August 14, 2007 | Insatiable Critic

L’Impero’s New Flame Has a Southern Accent

Michael White brings three star dazzle to L'Impero's kitchen.  Photo: Steven Richter
Michael White brings three star dazzle to L'Impero's kitchen.                Photo: Steven Richter

        In Manhattan’s spring shuffle of three star toques, Fiamma’s Michael White is now king of departed chef Scott Conant’s three star kitchen at L’Impero. And his new menu reflects the dazzling sunniness of Southern Italy’s markets and White’s own unleashed exuberance. Clearly he’s feeling reborn after a retreat with his family in Italy’s boot…ready to reinvent himself after his seemingly sudden split from BRGuest’s dynamic Steve Hanson. 

        White is unabashedly in love with the intensity of lemons and eggplant and pecorino from Campania, Sicily, Sardinia…infatuated with the sweetness of honey and vin cotto (a flavoring made with reduced wine must (must being what’s left after the grapes are pressed and the juice is collected),.  “I have a partner who lets me make spaghetti on the chitarra, hand-made orecchiette and my own home made maccheroni,” he marvels.  He’s discreet, not naming names but it’s difficult to imagine Mr. Efficiency, the master of systems, the driven and successful Fiamma boss Steve Hanson, benignly indulging a couple of cooks racking up hours over oodles of hand-rolled noodles.

        Tonight that very special maccheroni comes deliciously sauced with Neapolitan pork shoulder ragu on the four course prix fixe which is still a bargain at a post-inflation $64. And the charming sommelier indulges us with a $45 red Einbecker from Alto Adige, lightly chilled at his suggestion like a Beaujolais, perfect for a summer night.

Olive oil braised halibut gets decked out with artichoke caponata.     Photo: Steven Richter

        Burrata sits in a pool of gently spiced and chilled tomato zuppa. Clams with real clam flavor ring a crispy cod fritter in a garlicky brodetto. There’s a delicious flurry of ingredients with grilled octopus: celery hearts, olives and bottarga vinaigrette. Roasted monkfish in a white bean-and-mussel broth has a sharp tang of confit’d lemon, though once the lemon has been eaten, the fish itself is bland and needs to be dragged through its lemon-zinged oil.

        I know some of this doesn’t sound very Italian, certainly not traditional Italian. Though melded from the imported goodies in White’s Italian cupboard, these nuova cucina hijinks  are hardly what you find in the land where three or four ingredients typically make the dish. Indeed White’s spirited celebration can be over-the-top, as with grilled strip steak and corn crema, layered with sweet and sour peppers and rosemary salt. Something sweet, something bitter, something salty, something’s wrong.  It’s also a long way from Conant’s more minimal rusticity that so many serious gourmands adored, me for one. 

        The difference between Conant’s crusty roasted goat (great four out of five times) and White’s effete braised goat disguised with stewed eggplant, tomato, anchovy and gremolata is the perfect example. Still I am sure many New Yorkers -- desperate for constant stimulation -- will be delighted. But it’s not unlike what we adore at A Voce and Insieme.   And it’s early. At some point, he may come to see that less can occasionally be more.

        Meanwhile the dining room needs a drill. Caught up in the launch of the new chef’s initial menu, first here and later this fall at the partners’ even riskier Alto, it feels to me as if managing partner Chris Cannon has let the lesser levels of dining crew adrift. The runners who deliver the food frequently garble their dutifully memorized descriptions of each dish. A few servers need to be taught how to approach a table, how to set down a plate without exhaling a sigh of relief that it got there safely. Someone might coach the new man toting bread how to smile and what to say rather than, “Here is the bread.”

         The young female floor captain in skirt and blouse and cardigan, garb for a study date, should be dressed in something black and sleek or fluttery, so she looks like she’s actually working in Vincent Wolfe’s sexy boudoir/dining room. I’m talking stars here.  I have never wanted to give them but I know what they ought to mean. And there’s still a special thrill in coming east on 42nd Street, escaping into the Time Again world of Tudor City and finding this hidden treasure.

45 Tudor City Pl. near 42nd St. 212 599-5045