Entries in L'Impero (4)


Exit L'Impero, Enter Convivio

limpero_inside.jpgToday, Grub Street reports that L’Impero, the Tudor City Italian mainstay, will close on June 29, re-opening in mid-July as Convivio.

The “lugubrious” interior, which Frank Bruni likened to the inside of a coffin, will get a long-overdue makeover. The menu will offer a $59 four-course prix fixe — that’s $5 less than when we visited last year — with “small plates” served à la carte.

We’ve often noted that small-plate menus are seldom any cheaper, once you order enough food for a full meal. And because they are more confusing, such menus are prone to upselling and over-ordering. It will be interesting to see if L’Impero, er, Convivo, can avoid falling into that trap.

We agree with Cutlets that the makover offers a clean break from the Scott Conant era (he’s now at Scarpetta), and it will likely lure Frank Bruni for a re-review. Those are compelling reasons in themselves.



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Note: L’Impero closed on June 29, 2008, re-opening in mid-July as Convivio.

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.

tudorsign1.jpgTo 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.

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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.

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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)

Food: **½
Service: **½
Ambiance: **
Overall: **½


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.