At The Leopard at des Artistes on Manhattan’s West Side, the radicchio and roasted butternut squash salad, dressed with Balsamic vinaigrette, goes down easily.
The rigatoni is cooked to al dente perfection and caressed by an eggplant tomato sauce topped with shavings of ricotta. And the Nutella chocolate mousse with hazelnut crunch is (fingers together at the lips, which make a kissing sound).
The Southern Italian fare is rivaled by a courteous wait staff — all of whom seem to have some variation of the name George — that bustles about but is never obtrusive.
But there is a third element to this success story that sees foodie and Westchester native Stanley Tucci, Steven Spielberg, Howard Stern, Kyra Sedgwick, Steve Martin, conductors James Levine and Valery Gergiev, conceptual artist John Baldessari and writer and onetime Picasso love Françoise Gilot among the restaurant’s fans. It’s a series of murals of female nudes frolicking amid a springtime palette that Gianfranco Sorrentino and Paula Bolla-Sorrentino — the husband and wife who own The Leopard with charming chef Vito Gnazzo — call ‘’the stars” of the show.
The murals have special meaning for us at WAG, as they no doubt do for many patrons. We remember in particular delighting in their sensuous innocence — along with a meal featuring prawns and a custard dessert — before a performance at the New York City Ballet when the restaurant was Café des Artistes. (Then and now, it lies not far from Lincoln Center at 1 W. 67th St. at Central Park West.)
Café des Artistes once served as the “kitchen” for the Hotel des Artistes, which wasn’t a hotel at all but the largest “studio” building in New York City, one of several co-op buildings for artists designed by George Mort on this block between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue in 1918. Walter Russell developed the “hotel” several years after American Impressionist Childe Hassam and other artists built a studio building at 27 W. 67th St.
The 18-story, neo-Gothic Hotel des Artistes features a façade decorated with figures of artists and 115 apartments, most of which are duplexes with double-height living rooms and balcony bedrooms. Many of them have English Renaissance paneling, beamed ceilings and fireplaces. Tenants enjoyed squash courts, a swimming pool, a theater, a ballroom and their own switchboard.
Today, no one has need for a switchboard; the theater and ballroom have been converted to other uses; and most of the apartments have their own kitchen. But back in the day, the likes of New Rochelle’s Norman Rockwell, dancer Isadora Duncan, critic Alexander Woollcott and playwrights Noel Coward and Fannie Hurst made do with a café whose other patrons included artist Marcel Duchamp and silent screen divo Rudolph Valentino.
Among the hotel’s residents was an artist and illustrator who was as well-known in his day as Rockwell — Howard Chandler Christy. The artist, who lived in the hotel until his death in 1952 at age 80, had illustrated the Spanish-American War, in which he served; created “the Christy Girl,” the Jazz Age answer to the Gibson Girl; depicted everyone from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini; and painted “Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” (1940), which hangs in the House of Representatives wing of the U.S. Capitol.
Between the late 1920s and mid-‘30s, he created “Fantasy Scenes With Naked Beauties” — a series of oil on canvas murals, mounted on wood or directly on to the wall — for Café des Artistes. (Christy’s lover Elise Ford was the model. The one male figure is said to have been modeled on Olympic gold-medal swimmer and “Tarzan” screen star Johnny Weissmuller.)
Over the years, these lithe, naughty but nice nymphs — similar in playfulness to the Vargas girls — watched as patrons came and went. In 1975, George Lang, who escaped from Hungary during World War II, took over the restaurant, transforming it into a go-to place for the glitterati that Karen Gantz Zahler described in “Taste of New York” (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1993) as “a salon du thé reminiscent of a turn of the (20th) century Budapest café.”
The Great Recession forced Lang to close it in August of 2009. But the space wasn’t dark for long. Enter the Sorrentinos — he a Neapolitan with 40 years in the hospitality business, she a Brazilian of Italian descent with a background in fashion and graphic design and a penchant for hospitality. Together they also own Mozzarella & Vino and Il Gattopardo, which is across from The Museum of Modern Art.
The MoMA connection would prove fruitful as the museum worked with the Sorrentinos to clean and conserve the murals when they revamped the restaurant at the Hotel des Artistes in 2011 as The Leopard. (Il Gattopardo, which is also the restaurant group’s name and means “The Leopard,” takes that name from the seminal 1963 Luchino Visconti film. The Leopard restaurant features a sculpture of the animal running.)
The proof of the murals’ restoration is in the pudding, as they say. The colors have a new vibrance.
Just one quibble: The name The Leopard at des Artistes translates as The Leopard at of the Artists — too many prepositions.
But it is a marvelous experience, whatever preposition you use.
For reservations and more, call 212-787-8767 or visit theleopardnyc.com.