When Marco Canora and Paul Grieco opened Hearth in 2003, it was an immediate sensation in foodie community. Canora had been the executive chef at the much-loved Craft, and Hearth was his first solo venture. It won an enthusiastic two stars from Amanda Hesser in the Times, and has been on a roll ever since. I’ve visited Hearth twice, awarding 2½ stars after my most recent visit.
Canora and Grieco are back with an encore: Insieme, which means “together” in Italian. It’s bound to be the most mispronounced restaurant name in Manhattan. (For the record, it’s “in-see-EM-ay.”)
A new restaurant from this team was bound to attract attention. It took Gourmet’s Ruth Reichl only a week to pronounce that Insieme was serving the best lasagne in New York. The bloggers will no doubt come trooping briskly; there’s already a rave on Off the Broiler.
Insieme is located in the Michelangelo Hotel. Frankly, the style of the restaurant clashes with the style of the hotel, but that probably won’t matter: Insieme has its own entrance on Seventh Avenue. It’s actually a bit of a challenge to find the restaurant from inside the hotel. Located at the northern end of the theater district, it should draw on the pre- and post-show crowds. But it’s close enough to the midtown business district to draw on the same clientele that patronizes Le Bernardin, just across the street.
The cuisine has a more upscale feel to it than Hearth. The menu (PDF here) is on two facing pages. On the left are traditional Italian favorites, written in Italian with English translations. On the right are modern versions of the same or similar dishes, with the descriptions only in English. Each side has four antipasti ($12–18), three primi/mid-courses ($14–16) and four secondi/entrées ($29–36). Most of the primi are also available in entrée-sized portions for $26. Side dishes are $9. A five-course tasting menu is $85.
After we arrived, the kitchen sent out a wonderful plate of hors-d’oeuvres. Radishes were hollowed out, and stuffed with olives and anchovies. Crostini were topped with goat cheese. Fresh baked rolls came out, with a helping of soft, creamy butter.
Egg-drop soup (left); Black olive fettuccini (right)
The amuse-bouche was an intense egg-drop soup in a beef and chicken broth. To start, I had the Black Olive Fettuccini ($16), with duck ragu and a hint of foie gras. Although wonderful, I thought the portion size was a mite too small, even allowing that it was an appetizer. My girlfriend had the Lasagne Verdi Bolognese ($16), which is surely the dish Ruth Reichl raved about. Made with spinach noodles, it had an astonishingly light texture.
Lamb chop, saddle, breast, sausage with lavender, spring garlic, morels, and mustard greens
Fagioli all’ Uccelletto
We were both drawn to an entrée titled simply “Lamb” ($36), featuring four renditions of lamb: chop, saddle, breast, and sausage. “Breast” is an unusual description for any part of lamb, but I’m assuming it referred to the tender lamb belly (nine o’clock in the photo). The chop and saddle were both impeccably prepared. I was not wowed by the sausage, which seemed to have been stuffed inside of morel mushrooms, and didn’t have enough spicy kick.
A side dish of Fagioli all’ Uccelletto ($8), or Cannellini beans, tomato, garlic, and sage, was terrific. In less accomplished hands, the tomato base would overwhelm the beans, but Marco Canora’s kitchen had the balance just right.
Baba au Rhum
Whistler “The Black Piper” G.S.M. 2005For dessert, we shared the Baba au Rhum ($10), an unlikely dish in an Italian restaurant, but still well worth a try. I can’t say that it eclipsed the legendary rendition of this dish at Alain Ducasse, but that would be an unfair comparison.
The evening ended with petits-fours, all excellent, particularly the chocolate truffle in the middle of the photo.
The wine list is a work in progress. At the moment, it’s neither as long nor as interesting as the wine list at Hearth, but with Paul Grieco in charge of both, you can be sure that won’t last. Grieco himself came over to our table, and offered to assist. After a discussion, his advice confirmed the choice I was already leaning to anyway: the Whistler 2005 Black Piper ($47), a fruity Grenache–Shiraz–Mourvedre blend. We loved it so much that I brought the label home.
Service throughout the evening was first-rate. When I arrived, the maitre d’ alertly noticed that our original table was too close to a baby in a high chair. Without prompting, he offered to move us.
The dining room was never more than about half full. It cleared out considerably after 7:30, as the pre-theater crowd headed out. It started to fill up again around 9:00 p.m. I suspect that will be the rhythm of this place. I overheard Chef Canora telling a friend that the restaurant will stay open until 11:00 p.m. on weekdays, 11:30 p.m. on weekends. It’s an experiment to try to attract a post-theater crowd, and Canora didn’t sound positive that it would work. (Hearth closes at 10:00 p.m. on weekdays, 11:00 p.m. on weekends.)
It’s clear that Canora is trying to pitch Insieme at a higher level than Hearth. It’s about $10 per person more expensive, and the décor feels more elegant. Yet, Canora was obviously wary of getting too fancy, given that the city’s major critics tend to hold that against a restaurant. There are no tablecloths, and the tables are crammed rather close together.
It’s a familiar vibe that feels very much like two other recent successes, Perry St. and A Voce. But Insieme seems more sincere, and also more fun, than either of those two restaurants. At Perry St., Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the nominal man-in-charge, is too busy running 10 or 15 other restaurants to give the place more than passing attention. And at A Voce we found the service and ambiance seriously annoying.
And the best part of it is that Insieme is only two weeks old. It can only get better from here.
Insieme (777 Seventh Avenue at 51st Street, West Midtown/Theater District)