The Leopard at des Artistes
The most immediately striking aspect of the Leopard at des Artistes are the murals that covers its walls. Though beautiful in and of itself, its history is even more fascinating. The murals hearken back to the early twentieth century, when the now-residential building that houses the Leopard was predominantly an artists’ residence, with an atelier in each apartment. The building, whose tenants included dancer Isadora Duncan and artists as stylistically diverse as Marcel DuChamp and Norman Rockwell, came to be known as the Hotel des Artistes. In 1920, when its cafeteria (none of the artists’ apartments had kitchens) was renovated and made into a restaurant, resident artist Howard Chandler Christy was called on to paint the walls. His decision to paint scenes of nude women reclining caused a considerable stir when the newly christened Cafe des Artistes opened its doors shortly thereafter; waiters were forced to hang tablecloths over the restaurant’s walls in order to placate more conservative customers.
In 1975, Cafe des Artistes reopened under the management of violinist George Lang, and quickly became one of the most popular restaurants in New York. Today, the building houses residential condominiums, but the restaurant is still running, albeit under different management. The original Cafe des Artistes closed in 2009, and Gianfranco and Paula Sorrentino opened The Leopard in that space a little under three years later. The restaurant’s new name references both its history and the Sorrentinos’ other restaurant Il Gattopardo (Italian for ‘leopard’). With the murals restored to their former glory, it continues to attract a diverse clientele with a long list of artists, tourists and celebrities, including – Gianfranco proudly mentioned – Bill Clinton, who held his sixty-fifth birthday party at the restaurant.
Gianfranco was raised in Italy and his wife, Paula, in Brazil, though her parents originated in Veneto, Italy. The Sorrentino couple are well established in the restaurant world having together managed Sette restaurant at the MoMa for a number of years. They then opened the well-esteemed Il Gattopardo in 2001, followed by The Leopard, and, most recently, Mozzarella & Vino. Gianfranco’s strong Italian heritage and experience in this business since childhood are complemented by Paula’s background in design and modeling. In addition to her role as Creative Director, Paula also handles all of the company’s design and IT work.
An addition to the team in 2015, Executive Chef Michele Brogioni always aspired to be a chef growing up in Italy, having learned to cook in his father’s restaurant from age eleven. He went on to work in restaurants throughout Europe, and then ventured to New York in pursuit of the challenge of making it in the big city. “The more I live in New York, the more I fall in love with New York,” he admitted. With his passion comes a refined set of traditional Italian cooking skills, allowing him to reconnect to recipes that date back thousands of years. Chef Michele was pleased to tell me that as he cooks, “smells trigger memories of my grandmother’s kitchen, a tie that learned chefs of other origins cannot replicate.”
Chef Michele and Gianfranco are constantly reworking the menu to reflect only the freshest, most seasonally appropriate cuisine. “If there is more fresh fish in the market, we will serve more fish,” stated Gianfranco. Chef Michele chimed in, “It is all about having a good ingredient.” Both nodding their heads in agreement, Chef Michele went on to say that “less is more, a masterpiece can be made out of pasta and olive oil.” But equally important to them is professionalism; management meetings occur weekly and an open dialogue is ongoing between the kitchen and the rest of the team.
Downstairs in the kitchen, I watched the integration of both ideals – Chef Michele worked with the purest ingredients as his staff mindfully passed around orders interspersed with Italian dialect. The potato pancake with garlic, herbs, and white fennel glistened in a reduced black broth and the arancini balls sat perfectly spherical with their hardened breadcrumb exteriors and concealed gooey risotto. Then, speaking directly to my inner cravings, the Chef matched fresh Buratta with a dollop of fava bean puree, a drizzle of olive oil, and a generous sprinkle of truffle shavings. I was in heaven as I slowly savored each glorious bite.
When it was show time, the waiters headed to their posts, being attentive but non-intrusive to the diners. Glasses of water seemed to replenish themselves, napkins were replaced before anyone realized they had fallen, and the wine continued to flow. Several of us sat down to dinner beginning with a selection of refreshing salads, followed by extraordinary pasta dishes including rigatoni with sauteed eggplant and aged ricotta. Seasonality was highlighted in our plate of grilled vegetables with an herbal-infused olive oil. Our scrumptious meal ended with the “Leopard Temptations” – a Nutella chocolate mousse served on hazelnut crunch and banana gelato, and the Rum Babba with cream and fresh berries.
Having dined at Cafe Des Artistes over the years with family and friends, and saddened when it closed, I was thrilled when it was reopened by Gianfranco and Paula in 2011. I was one of their first guests, and have been back several times, but it was a very special treat being able to visit with the Manhattan Sideways team in 2015. Experiencing the kitchen with Chef Michele and his staff proved how efficiently run this operation is, and sitting down with the family, including the couple’s charming little girl, Sophia, was the icing on the cake. With each visit, it is an absolute pleasure to rekindle old memories of days and people gone by.