The Leopard leaps into the former Café des Artistes

Husband-and-wife duo Gianfranco Sorrentino and Paula Bolla-Sorrentino say that giving new life to the former Café des Artistes — now The Leopard at des Artistes — has truly become one of the most rewarding journeys of their careers.

And it shows — in the refreshed Howard Chandler Christy murals discussed in a related story and in the menu — which can only be described as classic Italian. Chef Vito Gnazzo, a partner in the restaurant and the man behind the eatery’s assortment of authentic dishes, says he draws inspiration for the eclectic menu from the culinary traditions of Southern Italy, with pasta, vegetables and cheese marrying seafood ingredients from the Amalfi Coast.

This is perhaps no more apparent than in the first starter we try on a recent visit, which features grilled octopus on a bed of escarole salad. The charred octopus is topped with celery, olives, delicious pickled onions and an olive oil-and-lemon dressing.

Doughy buffalo ricotta gnocchi, known as “gnudi,” are served in a butter and Parmigiano Reggiano sauce with a sage and mushroom ragout. We’re also treated to a small plate of fried and creamy rice balls, toast topped with creamy ricotta and a bowl filled with an assortment of breads and crunchy breadsticks.

A plate of busiate trapanesi with shellfish ragout features mussels, clams, scallops and calamari tossed in a red sauce that delivers just the right amount of spice. In a second pasta dish, paccheri noodles are cooked al dente and covered in a Genovese sauce. The juicy shredded pork that tops the dish is enough to make up for noodles that are a bit chewy for my liking.

At The Leopard at des Artistes, the owners pride themselves on outstanding hospitality, and our visit is no exception. Our host makes frequent stops to our table to check on us and answer any questions we have. We are even treated to conversations with Chef Gnazzo, who speaks about the inspiration behind each dish and his homeland of Campania.

In one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, a perfectly cooked pan-seared duck breast is drizzled with an aged balsamic vinegar and sits beside pickled raisins and a tasty vegetable caponata.

Choosing a single dessert from the restaurant’s menu proves one of the few challenges of our evening. It’s hard to pass up what our host tells us are the restaurant’s most popular evening-enders, like a traditional torta di mascarpone served tiramisu style or a Nutella chocolate mousse served with a banana gelato. We instead opt for a fluffy bignè filled with a hazelnut cream and topped with a wild berry sauce, which we enjoy alongside a hot cup of espresso. The sweet cream within the bignè pairs wonderfully with the tart topping and becomes a true standout of the evening’s dishes.

During our dinner, a throng of patrons enters the restaurant, from an older couple relishing their romantic dinner to a pair of 20-somethings sipping after-work cocktails and commenting on the stunning artistry that adorns the walls. It seems we are not alone in our appreciation for The Leopard’s ability to provide new takes on old Italian favorites, while continuing to honor the historic roots of its predecessor.

The Leopard at des Artistes is at 1 W. 67th St. between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. For reservations and more, call 212-787-8767 or visit theleopardnyc.com.

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