Italian, Old and New

InsiemePhoto: Morini & Montanari for New York Magazine

Once upon a time, in New York City, a French restaurant called Le Pavillon was the model from which fashionable dining establishments sprung. But fashions change. Le Pavillon, which was opened by veterans of the famous French pavilion in the 1939 World’s Fair, closed long ago, and most of the grande dame establishments that emulated it have been shuttered, too. Now, in this chaotically themed era, the template for fine dining has shattered into all sorts of different sets and subsets. But if I had to choose the most influential restaurant in what passes today for haute cuisine, it would be Tom Colicchio’s Craft. The restaurant’s high-minded, almost priestly emphasis on gourmet artisanal producers and ingredients has been reproduced everywhere from steak palaces (BLT Steak) to pork bars (Momofuku Ssäm Bar). And many of the chefs who worked there and at Craft’s sister restaurant, Craft Bar, have gone on to open their own establishments and to spread Colicchio’s gospel of discerning, haute-barnyard dining throughout the land.

Marco Canora, who ran the original kitchen at Craft and subsequently left to open his own restaurant, Hearth, has been one of Colicchio’s most ardent and successful proselytizers. At Hearth, Canora managed to put an Italianate spin on Colicchio’s rigorous Greenmarket doctrine. Now comes Insieme, which opened recently in a boxy little space in the Michelangelo Hotel above Times Square. Insieme is an Italian restaurant, too, but as the slightly tortured name indicates, it’s less casual and bohemian than Hearth, and much more studied. The room is decorated in the self-consciously spare Craft style, with dining tables made from bleached French white oak and curtains of billowing silk shading the windows. These curtains have a pleasant cocooning effect, and as you study the menu, with its references to ramp purée, pheasant eggs, and “pasture-fed baby beef,” you don’t feel like you’re in Times Square anymore. You’re back downtown, at some reconstituted, Mediterranean version of Craft 2.0.

The restaurant’s name (“together” in Italian) refers to the overly complex menu, which is really two documents intertwined in one. A “traditional” Italian menu is printed side by side with a more experimental, “contemporary” list. Once you’ve oriented yourself, it’s a good idea to stick to the traditional side of things, especially in the early going. Among the contemporary items, the epicures at my table preferred the lamb carpaccio (sprinkled with righteously organic fava beans) to the bland calamari ripieni (wan ringlets of squid tossed with ramps and bits of orange) and the washugyu beef in brodo spiked with a little too much anise. But none of these compared with the traditional veal tartare (made with the aforementioned pasture-fed baby beef) or the excellent fritto misto alla Lucchese, containing sweetbreads rolled in flour, veal tongue, and a piece of calf’s liver so tender it caused my colleague the Steak Loon to pause in rapturous silence and lift his eyes up toward the heavens.

Some of the “primi” pasta dishes elicited a similarly exalted response around the table, and some did not. My meager appetizer portion of linguine and clams seemed to have been overwhelmed with too much garlic and chili pepper, but the house lasagne (six layers of spinach pasta interspersed with a Bolognese ragù and a melting béchamel) is about as good a version of gourmet lasagne as you’ll find in the precincts around Times Square, or anywhere else for that matter. The “contemporary” interpretation of duck ragù was similarly rich and intense (it’s specked with nuggets of foie gras and served over a tangle of fettucini flavored with black olives), although a daily special of bow-tie pasta I sampled one evening was infused, less successfully, with chamomile. Canora is an acknowledged gnocchi master, so these experiments tend to work better, particularly the delicious though strangely named “culingionis con fave,” which is a kind of fluffy gnocchi ravioli filled with crushed fava beans, Pecorino cheese, and the slightest hint of fresh mint.

Similar pleasures are available among the entrées at Insieme, although, in this era of high rents and boutique ingredients, none of them comes cheap. The Steak Loon considered his portion of grass-fed bistecca fiorentina to be perfectly cooked (it was), but for $78 (albeit for two) it could have been a third again as large. On the traditional menu, my favorites included the spicy shellfish stew and the lesso misto, an elegant version of bollito misto (boiled meats) with dainty portions of salsa verde and horseradish sauce on the side. Among the contemporary entrées, the “gently cooked” Alaskan salmon was indeed gently cooked, but it was also obscured by a few too many fashionable barnyard ingredients (more fava beans, ramps, spring onions). The sea-bass “saltimbocca” didn’t benefit from its salty blanket of prosciutto, but the lamb was an excellent medley of artisanal cuts (breast, saddle, chop), and so was the organic chicken, which included parts of the breast, the liver, and cracklings of deboned wing, stylishly topped with bits of chopped fennel touched with honey.

In accordance with the polished, thoughtfully subdued ethos popularized by Colicchio (and his mentor Danny Meyer), this grub is perambulated around the room at Insieme by waiters dressed in identical blue oxford shirts and striped silk ties. Unlike at Craft or Hearth, however, there’s no bar to linger at, and the sense of carefully styled bonhomie is sometimes interrupted when the door to the Michelangelo Hotel opens, revealing an alternative universe of garishly colored carpets and milling tourists from Dubuque. This should distract you only briefly from the desserts, which are, for the most part, pretty good. My friends the dessert ladies didn’t approve of the grainy, orange-flavored ricotta torte (I did), although they considered the warm, cream-stuffed bomboloni doughnuts to be among the best things they’d ever tasted. They also singled out the delicate, tubular rhubarb “cannoli” for praise. But the best dessert, in my opinion, is the gianduja bar, a cool block of hazelnut-infused chocolate that melts nicely on the tongue like some ethereal, New Age form of astronaut food.

View Menu
Address: 777 Seventh Ave., nr. 51st St.; 212-582-1310
Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday to 11:30.
Prices: Appetizers, $12 to $18; entrées, $16 to $78.
Ideal Meal: Fritto misto alla Lucchese, lasagne, lesso misto, chicken or lamb, gianduja bar.
Note: In this era of extravagantly priced Italian wines, the list here is various, deep, and affordable.
Scratchpad: Is it possible for stylish restaurants to be overstylized? Yes. One star for the “traditional” side of the menu, and another for the lasagne itself.

Italian, Old and New