Antipasto: Octopus Carpaccio
It’s astonishing how powerful three words, strung together, can be.
Beef heart risotto.
Sure, I had heard wonderful things about Insieme from valued sources. That it’s one of Marco Canora’s and Paul Grieco’s restaurants was also encouraging. (Together, they’ve opened Hearth (2003) and, most recently, Terroir (2008), both of which have cult followings. Insieme opened between the two in 2007.)
But, the restaurant’s concept and its menu, especially, gripped me.
“Insieme” means “together” in Italian. The restaurant combines traditional and contemporary Italian cuisine – not on one plate, but under one roof. This philosophy carries over to its wine program as well.
The menu is separated into two halves (ironically). On the left are “Traditional” dishes; on the right, “Contemporary” creations. This allows diners to assemble their meal as they please, mixing Old World with the new, or chose to eat under one banner.
Although I had every intention of going easy (given my packed dining schedule), over-ordering was unavoidable, if not inevitable. Thankfully, I was with two hungry friends, one of whom, the size of a small hand puppet, dubbed herself a “haute cuisine trash can.” Together, they handily finish anything I left behind.
We shared three antipasti. I ordered an additional two vegetable-themed antipasti.
The Octopus Carpaccio (“Contemporary”) was every bit as wonderful as it sounded. The carpet of thinly-shaved octopus was very tender. I was especially impressed by its thinness. Or, rather, it’s thickness. Either way, there was just enough chew to make each bite satisfying, but not overwhelming. Despite the many successes on this plate, like the perfectly-cooked corona beans and the aromatic “sofritto,” the cubes of wine gelée (at least that’s what they tasted like to me), which added a bright acidic note, and the grassy cilantro, are what made this dish sing.
The Vitellone Crudo alla Piedmontese (“Traditional”), as my friends and I agreed, was oversalted. But, as far as steak tartares are concerned, this one had great texture. Although the mixed-in ingredients (including capers, chive, salt, pepper, definitely some herbs, perhaps some garlic, and possibly some coarse breadcrumbs, if my memory serves me correctly) were assertive, they actually complimented, if not highlighted, the excellent flavor of the the meat, which had a surprising amount of beefiness for veal.
The Rouget (“Contemporary”) was, easily, the winner. In fact, it was the most successful dish of the meal for me.
I was shocked by the portion; the two perfectly-cooked filets could easily have made a modest main course. The underlying Parmesan “soup” was more like a (very) thick sauce instead of a soup; almost the consistency of Robuchon’s pomme purée. It was velvet cheese. Despite being bold and flavorful, the soup managed not to overwhelm the fish, which was surprisingly flavorful and sturdy on its own.
Given that I had specifically asked for the antipasto dish that would offer more greens and vegetables, I was disappointed by the “Antipasti di Verdure” (“Traditional”), which our server confidently recommended over the Insalate di Misticanza.
It was akin to an assorted contorni dish that one might get á la carte at an Italian restaurant, like Esca. Except, a good half of this dish wasn’t green or of the vegetable family at all; this one included cheese, olives and beans. And, what vegetables that were on the plate took a backseat to the slightly stirred ricotta salata, which stole the show.
The Insalate di Misticanza (“Traditional”), which I later added after realizing that the Antipasti di Verdure would offer very little fiber, was the generous helping of vegetables that I had hoped for. Salad greens were tossed with many of the items in the Antipasti di Verdure: artichoke heart, asparagus, beets, and radishes (and, yet, it was a $1 less than the Antipasti di Verdure). The breathless and watery balsamic dressing aside, the salad was quite lovely; I especially appreciated the large flakes of 3 year-old Parmesan shaved over the top.
I did not find the Primi, which we prudently ordered half-portions of, to be as great as the Antipasti.
For one, that highly anticipated Beef Heart Risotto (“Contemporary”) was over-salted and undercooked. They hadn’t coaxed enough starch out of the rice (this being especially frustrating given that it was a traditional red wine-based risotto and not one that relies on dairy for added binding and creaminess), which probably contributed to some grittiness in the rice. Given how great, in theory, it could have been, this dish was deflating. Thankfully, the nuggets and slices of beef heart were appropriately cooked, and the emerald beads of peas were very lovely.
I’m convinced that the famous Lasagne Verde alla Bolognese (“Traditional”) wasn’t made with sheets of pasta but with thin slices of spinach soufflé.
I don’t know how anyone can get away with saying this was “light” dish, but they would be absolutely correct insisting so. Calories aside, it was indeed the lightest lasagna I’ve ever had. The pasta didn’t so much melt in my mouth as it did evaporate. Whereas the risotto had been over-seasoned, this was under-seasoned. The bolognese was slightly bland, if not tremendously boring which put a damper on the extraordinary pasta party going on otherwise.
The Tuna “Carbonara” was probably my favorite of the three primi. But it wasn’t perfect. The menu indicated that there was sea urchin in this carbonara, a creative (contemporary) stand-in for egg yolk. But I didn’t detect any sea urchin. This lack of creaminess really detracted from its billing as a carbonara.
It did, however, get the smoky element down. My friend and I had a brief exchange about the fact that tuna bottarga (which I had noticed on the menu) is not smoked. Yet I detected smoke. I mentioned something about there possibly being bacon in the dish, although my friends seemed not convinced. This was resolved after our meal, when a review of the menu revealed that this pasta included tuna bacon.
Secondi were good, but like the rest of the meal, failed to present anything terribly inspiring.
The best thing going for the Pork Blade Steak (“Traditional”) was that it was rewardingly under-cooked despite its thinness. It was also immensely flavorful. As my friend aptly described the accompanying pan sauce was “very jus-y.”
The Gulf Shrimp (a special listed under “Traditional”) was probably my favorite of the three secondi, more for the flavor than the shrimp itself. Maybe it was the hit of vinegary tartness in the background (that helped cut some of the greasiness).
More probably, it was the giant heads that were left on the prawns; filled with “noggin” cream that I eagerly sucked out. This dish’s success certainly wasn’t due to the corona beans, which though perfectly-cooked, were making a third appearance on something I ordered (they had also appeared on my Octopus Carpaccio and Antipasti di Verdure).
From what I understand, the Lamb Tenderloin (“Contemporary”) is a mini-version of the restaurant’s signature lamb quartet served at dinner. This lunch version featured five rounds of tenderloin, a square of breast meat that had been pulled and confited, and lamb sausage-stuffed morels. The tenderloin was very good. The breast meat confit was better. But, the lamb sausage stuffed in morels was fantastic; they should rename this course “Lamb Sausage,” even though it’s the smallest portion of the three presentations.
The Crostata di Rubarbaro seemed every bit the afterthought-of-a-dessert that it was. If for nothing else, the whipped honey sour cream made it somewhat special.
The toasted sesame gelato was a wonderful. The chocolate sorbet was equally as good – intensely rich and dark. Though I asked for the orange sorbet, they brought out peanut butter gelato, the one flavor I had specifically requested to be left off my trio. Oh well, I didn’t need those extra calories anyway.
Insieme offers a fine eating experience. It’s good for what it is: traditional and creative Italian cuisine presented in a contemporary fashion and setting. For its neighborhood (Midtown West, which, apparently, is so reprehensible that I had to work extra hard to convince my friends to go near), Insieme is probably nothing short of a God-send.
It’s also reasonably priced. Considering that I (alone) ordered, effectively, 3 antipasti, 1 primi, 1 secondi, and 1 dessert, a $90+change tab (including tax and tip) seemed somewhat reasonable. And, it could have fed two.
Admittedly, I had built up slightly great expectations around Insieme based on how the menu read and, to a lesser extent, what trusted friends had said about it. Both Hearth and Terroir (and Canora) have an ardent core of groupies.
Were these expectations seriously defeated? No. All of the proteins were expertly-cooked and everything was gorgeously plated. I discovered the wonderfulness of tuna bacon, the novelty of Parmesan soup (what is that they say about no cheese with seafood in Italian cooking?), and the possibility of pasta as soufflé. Service, despite the minor hiccups, was quite helpful and efficient. And, although it’s not the most dazzling dining room, the semi-sunken space is rather pleasant; there’s lots of natural light and those low-back velour chairs are really quite comfy.
But, as discussed, an outlying uneveness – over and under-seasoning maimed a number of potentially killer dishes; under-cooked risotto is never cool; maybe I should have been more explicit in requesting a “lettuce salad;” and what if I had been allergic to peanut (butter gelato)? (Well, then, I probably would have said something.) – prevented Insieme from living up to the potential that I had allowed the restaurant to inhabit.
I was expecting an overall boldness and excitement that didn’t quite appear. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the most successful dishes for me were the ones with the most “body:” the Octopus Carpaccio, Rouget, Tuna Carbonara, and Gulf Shrimp. These highlights will lure me back to the restaurant before than anything else the restaurant has to offer.
Executive Chef Marco Canora
777 Seventh Avenue (51st street)
New York, New York 10019