During times of bounty on the great, wide restaurant savanna, the animals get fat. In lean times, they adapt to the harsh conditions or expire slowly in the heat. With food costs sky-high and Wall Street payrolls being slashed, big-money New York restaurateurs are beginning to seek shade wherever they can find it. An unlucky few are going out of business, others are trimming menus and canceling grandiose expansion plans, and many more seem to be retooling tired old operations in an attempt to make them look new. The art of the makeover is an ancient tradition in the restaurant world, but these days, many of the “new” high-profile restaurants in town seem to have former lives. In Soho, the old French bistro Provence was recently reintroduced to the dining public as Hundred Acres, and Jean-Georges’s star-crossed dim sum parlor, 66, has returned as the glorified soba joint Matsugen. Now comes Convivio, the ambitious reimagining of an upscale Italian restaurant in Tudor City that not so long ago was called L’Impero.
L’Impero, which opened a mere five years back, is relatively youthful as makeover candidates go. But the original chef (Scott Conant, now of Scarpetta) was replaced last year by Michael White, and he and his partner, Chris Cannon, have decided to put a new spin on the operation. As the name indicates, the new venture aims to be slightly more jaunty than its famously staid predecessor, which, in the sober confines of Tudor City, is more difficult than it looks. To provide a sense of sunny, Italian lightness (Convivio is also the name of a famous restaurant in Rome), the interior designer, Vicente Wolf, has covered the walls with white reflective glass and fitted them with installations of shimmering nylon string. The old lamp shades have been replaced with modish ones hung with orange glass spheres. The waiters have been outfitted with rust-colored shirts and the banquettes covered in Italianate crimson, like the inside of a grand Sicilian railway car.
But these mildly garish stylistic changes are minor compared with the new menu, which has been ingeniously recast by Mr. White. The four-course, $59 prix fixe dinner is $5 cheaper than the old one, but now you can choose from a mind-boggling 53 items, many of which change on a daily, or seasonal, basis. There are nine authentic varieties of the pre-antipasti finger food called sfizi (artichokes tossed with slivers of mint, fat risotto croquettes colored with saffron, soft bits of baby eggplant touched with chile), and enough antipasto dishes (I counted twelve) to feed a small army of Sicilian peasants. If you must choose four, order the skewer of grilled quail with sweet onions, the shreds of pigs’ feet and Controne beans tossed in a tangy vinaigrette, the faintly boozy chicken-liver crostini made with onions sautéed in Marsala wine, and the breaded sardines, which are dunked in creamy salmoriglio sauce (like Sicilian tartar sauce) and filled with smoky provolone.
But it’s in the realm of pastas that White demonstrates why he’s become known, in certain Rabelaisian circles, as midtown’s answer to Mario Batali. Like Batali, the rotund, gregarious chef is a voracious scholar of regional Italian cuisine. And like Batali, he has the ability to take classic recipes and imbue them with his own combination of lightness and soul. I’m thinking of the handcrafted maccheroni, folded Roman style with egg yolk, pepper, salty bits of pancetta, and summer peas, which was followed to our table by a bowl of baby-size orecchiette dunked in a rich Sicilian ragù made with tripe and lightened with fennel. There are densely textured ragùs made with braised pork shoulder (served over a nest of fusilli and finished with a lush fonduta made with caciocavallo cheese), fat tortelli ingeniously stuffed with tomato, onion, and cured pork jowl, and a weirdly ethereal recipe from Sardinia called malloreddus made with saffron, blue crab, and a hint of fresh sea urchin.
White is one of restaurant-land’s great omnivores, and the range of his cooking is almost overwhelming. But if you’re still standing after the sfizi, the antipasti, and this little wave of expertly rendered pastas, you won’t want to miss the secondi courses, like perfectly cooked lamb chops topped with toasted bread crumbs and salsa verde, or the ribbons of golden sautéed swordfish involtini, stuffed with pine nuts and sweet currants and set on a bed of yogurt flavored with mint. My friend the Octopus Freak went mildly crazy for the seared polipo alla piastra, which is stacked with a pile of soft red peppers, braised tomatoes, and green Castelveltrano olives. For stout eaters, there is an industrial-size bistecca and a Frisbee-size pork chop buried in drifts of fresh corn caponata. If you wish to steer a righteous middle course between lightness and heft, order the squab, which White sprinkles with olives, white raisins, and pistachios and imbues with the sweet, decadent crackliness of Peking duck.