January 8, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Insieme: Keeping the Faith.  Well, Almost.

These lucious prawns deserve the respect they get from  Insieme's kitchen.  Photo: Steven Richter.

    Just thinking about returning to Insieme with friends who’d never been made me happy. I had a little delighted anticipation riff playing in a corner of my brain all day. I could practically taste the dishes I’d loved in two early visits. And the evening began on a pleasant déjà vu, starting from the focused welcome, the roomy table, partner Paul Grieco’s intuitive sommelier advice and the little dish of amusements – ah, that exquisite radish crunch releasing its tiny spurt of anchovy’d olive oil. I hope they never retire it. 

    “I’m glad to see this is a restaurant that doesn’t do weird food,” first-time Eleanor observes, scanning the left side of the menu, Insieme’s “traditional” choices. 

    “You’ll be fine as long as you don’t wander to the other side of the menu,” I tell her. “See where it says ‘Contemporary Menu?’”


    Restaurants that can cover the cost are making the most of the Nantucket bay scallop season – I borrow mine tonight from the tasting menu – no problem, the waiter assures. Firm, barely cooked nubbins lightly caramelized with squash soup, smoked bacon and pickled pumpkin. Eleanor’s grilled prawns on a skewer are remarkable creatures, jumbo-size, heads on, delicately just-cooked.

    Midway through dinner, gifts arrive from chef-partner Marco Canora (don’t believe anyone who says it doesn’t matter if the house knows a critic has landed).  No one in our food-centric foursome is offended by the unexpected pasta tasting: a tight swirl of the Road Food Warrior’s favorite spaghetti amatriciani.  And the best pasta e fagioli I ever had beans cooked, but not too, the fresh-made short macaroni-like semolina tubes sensuously firm. After that pleasant interruption I can barely do justice to the misto of boiled meats and vegetables with its vivid trio of classic condiments: green sauce, horseradish cream and chopped mustard-touched fruit. A gathering of lamb parts chop, saddle, sausage and breast with Brussel sprouts – is impressive too.

    But the lasagna I’d loved before is a faded swamp tonight and the linguine with vongole delivered in its modish covered bowl is not just overcooked, it’s underseasoned and strangely bland too. And the cauliflower is near disintegration, although you might say, that’s traditional for Italy.

    We decide one dessert is imperative. Eleanor spots the word: butterscotch, Not noticing that her choice is in the “Contemporary” column. Nasty mishap. Clearly, she finds caramelized quince with sweet potato butterscotch a serious betrayal of butterscotch trust.  I’m not counting that as a flaw since we were warned. But I don’t like it either.

    I find too often that restaurants I loved in the first flush of their passionate dedication sometimes lose touch with the details after the rave reviews come in. This might be so at Insieme. I am sure Canora is not doing pasta himself.  But he needs to grab a noodle or two and taste often to be sure it still has the oomph he designed.

    777 Seventh Avenue at 51st Street. 212 582 1310.