L’Impero is the Italian restaurant that put chef Scott Conant on the map, when in 2002 Eric Asimov awarded three stars—a remarkable accomplishment for a non-Italian chef. Three years later, Conant and his partners created Alto, which was supposed to be the next step up. Asimov liked it, but Frank Bruni, the man in charge of the stars these days, did not. He gave Alto a disappointing two stars in 2005, finding it “haute and bothered.”
Conant and the two restaurants parted company in 2007, with Michael White (formerly of Fiamma) taking over. This gave Bruni the chance to correct his mistake, and Alto was finally given the three stars it deserved in the first place. But the laws of Newtonian Mechanics as applied to restaurants dictate that every star given must be taken away, so L’Impero was simultaneously demoted to two stars.
To be sure, L’Impero needs to work harder for our affections. It’s located in a small elevated enclave called Tudor City on the far east side, a block west of the United Nations. It’s not convenient to mass transit, and if you’re walking (as I was) you could very well miss it. When Tudor City was built in the 1920s, there were slaughterhouses on the land the U.N. now occupies, which is why the three-square-block area is so isolated. Today, it seems like a city within a city.
The décor gives the impression that it’s about twenty years too old. Bruni found it “lugubrious,” while my sense was that I’d missed a party that was hip and cool a long, long time ago. The pleated curtains along the wall could use a spring cleaning; the light blue chairs are comfortable, but decidedly un-stylish.
The staff at L’Impero provide generally fine service, but they could use some polish. When a runner dropped off the amuse-bouche, his description was almost incomprehensible (except that it was a sweetbread something-or-other). We were twice asked for our wine order, even though we didn’t yet have menus in our hands, and didn’t know what we’d be eating. After I chose a wine, the server instantly replied, “Oh, we’re out of that.” However, the wine steward suggested a substitute at around the same price, and then decanted it.
The dinner menu is available à la carte, or $64 for four courses. Judging by the portion sizes we saw, you’d better have a big appetite if you order the prix fixe. If ordered separately, all menu categories are quite reasonable for the quality and quantity given: antipasti are $14–17, pastas $23–27, entrées $29-42 (most in the low $30s). In contrast, the four-course prix fixe at Alto is $79, and the top prices there are all proportionately higher.
Amuse-bouche (left); Polenta with house-made pork sausage (right)
We started with a grilled sweatbread, which was more substantial than one normally gets in an amuse-bouche. Creamy soft polenta ($15) topped with a house-made pork sausage ragu and pecorino cheese was rather unmemorable. But substitute orecchiette for polenta, and you’ve got the pasta dish my girlfriend ordered ($24), which was the hit of the evening.
Loin and sausage of lamb (left); Dry aged beef (right)
Both of the entrées we chose were unadventurous, but impeccably prepared. I had the loin and sausage of lamb ($34). My girlfriend had the dry-aged beef ($42), which was that rare example of beef outside a steakhouse that is actually worth ordering.
Despite the slightly inconvenient location, L’Impero appeared to be doing well. The restaurant was full on a Friday night, with a good mix of young people and Upper East Side elders. Just about everything we had was prepared to a high level, but the pasta stole the show.
L’Impero (45 Tudor City Place at 42nd Street, Tudor City)