Stirring the pot

A soft-spoken young chef challenges neighborhood’s rep as culinary bore

From left: The dining room of the Leopard de Artistes and Chef Michele Brogioni
From left: The dining room of the Leopard de Artistes and Chef Michele Brogioni (photography by Siobhan Harrington)

bastion of the strollers-and-early-bedtimes set, the Upper West Side has long been accused of suffering from a less-than-spicy dining scene.

While the restaurants at Time Warner Center, like Per Se, Landmarc and Masa, are some of the best in the world, the neighborhood has developed a reputation for attracting rather dull bistros.

But now, a young chef is reinvigorating one of the neighborhood’s most iconic dining rooms: The Leopard at des Artistes, formerly known as the Café des Artistes, where nude flappers by artist Howard Chandler Christy famously adorn the walls.

Chef Michele Brogioni — who earned his first Michelin star as head chef at Il Falconiere at the Relais & Chateaux in Cortona, Italy — is now at the helm of this Lincoln Center restaurant. And he has introduced an exciting menu of rustic pastas, fresh vegetables and seafood, all with nods to Southern Italy’s home-style kitchens.

“The first influence in my cooking are my parents,” Brogioni said in his thick Italian accent at a corner table. “In my house someone was always cooking and cooking well,” he added.

As a teenager, Brogioni worked in his father’s restaurant: “It was nothing special, just nice food,” he said. After culinary school he landed a job cooking for Formula One, traveling the world with the auto race.

Intricate Japanese-influenced tattoos cover his arms (tattoos being almost a prerequisite for today’s culinary hotshots), but surprisingly Brogioni is soft-spoken, precise and tends towards modesty. “I’m no rockstar,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean he is afraid to take leaps of faith, in life and in the kitchen. After earning his Michelin star, Brogioni walked away from everything, and took a job in Moscow. He stayed in Russia with his wife and children for nine years.

“I don’t know why I moved. Maybe I wanted to run away from everything and start from scratch,” he said. Soon established as one of the leading Italian chefs in Russia, Brogioni garnered formal attention. He was appointed head chef of Maison Dellos Catering, where he cooked state dinners and prepared Vladimir Putin’s meals more than 30 times. During that time he also cooked for statesmen including President Obama, President George W. Bush and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Now as The Leopard at des Artistes celebrates its fourth anniversary, Brogioni is steering the landmarked restaurant back towards his origins in small-town Italy with dishes like a Busiate Trapanesi with shellfish ragout, pepperoncini and fresh tomatoes; bucatini with sardines, onions, and wild fennel; and pan roasted Colorado lamb loin.

However, don’t confuse Brogioni’s meticulously crafted menu for nostalgia for the old country. “It is absolutely not a nostalgic menu!” Brogioni insisted, highly animated for the first time in the interview. “It’s authentic!”