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Impero Caffe – First Bite


Bibb Lettuces with Toasted Risotto

It’s crazy how things change in just a few years.  I remember when the area north of Madison Square in New York, now famously referred to as NoMad, was a haven for nothing more than fake handbags.  Now, it’s not only a hotel destination, with bragging rights to the Ace Hotel — which planted one of the first, hip flags in this stretch of town — the NoMad Hotel, as well as the Eventi, but also a restaurant destination.  April Bloomfield & Ken Friedman were pioneers of sorts when they opened The Breslin (inside the Ace), then John Dory Oyster Bar moved onto the scene (also theirs), followed by George Mendes’ Lupulo and Laurent Tourondel’s L’Amico (both tucked inside the Eventi).

But the newest entry to the NoMad’s food scene was a surprise to me.  I was waiting around for Scott Conant to open his long-awaited, eponymous new eatery, Conant.  Instead, he turned up at the new, INNSIDE New York Hotel, on a lonely stretch of 27th street, between 6th and 7th Avenues; an area that’s still a little rough around the edges.  The hotel itself is a tourist’s hotel, not the kind that would lure New Yorkers to linger.  The decor is clean and slightly quirky; there are bright yellow, tufted couches in the lounge and fluorescent pink lighting beneath the bar.  Guests descend a long glass staircase to get to the subterranean dining room where they can linger in a lofty space with sky high ceilings and wood tables, trimmed with beige banquettes and loud yellow pillows.


Fritto Misto

Neither the scene nor the decor is why you come to this hotel if you’re a local.  You come because, after over two years of a hiatus, Scott Conant is back in the kitchen and you can taste it on the plate.  The food at this trattoria is so good you’ll happily forgive the no man’s land location and quirky setting. I’d happily return just for Conant’s Bibb Lettuce Salad.  Yes, a salad!  But the leaves of Bibb lettuce taste so crisp and fresh from the garden, tossed with radish shavings and soft, white turnips, splashed with a tangy shallot vinaigrette.  The crowning touch that sets this salad apart is a crunchy hailstorm of toasted risotto that makes you wonder why more Italian chefs don’t employ this trick.


Campanelle with Clams & Mussels

The salad is a smart starting point at Impero Caffe, but do segue into the Fritto Misto, which is on par with some of the best of them, including some standout renditions I’ve had the pleasure of eating in Italy.  Conant’s version is an herbaceous and downright addictive melange of crispy calamari, rock shrimp and vegetables, dosed with rosemary, lemon, sage, green onions, and oodles of pepper.

But it’s Conant’s handmade pastas that remind you why he became famous in the first place.  While Conant is indeed a celebrity chef, a regular judge on Food Network’s Chopped, it’s important to note that he’s also a tried-and-true restaurateur, who first made his name at esteemed restaurants, like L’Impero, Alto & Scarpetta.  But Conant fell off the restaurant grid for awhile and so did his deceptively humble spaghetti with tomato & basil (oh, how I missed that bowl of pasta!).

Thankfully, he still has a magical way with pastas.  In fact, I can’t stop thinking about his Campanelle, squid ink-stained cones with a ruffled edge that tickle your tongue, consorting with a briny bounty of baby clams, squid and mussels, alongside sweet cherry tomatoes.  It’s one of those bowls that manages to be light, yet rich all at once; leaving you satisfied, but not stuffed.

Cavatelli with Chicken Livers

Cavatelli with Chicken Livers

If you want something a little more intense, go for the emblematic Cavatelli, tossed with a decadent duck and a black truffle sauce, and showered with peas for green, springy effect.  The flavors are unapologetically bold, like Gemelli — bouncy tubes twisted around each other — unctuously anointed with Chicken Livers, Capers, and an unexpected kick of Neonata; an Italian, hot pepper-based fish sauce spicy enough to keep you on your toes.


Scallops with Sunchokes & Maitake

Conant’s Scallops are unusually earthy, plated with chanterelles over a puree of sunchokes.  Of course, he doesn’t leave it at that, adding a salsa verde to tug things toward the vegetal side.  Lest I forget to mention a terrific side of Broccoli Rabe, piled with salty bits of guanciale & pepperoncino.   And the dessert at Impero Caffe is nearly as good as the rest of the menu, particularly a citrusy Meyer Lemon Catalan (creme brulee), accompanied by a crunchy Pistachio Meringue, Meyer Lemon Sorbet, and Rhubarb Jam, and a velvety Toffee and Caramel Budino with Cocoa Chips.

catalanI forgot how much I missed Conant’s wholly modern, but rustic Italian cooking. And I’d happily return to the quirky INNSIDE Hotel to get my fritto misto or pasta fix anyday.  The pastas were so good I asked for a doggie bag, so I could savor what I couldn’t fit in my stomach the next morning, only they didn’t have any.  So instead, I took my leftovers home in a hotel laundry bag.

Impero Caffe
132 W 27th St
New York, NY 10001
(917) 409-5171
Open Table 

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