45 Tudor City Pl.
You may have visited New York dozens of times without ever discovering Tudor City. This “city within a city” was built between 1925 and 1928 by developers trying to bring a bit of upscale respectability to an area that, at the time, was known mainly for its slaughterhouses and roving gangs. Although today it’s just steps from the highly touristed United Nations Plaza, this fabulous neo-gothic conglomeration of 12 buildings — housing 3,000 co-op apartments, 600 hotel rooms, shops, and its own post office — looks inward onto its own private parks, turning its back on all but the adventuresome.
Architecture buffs are interested in this curiosity for its daring mix of medieval gargoyles and Jazz Age grandeur, but these days there’s another reason to go to Tudor City. It’s the location of one of New York’s hottest new restaurants: L’Impero. The chef and co-owner, Scott Conant, is putting out some of the city’s most “correct” Italian food, a refreshing step backward from the tendentious nuòva cucina that was all the rage a few years ago. “I do an enormous amount of sourcing,” Conant says. “I get ingredients from Italy, from San Francisco, and from here in New York — wherever I can get authentic products that are the best available. You don’t just use the first thing that comes to hand.”
Conant grew up in Litchfield County, Connecticut, where his Neapolitan grandfather got him hooked on food at an early age. His parents also owned a potato farm in Maine, where Conant learned to appreciate the simplicity of New England cuisine. By 11, Conant was already taking cooking classes at a local community center. Sure of his future calling, he entered trade school for the culinary arts at the age of 15 and then went on, as so many other professional American cooks have done, to the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park. On his externship from the CIA, Conant wound up at Manhattan’s San Domenico restaurant, where his polished Italian cuisine made a lasting impression. After a stint learning pastry in Munich, Conant returned to San Domenico, and was later tapped for top toque positions at Il Toscanaccio, Barolo, and Chianti. All this by the age of 26, mind you.
When Judson Grill creators Chris Cannon and Jane Epstein decided to partner with Conant to open L’Impero, the intrepid chef embarked on a three-month Italian eating, cooking, and learning binge. For the observant chef, Italy is always full of culinary surprises, Conant reports. “I was blown away by the food in the little-known Marche region, for example.”
While Conant was gathering recipes and soaking up his heritage in Campania, New York-based designer extraordinaire Vicente Wolf, who is also a partner in the venture, was busy putting his signature understated touch on the restaurant, turning the vintage space into one of the most beautiful dining rooms in Manhattan. With all the pieces in place, L’Impero opened in September 2002, and by May of this year it had garnered a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in America. Vicente Wolf also picked up one for his design.
Conant’s cooking is earthy and absolutely grounded, which is not to say that it doesn’t frequently soar. Dishes such as the roasted branzino (sea bass with Sardinian fregola (the Italian version of couscous), or the fennel-roasted lamb loin with trucioletto vinegar reduction are masterful interpretations of Italian classics.
“I try to capture in my food everyone’s romantic idea of what Italian food is,” Conant says. “It should be sophisticated, but approachable.” CHEF'S PICK
Felice Coppo Bastian Cuntrari Barbera de Monferrato 1999 ($30)
Chef Scott Conant suggests this sleek, racy Barbera from Piedmont to accompany his capretto dish.
the only thing more varied than italian regional cuisine is italian regional wine. here are some selections from a range of different italian appellations. poliziano rosso di montepulciano 2001 ($16)
stylish and polished with explosive blackberry flavors and nice balance.mastroberardino lacryma christi del vesuvio bianco 2001 ($18)
from the acknowledged master winemakers of campania, a smooth, complex white grown in the volcanic soil of mt. vesuvius.falesco marciliano umbria 1999 ($19)
a lush blend of umbrian cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, with herbal and vanilla tones.ceretto blangé piedmont 2002 ($20)
a refreshing and slightly spritzy white made from the indigenous arneis grape; bright, lively fruit and a lifted finish.cabreo chardonnay la pietra toscana 2001 ($25)
tuscany wine that’s creamy, vibrant, and alive with a dose of sweet oak.travaglini gattinara 1998 ($27)
a crisp, racy expression of the nebbiolo grape, with bright berry fruit and a long, snappy finish.jacopo biondi-santi sassoalloro toscana 2000 ($30)
this 100-percent sangiovese delivers lengthy flavors of leather and dried fruit; the name means “rock of gold.”bottega vinaia vino santo arèle trentino 1994 ($42)
a creamy amber-hued dessert wine made from dried grapes; gorgeous notes of burnt orange, apricot, nuts, and spice.zenato amarone classico della valpolicella riserva sergio zenato 1997 ($48)
intense, chewy, and sweet with balanced fruit and lavish full-bodied flavors.