Part of the landmark Café des Artistes restaurants on New York City's Upper West Side (just across the street from Central Park on West 67th Street), The Leopard at des Artistes features museum-quality Howard Chandler Christy wall murals from the early 1930s showcasing nude nymphs modeled on his mistress Elise Ford.
Owned and operated by husband-and-wife-team Gianfranco Sorrentino and Paula Bolla-Sorrentino, along with Executive Chef Vito Gnazzo, The Leopard at des Artistes curates a menu inspired by mid-1800s Kingdom of Two Sicilies as well as the culinary traditions of Campania, Basilicata, Calabria, Apulia, and Sardinia. All dishes have a baseline of fresh ingredients built with deft preparation steeped in near instinctual kitchen prowess.
Born and raised on the Amalfi Coast in Salerno, Chef Vito launched his culinary career in Milan at three-Michelin-star Antica Osteria del Ponte. After immigrating to the United States in 1981, he worked as head chef at Il Rex in California before moving to New York in 1993, joining restaurant trio Il Gattopardo, Mozzarella & Vino, and finally The Leopard at des Artistes as culinary artist in-residence.
Chef Gnazzo strikes a balance between his longstanding culinary expertise and letting dishes speak for themselves with simple ingredients like homemade pasta, seasonal vegetables, farmhouse cheeses, and fresh seafood.
Signature plates include pan-seared duck breast porchetta with fennel pollen, cipollini with aged balsamic vinegar, pickled raisins and vegetable caponata; halibut in brodetto with baby artichoke and fingerling potatoes; and maltagliati pasta with wild game and porcini mushroom ragú. The dessert menu boasts specials like traditional zabaione with fresh mixed berries and Nutella chocolate mousse served with hazelnut crunch and banana gelato.
At first glance, The Leopard at des Artistes menu may appear fragmented between regions, but a closer examination of Italy's culinary history reveals a series of interdependent local cuisines rather than what are often considered authentic regional dishes. This happened because most Italians before World War I rarely left their villages (with the exception of nobility and clergy) resulting in town-by-town variations in preparation and recipes.
Italy's geographic location in the middle of the Mediterranean also infused dishes with a mélange of foreign influences - like French cookery in Liguria, Piemonte, and the Valle D’Aosta, Austro-Hungarian in the Veneto, Trentino Alto Adige, and Friuli Venezia Giulia. Risottos and arrosto cuts of meat notably reflect Spain's occupation of Milan for 150 years up until the War of the Spanish Succession. The British introduced classic bistecca alla Fiorentina and zuppa inglese, English steak, and English trifle to Tuscany, while Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition used what they could to create dishes like caponata and fennel gratin that are still popular to this day.
Photos: Leopard des Artistes & Steve Mirsky. Coverage made possible by participating in a sponsored visit.