South of the Natural History Museum, Upper West Siders have their choice of established, white-cloth Italian restaurants. At the bottom of the park, Gabriel’s serves up three-dollar sign northern cucina Italiana to the patrons of Lincoln Center. For a less rustic meal, chef Jonathan Benno mans the glass-walled dining room at the Lincoln Ristorante. Hike up to the New York Historical Society and chef Tim Kensett crafts simple and elegant Central Italian fair at Storico. But when you want a taste of il Sud, the Leopard at des Artistes is still the Upper West Side’s stronghold.
The Leopard has always benefitted from the fact that it has the most beautiful dining room in the neighborhood. The Howard Chandler Christy murals of frolicking nude flappers against the white jacketed waiters filleting Dover Sole table side creates a rare only-in-New-York ambiance.
However, the restaurant has had a little trouble holding on to its executive chefs of late, and after a shake up last summer, is under the wing of chef Vito Gnazzo — the long-time partner in the restaurant with husband-and-wife-team Gianfranco Sorrentino and Paula Bolla-Sorrentino.
When we last reviewed the Leopard, chef Michele Brogioni was making the pasta. But only about a year into his tenure, he left for the Armani Ristorante on Fifth Avenue. Brogioni, a young and soft-spoken chef known for cooking for Vladimir Putin, focused on rustic pastas, fresh vegetables and seafood, all with nods to Southern Italy’s home-style kitchens. Brogioni’s meals brought a youthful energy to the restaurant, which has always catered to an old crowd, as most Upper West Side restaurants do.
Thankfully, little had changed about the restaurant on LLNYC’s recent visit. If anything, Gnazzo has slowed things down and brought the restaurant back to basics, emphasizing fresh ingredients that stand on their own two feet. Take for example one of the restaurant’s dinner specialties, the Dover Sole, which is dressed with little beside olive oil and lemon. Gnazzo says he would rather diners taste fish than sauce.
Gnazzo takes a similar approach to antipasti, with bright Italian mozzarella and tomatoes plucked and cut at the height of their flavor. The grilled octopus is another minimalist highlight.
Although it is harder to pin down, the pastas too feel like simple, practiced and expertly made classics. You can easily imagine the Il Gattopardo panccheri with Gnazzo’s unusual and successful take on “Genovese sauce” served up as a family meal in Campania.
The well curated wine selection is another point in the restaurants favor that shouldn’t be ignored. Spring for the wine pairing with the restaurants tasting menu (don’t worry its only a $50 three-courser; $80 with the pairing) and you won’t be disappointed.
The Upper West Side’s restaurant scene is flowering (need we mention April Bloomfield’s new restaurant on 78th and Amsterdam?) and that means there is more competition for the business of the areas notoriously persnickety diners than ever. But ideally, booms and competitions raise standards, and we expect that the Leopard will only keep improving with age.