NYC Dining: The Leopard at des Artistes
By Ruth J. Katz
If these walls could talk…
We are referring to the walls of the chic restaurant The Leopard at des Artistes, located in the legendary Hôtel des Artistes, 1 West 67th Street, in New York City. The walls are awash with nine panels, the first of which was completed in 1935; they feature hand-painted, bucolic scenes starring ethereal woodland sprites created by Howard Chandler Christy, one of whose models was his companion in later life, Elise Ford. He was an American artist who may be best known for his painting Scene at the Singing of the Constitution of the United States, hanging in the US Capitol and for his creation of the Christy Girl, a successor to the much-admired Gibson Girl. In his day, Christy painted everyone who was anyone, from William Randolph Hearst and Edward the VIII (the Prince of Wales) to Amelia Earhart and Benito Mussolini.
And just what would these Elise-lookalike sprites have to say? That the famous studio-style edifice was designed in 1916 and that the restaurant was frequented by the residents of the building—artists!—whose apartments lacked kitchens. Residents included Isadora Duncan, Noel Coward, Fannie Hurst, Alexander Woollcott, Norman Rockwell, and much later, Gotham’s mayor John V. Lindsay. In addition to the restaurant, the building had squash courts, a swimming pool, a theater, and a ballroom. Among other patrons of the restaurant were luminaries Marcel Duchamp, Rudolph Valentino, and Christy himself, who resided upstairs.
Over the years, the earlier incarnation of the restaurant, Café des Artistes, was featured or mentioned in movies and television shows including Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, Gossip Girl, 30 Rock, Friends, and My Dinner with André. For more years than any Gothamite can remember, the epicurean impresario George Lang ran the celebrated restaurant, until he shuttered it in 2009. But it found renewed life in 2011, when the current team refreshed the facility and swung open the doors to once again welcome eager diners to the exquisite eatery with an equally satiating menu.
Husband and wife team Paula Bolla-Sorrentino and Gianfranco Sorrentino (he hails from Naples, she from Brazil, of Italian heritage), along with their chef-partner, Vito Gnazzo (from Salerno, along the Amalfi coast), are the masterminds behind The Leopard at des Artistes. Sorrentino has a resume that boasts more than 45 years of restaurant management, including stints at the Dorchester Hotel in London, the Four Seasons Hotel in Tokyo, and Bice restaurant in New York; in 1990, he opened Sette MoMA restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. One of their most cherished corporate undertakings (among their portfolio of restaurants which includes two other NYC eateries, Il Gattopardo and Mozzarella & Vino) is the re-opening of this landmarked restaurant, christened now The Leopard at des Artistes.
At The Leopard, Chef Gnazzo has fine-tuned a varied and toothsome Southern Italian menu, rooted in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, dating from the mid-800s, and melding the culinary traditions of the regions of Campania, Basilicata, Calabria, Apulia, Sardinia, and naturally, Sicily, He has crafted a balance among his flavorful dishes, based on rural elements, such as ancient-grain pasta, vegetables, and seafood ingredients. Many dishes are a blend of the popular traditions with a modern twist.
In addition to its à la carte menu, The Leopard offers specially-crafted, seasonal meals, focused on the tastes of a particular region. You are likely to find a fabulous meal with, perhaps, the flavors of Puglia or Campania. Regional three-course meals are $50, or with wine pairings, $80. Savoring the Puglia menu, you might start with a bountiful antipasto of toasted, rustic bead topped with straciatella cheese, organic basil, and cherry tomatoes; a primo or secondo main course of orecchiette pasta with broccoli rabe, anchovies, garlic, red crushed pepper, and olive oil; or slow-braised lamb stew with wild mushrooms, nestled over mashed potatoes; desserts might include crostata di ricotta and chocolate chips, artisanal gelati and sorbetti, or a seasonal fruit tart with vanilla sauce.
A Toscana menu (priced the same) might include panzanella salad with roasted peppers and organic tomatoes; a main course of homemade whole wheat lasagnette with ragout of summer vegetables or a caciucco of Mediterranean fish and shellfish; and a dessert of zuccotto of ricotta and biscotto, or a luscious bigné filled with Tuscan hazelnuts and custard cream.
A la carte offerings are equally savory and pleasing. Oven-roasted red and yellow beets, with robiola cheese and baby kale, in extra virgin olive oil and lemon dressing was a sure-fire winner. Artisanal fagottini filled with organic spring greens and buffalo ricotta, in a fresh tomato and marjoram sauce was equally as satisfying. We chose two main courses, not so typical of an Italian restaurant—duck and lamb chops, and both were satisfyingly scrumptious: Pan-seared duck breast porchetta with fennel pollen, cipollini with aged balsamic vinegar, pickled raisins, and vegetable caponata presented an explosion of flavor and the other main of grilled lamb chops scottadito flavored with tarragon, served with vegetable caponata was equally as appetizing. Without a doubt, any dish here hits the bull’s eye under the whisk of Chef Gnazzo.
Additionally, there is a BYOB at Sunday dinners (no corkage fee) and there is live jazz and bossa nova at both the Saturday and Sunday brunch. And, of course, specialties exist for Restaurant Week in New York, with three courses offered at very reasonable prices. Given that the restaurant has always been a go-to destination for Lincoln Center theater-goers, reservations are always recommended. Expect top-flight service and caring execution. It is that and the cuisine that keep so many regulars—including Steven Spielberg, Howard Stern, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Hank Azaria, Steve Martin—coming back. Once you’ve been, you’ll be a regular who returns, as well.
The details: The Leopard at des Artistes, 1 West 67th Street, New York City; 212-787-8767.
The author of five books, Ruth J. Katz was the style/travel editor of Promenade magazine for eight years. She has written extensively for both The New York Times and New York magazine and has served as an editor or contributing editor at numerous magazines, including Redbook, Classic Home, Golf Connoisseur, and The Modern Estate. She has visited over 80 countries (and counting).