Des Artistes is just a short stroll from Lincoln Center, New York’s major cultural and entertainment complex, but a visit can be a trip into history and into one of Italy’s most powerful cuisines. The restaurant now wearing the long title of The Leopard at Des Artistes was created almost a century ago to serve longtime residents of the hotel of the same name. They were actors, writers and artists, and their lodgings did not have dining facilities. Today most apartments now have kitchens, and the comfortable restaurant is thoroughly modern, but the hotel name remains on the ornately decorated entrance.
Now landmarked, the building has had many famous tenants, celebrities such as playwright and actor Noel Coward, the dancer Isadora Duncan, writers such as Alexander Wolcott and Fannie Hurst, famed illustrator Norman Rockwell and former New York mayor John V. Lindsay.
It was never a true hotel, despite its name, but it had many amenities including squash courts, a swimming pool, a theater, and a ballroom as well as its own telephone switchboard and that communal restaurant. The theater and ballroom have been transformed to more commercial purposes, but the restaurant lives on.
First time visitors to the restaurant are occasionally shocked by castle- sized murals of naked nymphs swimming and dancing across its walls. Restored recently to their original sheen, they are essential to the romance of Des Artistes. The murals, considered controversial in an earlier time, were completed in the thirties by Howard Chandler Christy, an illustrator and painter of celebrity portraits who had a studio in the building.
What has changed are the title, the menu, and the décor . Owners Gianfranco Sorrentino and his wife Paula Bolla-Sorrentino, who also run Ill Gattopardo, a similarly upscale restaurant near the Museum of Modem Art in midtown Manhattan, sought to capture the elegance of ancient Sicily depicted in the 1963 film “The Leopard.”
Since opening in the roaring twenties, the restaurant has offered a variety of American and cosmopolitan cuisines. Today, the kitchen is commanded by Chef Vito Gnazzo, a partner who also oversees Ill Gattopardo. Gnazzo favors southern Italian comfort food and his sturdy menu is rich in highly flavored dishes from Campania, Basilicata, Calabria, and Apulia, along with specialties from Sardinia and Sicily.
My wife, Rollie, started with a robust house made spaghetti overflowing with tender, well-cooked veal, porcini mushrooms, carrots, and onions. I opened with gnudi, Gnazzo’s name for buffalo ricotta gnocchi the size of matzoh balls, mated with a wild mushroom ragout in a butter and partigiano sauce. The tarragon spicing was strong and made the intensely flavored dish even more powerful. Maltagliati is a regional name for randomly shaped pasta, which cooks make from scraps of other pasta. Servings here are generous, and my portion could easily have served as a main course.
I chose a dish bearing that name because it offered a ragout of game and porcinis and I am immediately attracted to items, which include exotic mushrooms. Game, often tough, often overcooked can be a questionable choice but my fears were assuaged by gently braised meat and a huge sampling of exotic funghi. Rollie explored the seafood list and lucked out with an excellent fresh swordfish, grilled crisply on the outside, perfectly tender inside, dressed in a pungent salmoriglio sauce of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and herbs, mated with a robust Sicilian caponata of red pepper, fennel seed, red and orange peppers, strong black olives, and pine nuts.
Desserts are listed as temptations, and we are easily tempted though I disagreed with our waiter’s Nutella suggestion. Nutella? Not for me, but he insisted and I became a grateful convert spooning my way through an ethereal Nutella chocolate mousse floating atop crunched hazelnuts and paired with a banana gelato. We also sampled a traditional zabaglione in a bed of fresh mixed berries, a fitting end to a hearty dinner.
Enjoy dining at the Leopard. Go early enough to follow up with a cultural event at Lincoln Center. Go to the Leopard for lusty, rich Southern Italian comfort food at brunch or in the evening, go for the ambience, good service, and quiet dining, for its generous $42 special dinner, or Sunday Bring Your Own Bottle night and, oh yes, enjoy those frolicking nymphs.
Photos: Courtesy of The Leopard at Des Artistes