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Boardroom Q&A: Chef Mario Carbone

Though renowned for his Italian fare, Mario Carbone spoke to Boardroom about his clothing line, Our Lady of Rocco, now in its second season.

Securing a reservation at one of Mario Carbone’s restaurants is like scoring consecutive Ws on the SNKRS app. It happens, but only in the sense that winning the lottery happens or pitching a perfect game happens.

His Carbone restaurants draw the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, the Kardashians, Drake, Adele and more, only adding to the exclusivity. The chef and managing partner of Major Food Group has built a place to engage in deep conversation and dine on authentic Italian cuisine, flanked by wall art depicting the great Frank Sinatra.

With a firm grip on the food industry, it makes sense for Mario Carbone to want to expand his empire beyond that. Enter Our Lady of Rocco, the 42-year-old’s ready-to-wear men’s line “inspired by the sartorial flair of New York City in the 1980s.” Founded in 2021, pieces include leisure suits, satin bombers, tees, tracksuits and caps that Carbone imagines diners would sport at all four locations of his namesake eatery.

Boardroom sat down with Carbone at the brand’s pop-up shop during Art Basel in Miami to discuss his reasons for venturing into fashion, the laudatory celebrity shoutouts, and lessons he’s learned from the restaurant industry that he carries into clothing.

VINCIANE NGOMSI: How did Carbone’s New York location inspire you to start Our Lady of Rocco?

MARIO CARBONE: I think the origin of the brand came about because through the years, I’ve been sort of designing the uniforms for the restaurants and I really enjoyed doing that. I wanted to see if I could continue to tell the story of Carbone specifically. I’ve affected everything in that building from the food, music, uniforms and general environment. So I started to wonder out loud, like, can I affect the way that guys dress in the dining room? That would be pretty interesting.

I think the way a lot of the guys dress while out to eat sucks. I wanted to kind of elevate that, but also make something that was comfortable enough for the general casualness of how guys in particular dress today. And I get it, like, I’m a product of that as well. But can we blur the lines of looking clean, looking sharp, but still feeling comfortable on a night out? If there was a camera on that dining room, can I affect what they’re wearing and complete the story?

VN: How would you describe the Our Lady of Rocco shopper?

MC: In my head, it’s sort of my generation of guys, you know, definitely aiming for menswear on a night out. I picture them going through their stuff thinking, ‘What am I gonna wear tonight for dinner at Carbone?’ So they pull out a Rocco suit and go, ‘That’s perfect.’ Maybe it’s a crisp t-shirt underneath. But they want to be in a suit, they don’t want to be uncomfortable or feel so formal. That was the beginning of the impetus of what we were going to design.

VN: How did you come up with the name Our Lady of Rocco?

MC: So Our Lady of Rocco is like this fictional saint. The restaurant [that] Carbone inherited in New York City was a hundred-year-old Italian spot called Rocco. It went out of business and when we took over the space, we wanted to restore it to the way it once was. Man, if the walls could talk in that space. It’s from the 20s, so we kept the original sign outside that says Rocco, and put fresh neon over it. That’s Carbone, but that big sign outside of the original restaurant is Rocco. So then I wanted to continue this whole thematic thing and make it a fictional church where we pray to the saint of Rocco. I think that’s just good juju, like really champion the original place and the ghost of what was.

VN: You posted a photo on Instagram of Frank Sinatra, though your line is 80s influenced. Would you say how he dressed was a blueprint for Rocco’s designs?

MC: Well, I think Frank Sinatra is sort of the patron saint of Italian Americans. Like, he’s on the wall of basically every household that’s Italian American, like the Pope is in Italy, right? And then you get to the 80s, which is my generation. And I think back to my dad, uncles, and guys of that period sitting in a social club. You go there after dinner to play cards and hang out. Sometimes there’d be something cooking or a little espresso machine. I wanted to have the sort of interactive spaces, because it’s a whole story. It’s a little ecosystem. So yeah, Frank’s the patron saint, but the silhouette is definitively New York City in 1986.

VN: There’s an exclusivity to dining at Carbone, from the reservation process to celebrities you’re associated with. Was that something you always imagined and how do you envision Rocco getting to that level that Carbone has achieved?

MC: I don’t think you can envision that level of success we’ve achieved. At least I couldn’t. I would have never guessed that it got to this sort of pop culture status like that, just wasn’t in the cards. You do your best to make the best product with earnest pride and craftsmanship behind it. And hopefully good things will happen. Like, there’s no way I would’ve thought Drake would be rapping about Carbone 10 years ago. But good things happen and they snowball when you really, really work at it. Along the way you catch breaks, you get lucky, but you got to put in the work.

I feel the weight of the stakes for sure. I enjoy it, it’s a motivator for me and the team. When people come in, they have high expectations. It’s up to us to deliver. Otherwise it’s like, why does everyone care so much about this place? So, we feel the weight of having to deliver, and I think it’s actually a really great motivator for us.

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VN: What was your initial reaction hearing one of the biggest artists in the world mention you in a song?

MC: The first time Drake said the Carbone name in a song, I felt immense flattery. There’s no reason for him to have done that other than he genuinely likes the product. And I think that’s sort of my position on celebrities in general. Certainly we get a good amount of them, but these are people that because of their access, can go anywhere to eat. Their people can call anybody and get into anywhere tonight, but they’re choosing us. So that’s really, really flattering. Now you want make sure you deliver on it, hold up our end of the bargain. Whether it’s a shout out and a song or someone in the dining room, it’s like, ‘Wow, they could have gone anywhere tonight. Let’s not screw it up.’

VN: Transitioning back to Rocco. Do you feel that pressure to deliver now that your name is also attached to a clothing brand?

MC: I feel that pressure with pretty much anything that I do. I want to make sure the standards of things I touch are on that level. I’m not trying to make this into another Carbone, it was really just a passion project. Maybe someday we’ll have a little permanent store, but the goals are not to make a four season, menswear brand out of it. I’d really like to just have one tailor shop that’s got an espresso machine, some pastries, and Frank on the wall. Mission accomplished.

VN: What differentiates your second collection from the first and how do you draw inspiration from the customer? Are there other design elements that you want to continue incorporating within the pieces?

MC: I’m learning a lot. I’ve never done this before. So definitely learning from mistakes early on, learning from positive feedback, any potential negative feedback, and watching how people are styling the clothes. [That] affects my decisions as I go forward. I kind of enjoy starting over on something. You know, we’re a seasoned hospitality company. But I’m brand new at fashion, so taking some lumps and learning and I just sort of enjoyed that process.

VN: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

MC: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is you have to always consider the customer base. They’re not all going to approach it the way that maybe you would, right? So your intent is not to necessarily force your aesthetic, even though you are designing it and instead be attentive, listen to what they’re saying and their purchasing habits.

VN: What’s your favorite Sinatra song?

MC: That’s a good question. I know the album that I always listen to. He did a live album at the Sands Casino 1966. It was spectacular because you heard the crowd all night. He was working the room in between songs. He was 50 and his voice was actually really awesome at that time. It’s so easy to put yourself in that room because it’s a live album. That’s the one that I always put on in the background and picture myself in the audience.

VN: What’s your favorite mention of yours in pop culture?

MC: I’m a Queens kid, so when I got a shoutout by Nas, I mean, no disrespect to Drake. But I had a real visceral reaction to Nas saying Carbone. Despite the fact that I know he’s been a longtime customer. To have him put it in a song felt like a Queens stamp of approval.

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About The Author
Vinciane Ngomsi
Vinciane Ngomsi
Vinciane Ngomsi is a Staff Writer at Boardroom. She began her career in sports journalism with bylines at SB Nation, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo. She received a bachelor's degree in Political Science from Truman State University and when she's not watching old clips of Serena Williams' best matches, she is likely perfecting her signature chocolate chip cookie recipe or preparing a traditional Cameroonian meal.