Entries in Alto (3)


The Payoff: Alto and L'Impero

Today, as expected, Frank Bruni does the do-se-do with Alto and L’Impero, taking a star from the latter and giving it to the former:

L’Impero and Alto remain vital restaurants, worthy of the attention of anyone who cares about serious Italian cooking. Alto, in fact, is better than ever…

L’Impero is now the restaurant with the more lugubrious air, all of that pleated drapery along the walls evoking the upholstered interior of a very large coffin.

I can neither agree nor disagree with Bruni here, as my visit to Alto dates from the Conant era, and I have never yet visited L’Impero. These are Italian restaurants, and from Bruni one naturally expected the stars to be twinkling this week. Coincidentally, I made reservations at L’Impero for a week from Friday—before knowing that Bruni would be reviewing it. Could there be a paranormal psychic channel between us? The mind shudders.

On our hypothetical $1 bets, Eater and I win $2 at L’Impero and $3 at Alto, for a whopping $5 payoff this week.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $55.50   $58.67
Gain/Loss +5.00   +5.00
Total $60.50   $63.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 24–6   23–7

Rolling the Dice: L'Impero and Alto

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni gives us an haute Italian two-fer: L’Impero and Alto. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 8-1
One Star: 5-1
Two Stars: 2-1
Three Stars: 4-1
Four Stars: 10,000-1

Zero Stars: 9-1
One Star: 5-1
Two Stars: 4-1
Three Stars: 3-1
Four Stars: 8,000-1

The Skinny: L’Impero was the restaurant that put Scott Conant on the map when Eric Asimov awarded three stars in December 2002—a rare accomplishment for a non-Italian chef, to say the least. In 2005, Conant opened Alto, this time focusing on northern Italian cuisine. Frank Bruni gave it a brutal two-star review. It was a devastating takedown for a restaurant that was supposed to be more upscale than L’Impero. Not long thereafter, Eater put Alto deathwatch, but defying the odds, it has remained open—thriving, even. Earlier this year, Conant left both restaurants, with Michael White, formerly of the three-star Fiamma, replacing him.

This week’s duo is tough to assess, but I am leaning towards the same conclusions as Eater. L’Impero flies well below the radar these days, which suggests it is no longer among this town’s elite. Bruni loves Italian, but he has given three stars to a lot of places. At some point, he’s got to make distinctions, and L’Impero may be the one that doesn’t make the cut.

Normally, a re-review brings a change of rating. It’s hard to imagine him liking Alto any less than last time, which suggests it has nowhere to go but up. Of course, White’s arrival may be reason enough for the re-review, with or without a change of rating. But I thought that Bruni woefully mis-rated Alto last time, so this gives him the chance to right a wrong.

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will award two stars to L’Impero and three stars to Alto.



Note: Alto closed in March 2011, along with its sister restaurant Convivio on the same day, due to unspecified “business circumstances.”


Alto is the newer of a duo of Italian restaurants by chef-wunderkind Scott Conant. Eric Asimov awarded three stars to L’Impero in December 2002, while Frank Bruni gave Alto a two-star kiss-off in July 2005. For a restaurant helmed by so well regarded a chef, it was a significant slapdown. Bruni seemed almost vengeful in that review, calling Alto “haute and bothered,” but it never really made sense. A celebration for my friend’s birthday provided the excuse to see for ourselves whether Bruni was right.

Alto is named for the Alto Adige a region of northern Italy. It’s a companion to L’Impero, which features the food of southern Italy. But Conant plays with flavors and ingredients, and aside from an emphasis on pasta dishes, one is not really conscious of a focus on Italy. We ordered the seven-course tasting menu ($115) with wine pairings ($75). The server said that the kitchen would substitute freely, but we took the menu as printed. After a delicious amuse-bouche of smoked trout, we had:

Branzino Tartare (avocado, gremolata and preserved lemon vinaigrette)
Poached Black Sea Bass (caponata panzanella and lemon thyme broth)
Veal and Fontina Angolotti (organic baby carrots, baby mushrooms, and parmigiano emulsion)
Risotto with Frogs Legs (summer squash and black truffles)
Roast Suckling Pig (smoked corn, chanterelles and black pepper agrodolce)
Braised Beef Short Ribs (vegetable and farro risotto)
Warm Chocolate Ganache (milk chocolate gelato, roasted peanot froth)

We found the pacing and variety of the dishes, the combination of ingredients, and the quality of the presentation, all impeccable. The first four dishes were unanimous hits. The branzino tartare was meltingly delicious. The crunchy caponata was a perfect contrast to the soft black sea bass. We noted that the risotto ran rings around the one we had at Del Posto (for which Mario Batali charges $50). I found my suckling pig a bit tough, but my friend said that her portion was wonderfully tender. Short ribs, I suppose, were a rote inclusion not quite as exciting as the other items. The staff were alerted in advance that it was my friend’s birthday, and her dessert came with “Happy Birthday” written on the plate in chocolate calligraphy.

Conant has made some changes since Frank Bruni’s two-star review. Some dishes that skewed towards German-Austrian cuisine have been dropped. There is no longer a bottle of olive oil on every table. The menu, formerly prix fixe-only at dinner ($75 for four courses), is now available à la carte. It was a Saturday night, and the restaurant was not full — I suspect they are starting to get desperate. The décor, which Bruni hated, appears to be unchanged. For us, it was elegant, refined, serene—delightful.

We found the service attentive and impressive. Many dishes were delivered with half-moon covers, and the food uncovered with that voila! moment that is so seldom seen these days in restaurants. I was mildly irritated when we ordered champagne, but the sommelier could not explain what it was. (“It just came in and I’m not too familiar with it, but I’ll be happy to help you with any of your other wine selections.”) At $15 per glass, she should know.

There was an addictive selection of homemade breads, but oddly enough they came with no butter, and the bread server’s accent was so thick that we couldn’t quite understand all of the five choices. A couple of the other dishes were dropped off by barely-comprehensible servers. Am I asking too much when I suggest that at a restaurant of Alto’s calibre, a reasonable command of English should be required of those entrusted with describing the food?

These minor complaints aside, Alto did a lovely job on a special occasion. We would gladly go back.

Update: The day before our visit, Eater put Alto on deathwatch, with an over/under of January, noting that “Conant’s investors can’t be very happy with the thin dinner crowds. There’s even a rumor circulating that the venue is up for sale, which, no, does not bode well at all.” I hope it survives, but I must admit the same thought crossed my mind when I saw the number of empty tables on a Saturday night.

Update 2: Since our visit, Scott Conant has departed, and Michael White is now the chef. For an early look, see Randall Lane’s review in Time Out New York.

Alto (520 Madison Avenue, entrance on 53rd Street, East Midtown)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***