by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
September 20, 2007
777 7th Ave
(50th & 51st Sts)
New York, NY 10019
Located in The Michelangelo Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, Insieme stands out as chic and modern in contrast to the rather drab, old school hotel in which it’s housed. The restaurant is relatively small, seating just seventy-five in the main dining room and thirty in the private room downstairs. Though the sliver of a bar at the front of the restaurant is currently not in service, seats will be added and service will start soon. One can survey the entire dining room at a glance. I find the size of the restaurant rather endearing, and the interior modern but comfortable; it’s a bit understated with just the right amount of dim lighting to make you feel at ease.
Chef and co-owner Marco Canora pays tribute to his Italian heritage with a daily menu that is split down the middle with traditional items on the left hand side and contemporary dishes on the right. There’s also a special tasting menu for $85. While I tend to think of myself as a traditional type of girl, my friends and I ordered a good mix of dishes from both sides of the menu. And what we found was that Marco’s ability to fuse traditional with original is remarkable. Though I still have a bias towards the traditional menu, it was hard for my companions and me to say which type of dish was better as it really just came down to each person’s subjective tastes. Items from both sides of the menu warmed our tummies and hearts.
The sardine alle erbe, broiled sardines with breadcrumbs, herbs, garlic and lemon, was such a delight that even Monica, who usually shies away from sardines, found it to be one of her favorite dishes. Any dish that can convert a non-believer is always an indication of true talent. As part of the fish crudo appetizer, the iced cup with diced shima aji and watermelon was nice and refreshing, but the most pleasant surprise came as I dug for more and found a Barron Point oyster at the bottom of the cup — an elegant and winning ending to this subtle, light starter.
Pasta may just be my Achilles heel. We tried the lasagna verde alla Bolognese, spinach pasta with béchamel and meat ragu; linguine con vongole, linguine with clams; potato gnocchi with rock shrimp, braised lobster mushrooms and tarragon; and cocoa pappardelle with wild boar ragu, parmagiano regiano and thyme. There have been several reviews on Insieme, debating the excellence of the lasagna, but having tried a variety of Insieme’s pastas, I’d say that we should retire this argument. Marco’s entire body of work distinguishes him as a master chef, so if I must contribute anything at all to the discussion of his lasagna, I’ll say, let’s not insult him by dwelling on lasagna. The linguine con vongole alone is one of the best I’ve tasted (if I could, I would specialize in pasta with vongole). The key to vongole is how fresh and clean the clams are. The manila and little neck clams are cleaned and snipped so that only the body is left. It’s sweet and juicy without a trace of sand. The potato gnocchi was also tasty but the cocoa pappardelle took second place with rich and distinctive flavors that paired together cohesively.
While I hardly ever make it to the secondi in Italian cuisine as I get stuck on the primi pastas, the main meat dishes at Insieme are not to be missed! The lesso misto, boiled meats with salsa verde, horseradish cream and mustard fruits, is dreamy! There are four different varieties of meat: cotechino (pork sausage), beef cheek, veal tongue and chicken breast. The broth is made from two whole turkeys, fifteen stewing hens and forty pounds of beef shin. The cotechino is poached in the broth then removed. The remaining broth is used to cook the remaining three meats. Chicken tends to be my least favorite meat since it can often be flavorless or overcooked, but the chicken breast in the lesso misto has got to be the best chicken I’ve had in years. It was so soft and tender it nearly melted in my mouth. The arista di maiale arrosto con fagioli, roasted pork loin with beans, sage and garlic, was also juicy and tender, and all the ingredients harmonized with one another adding to a wonderful dinner experience. I’m not sure what Marco is doing to his meats, but it seems that in his hands, they just bow under his direction.
Insieme is not entirely without flaws though. This was my second visit and I did find some inconsistencies in the quality of the food from one visit to the next. However, any dining experience relies heavily on knowing what to order, and I think my choices, with the help of the chef, improved drastically on the second visit. Nonetheless, I did try the lasagna both times, and, again, all I’ll add is that there’s so much more to the menu. The restaurant only opened in April, so inconsistencies are to be expected and need some time to be ironed out. Especially based on this latest visit, I have no doubt that I will be returning to try more meats and fulfill my linguine con vongole craving.