Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Leopard at des Artistes: Legendary Southern Italian Cuisine in an Historically Significant Setting

story and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere

NEW YORK---The Leopard at  des Artistes is the culinary equivalent of a Phoenix rising from the ashes. The restaurant reopened on May 10, 2011 to great media fanfare, with a new name and new owners, Gianfranco and Paula Bolla-Sorrentino along with veteran Chef Vito Gnazzo from Midtown's Il Gattopardo, after a lengthy and labor-intensive gut renovation and restoration of the historic murals by Howard Chandler Christy. At the Leopard at  des Artistes, the art of cuisine is married with the  history of art.

The Leopard at des Artistes is located in a landmark building that is one of the city's most famous, the Hotel Des Artistes, founded in 1918 as an artist's cooperative apartment building. Designed by George Mort Pollard and developed by Walter Russell, the 18 story building is the largest "studio" building in the city, with 115 apartments, mostly duplexes with double-height living rooms and balcony bedrooms.
The base of the building is decorated with figures of artists and many of the apartments are appointed with English Renaissance-styled paneling, beamed ceilings and fireplaces. With its well-lighted, airy apartments, the building quickly attracted the glitterati of celebrity and the arts; legendary dancer Isadora Duncan, playwright Noel Coward, Norman Rockwell, Alexander Woolcott and former Mayor John V. Lindsay.

The birth, demise and resurrection of the restaurant space on the main floor are similarly rooted in the history of the building. At its inception, none of the apartments had kitchens, instead there was a communcal restaurant on the lower floor, where the chef prepared meals from the ingredients that were brought in by the residents. In 1975, media consultant David Garth, a board member atr Hotel Des Artistes, asked restaurat maven George Lang, considered the leader of the postwar renaissance of the New York restaurant scene, to create a true restaurant in the space.  Lang, who died in 2011 at the age of 86, was the long-time manager of the Four Seasons,in addition to other achievements. As a consultant, he helped create restaurants for the Loews hotel chain, developed cuisine programs for cruise ships, the 1964 World's Fair and the Statue of Liberty. As a teacher, mentor, food historian and author, he created the Restaurant and Gastronomy entries in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Under Lang's guidance, Cafe des Artistes became one of the city's most distinctive eateries until the economic downturn and financial woes forced its closure in 2009. Enter new owners Gianfranco and Paula Bolla-Sorrentino of the wildly popular Il Gatopardo. With daring and commitment, they resurrected the Cafe with a renovation of the ground floor space and a painstaking restoration of the historical murals.  Combined with the culinary wizardry of Chef Vito Gnazzo, the art of cuisine and the art of of painting combined to make for an enchanting experience.

The atmosphere at The Leopard at des Artistes has a cozy, sort of clubby feel. On any given night, you can see some of the leading lights of the city. Its a place where the worlds of celebrity and finance
politics and the arts all intersect, creating a dynamic social atmosphere.  A museum director may be  holding court with his curator and donors at a corner table, a city commissioner or former Governor at another while a famous comedian strolls past the Art Deco bar to greet a fellow comic at yet another table.

The food similarly, has that comfortable, home-cooked feel to it. Based on the cuisines of Southern Italy, the food oozes authenticity, with slow-cooked favorites like Osso Bucco getting special treatment.  Colorado lamb is immersed in a savory sauce. Its terrific! Well-seasoned and tender with fresh thyme and oregano and served with sauteed spinach and pureed celery root, it made for a satisfying dish that paired well with the House Red, a flavorful mouthful of Sangiovese.  The Meatloaf "Il Gatopardo" is served in a huge medallion shaped portion slathered in the restaurant's signature sauce made with veal stock and meat reduction with fresh herbs and served with mashed potatoes and the same sauteed spinach. It was a little dense for my liking, but that didn't prevent me from eating every morsel and dabbing the crunchy, housemade bread into the few remaining gobs of sauce.

You can't eat at The Leopard withoout having the Grilled Octopus with crunchy celery salad. The extra virgin olive oil and lemon salad with green olives is to die for. No matter what you think of the idea of eating octopus, you owe it to yourself to try it. It's without question, one of the best things on the menu. Served as an appetizer, I could easily have eaten a larger portion as an entree.

There was absolutely no room for dessert, so I can't tell you about the Profiterol al chocolato or the Torta di Zucca or Pistachio Semifreddo. I haven't had Zabione since my days of hanging out at Vanessi's in San Francisco's North Beach Italian district, but here it was front and center on the menu of The Leopard Temptations.  All of the dessert items looked scrumptious as servers breezed past me on their way to other tables. Another time.

The waitstaff is courteous and efficient. There was never a moment when I waited for anything. The restaurant was jam packed, but the level of service never wavered. Waitstaff also graciously provided sharing plates, water and extra bread without asking. They  seemed to anticipate my every need. At times, it seemed to be an almost telepathic experience.

Some of the entrees seemed a bit pricey, but, because the restaurant deals only with seasonal offerings, using the very highest quality of locally sourced ingredients, the cost is justified. Given the atmosphere, the divine food, superb service and artsy ambiance and the sense of reliving art history and its gloried past, I'd opt for a return visit in a heartbeat. Besides, I hear Woody Allen and Steve Martin are regulars, I'd love to sit at a nearby table and eavesdrop on that conversation!

The Leopard at des Artistes
1 W. 67th Street near Central Park West
New York, NY 10023

Open for dinner only Monday thru Friday 5pm-11:30pm
Saturday, Brunch 11:30am-3pm, dinner 5pm-11:30pm
Sunday, Brunch 11:30-3pm, dinner 5pm-10pm
Dine at the Bar option

The Leopard also delivers in the local area

 The Leopard owners, Gianfranco and Paula Bolla-Sorrentino along with veteran Chef Vito Gnazzo(c)
 The cozy bar at The Leopard
 The celebrated Meatloaf at The Leopard
 Osso Bucco and fresh homemade bread make for a perfect pairing with the house Sangiovese wine

Below: the restored Howard Chandler Christy murals

 Pasta Carbonara at The Leopard at des Artistes
 The attentive service at The Leopard is prompt and courteous
 The Leopard has a clubby atmosphere, perfect for dining with old friends
 The table-hopping and celebrity sitings at The Leopard are part of the charm

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