country and offers shipping nationwide, seems motivated to make a household name. Rubirosa isn’t quite on the same level of name recognition yet, but there’s a clear path for restaurants like this: To get out of the New York bubble, step onto the pantry shelf.