“It’s lean and mean, and it’s got a lot of muscle,” said Paul Grieco, describing the bottle of white wine he’d set down on the table. “Let it warm up.”
It was a Savagnin Arbois from the Jura in France. “Don’t think of it as Gewürtztraminer; it’s more a reflection of the place than the varietal.”
I looked up Gewürtztraminer on the wine list that Mr. Grieco had compiled for the restaurant. “Drinking this wine is either a thrilling ride or a wrong turn down Queens Boulevard,” he’d written. But the Savagnin Arbois was “to traditional Gewürtz as Christina Aguilera is to Britney Spears …. ”
He’d picked the wine to go with two widely differing dishes, an old-style lesso misto of boiled meats with salsa verde, and a new creation: sable fish topped with glazed sea urchins.
Mr. Grieco is co-owner of this new Italian restaurant in midtown’s Michelangelo Hotel, in the premises that were formerly Limoncello. His partner is Marco Canora, who was chef de cuisine at Craft. Both men have worked at Gramercy Tavern, and three years ago they teamed up to open Hearth, a very successful trattoria in the East Village.
Insieme is not a word people will find easy to pronounce (it’s “in-see-em-ay”). “In what?” asked a friend upon hearing the name. It’s Italian for “together,” which describes the conceit behind the restaurant, a juxtaposition of Old World with New.
The menu is divided into classic dishes on one side and Mr. Canora’s modern interpretation of Italian cuisine on the other. The wine list is also separated into old and new, as are the cheeses, desserts and even the tea and cocktails. (Being Canadian, Mr. Grieco has named a drink for the former prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau: It’s made with Canadian whiskey, Punt e Mes and bitters.)
In contrast to Hearth’s casual setting of brick walls and plain wood tables, the partners’ midtown venture is fittingly sleeker and more corporate. The pleasant, long, white and gray dining room has a small bar in the front and windows that give onto the street. Silvery curtains made of silk thread separate the booths and cover the walls. There are no cloths on the tables, which are made of highly polished, bleached white oak and set with red votive candles. The amiable staff wears blue shirts with striped ties neatly tucked inside above the third button. Although there’s a buzz when the room is full, and tables are placed close together, it’s not so loud that you can’t hold a conversation.
Upon seating, a trio of small tastes arrives: radishes stuffed with anchovy bagna cauda, crostini topped with goat-cheese ricotta, and purple potatoes topped with bacalao and a pepper. A small cup of stracciatella follows—a rich egg-drop soup in a beef-and-chicken broth.
For starters, there’s a terrific fish crudo: salmon belly topped with capers, yellow tail, barron point oyster (from the Pacific Northwest) and thickly cut yellow fin tuna garnished with a sliver of fried sage and wrapped with a piece of pork belly. From the classic side of the menu, there is red mullet, three tender fillets marinated with bottarga (the pressed, salted roe) and accompanied with pickled vegetables, slivered carrot and fennel.
The classic pastas include a delicate green lasagna with Bolognese sauce and—even better—a garlicky linguine alle vongole with hot pepper and parsley. Culingionis, soft squares of potato ravioli, come with a mix of fennel shavings, pecorino, mint and fava beans: a Roman spring on a plate. The smoky seafood risotto, laced with bacon and sea urchin, was outstanding. Two chefs were dining at the table next to me, and one of them was almost delirious over this dish: “The biggest uni I’ve ever seen!”
When our main courses arrived, Mr. Grieco stopped by to see how we were enjoying the wine. I’m sad to report that we let him down. It had a bit too much muscle for us. The wine was like a dry sherry; a small glassful was enough. Our half-filled glasses sat there reproachfully.
He swept them away at once. “I told you I’d take the wine back if you didn’t like it.”
Instead, he brought us a Grüner Veltliner. There are a dozen to choose from on Mr. Grieco’s wine list, which, needless to say, is first-rate. (His notes, moreover, are often hilarious as well as instructive, a refreshing change from wine-speak. Introducing Châteauneuf-du-Pape, he asks, “Was there a cooler time in the history of the Papacy than the Babylonian captivity?”)
The Grüner Veltliner was a fine complement to the sablefish, which came with a swath of green sauce made from pickled broccoli rape and topped with fat glazed morsels of uni from Santa Barbara. The lesso misto, a Milanese recipe, was also superb, with silken pieces of boiled meats, including beef, chicken and tongue, served with mostarda, horseradish and salsa verde.
Mr. Canora’s lamb, done every which way, is splendid, with forkfuls of chop, saddle, breast and sausage served in a shallow white bowl with peas, morels, spring garlic, lavender and spicy mustard greens bathed in a rich jus.
Pastry chef Amadou Ly’s desserts include a warm semolina cake with dried figs and a heavenly mousse-like gianduja chocolate bar. Strawberry mousse is layered with robiola goat cheese, a small striped dome on a plate served, interestingly, with a sorrel purée that cuts the sweetness nicely. But the chocolate arborio rice torta with pine nuts and raisins was heavy and dry, the sort of thing you might imagine people eating around the time of the original Babylonians. And speaking of antiquity, there is mead from Sussex ($7 a glass) that is a one-note samba of honey. “It’s fine,” commented my companion who’d ordered it. “About as good as alcohol could get before the year 1000.”
When the waiter brought the bill, I asked him what kind of clientele they were getting in this midtown location.
“We get all types: pre-theatre, business, tourists … ,” he replied. “And foodies, of course. We love foodies.”
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