NEW YORK—No matter what you’re in the mood for, New York offers nearly every kind of cuisine imaginable. Whether you’re hungry for food as ubiquitous as Chinese or as elusive as Ethiopian, your craving can be readily satiated. However, there can be a chasm between the palate of people in the United States and cultural authenticity.
Restaurateur Gianfranco Sorrentino is trying to bridge that gap, offering genuine Italian food at his restaurants. He is also the president of Gruppo Italiano, a nonprofit organization that promotes authentic Italian cuisine through education.
From a young age, the culture and gastronomy of Italy have been dear to him. Sorrentino grew up in Naples and began his restaurant career as a 14-year-old busboy at the five-star Europa Palace restaurant in Capri, now known as the Capri Palace.
An Italian Abroad
When Sorrentino turned 17, he began working in restaurants out of the country to pay for his studies at the Technical Commercial Institute in Naples. His first experience was at the Mercure Maidstone Great Danes Hotel in Kent, England, which was invaluable for the young Neapolitan.
“I had contact with different cultures, different traditions, different history, [and it] really opened up a little bit my mind,” Sorrentino told The Epoch Times.
After his time at the hotel in England, he traveled throughout Europe working at a variety of restaurants and learned about many cuisines. While he appreciated dishes native to the country he was working in, he also tried to introduce Italian cooking wherever he went.
Sorrentino absorbed these diverse cultures, but was still drawn to his native Italy. He became increasingly focused on classic Italian cooking. According to Sorrentino, authenticity is fluid. For instance, Pasta Carbonara wasn’t part of Italian gastronomy until after World War II when Americans brought bacon to Italy; now, it is thought of as a quintessentially Italian dish. Sorrentino also considers Veal Milanese (served at THE LEOPARD at des Artistes) and Paccheri Pasta alla Genovese with Neapolitan pork ribs and onions (served at Il Gattopardo) as some of the most classic Italian dishes around.
“I do believe that authentic has to follow three lines, let’s say. It has to use fresh ingredients, seasonal ingredients. It has to be prepared very simple. And the mix of the ingredients has to be organic. It has to make something that is delicious, but … if you have four ingredients in an Italian dish you have one too many,” Sorrentino explained.
The Big Apple
In the late 1980s, Sorrentino moved to New York and opened his first Italian restaurant in the United States, called Sette at the Museum of Modern Art.
“I’m so proud because we cooked traditional, authentic, classic Italian cuisine. And for me it was so important because finally Italian cuisine was accepted as cuisine to be served in an institution like the Museum of Modern Art,” Sorrentino recalled.
After some renovations The Museum of Modern Art eventually went in a different direction, so Sorrentino opened a restaurant across the street called Il Gattopardo.
“We did something, we want to say, a step back. Meaning we went through our roots. What my grandmother and Vito’s [his chef’s] grandmother used to cook,” Sorrentino said.
Sorrentino and his executive chef Vito Gnazzo began to use ancient grains like farro and buckwheat at the new restaurant. Not only are these ingredients traditional and delicious, they are also relatively healthy.
Authenticity and Cuisine
The timing of Il Gattopardo’s opening was overshadowed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, just one week prior. Sorrentino remembered standing outside of the restaurant, not seeing one person or car pass by.
Nevertheless, he and his staff were undeterred. After the first year, the restaurant began to do well and grow; Sorrentino continued to focus on the legitimacy, freshness, and origins of his ingredients. Today, Il Gattopardo thrives at its new location in the Rockefeller Townhouses on 54th Street, just blocks away from its original address.
While he recognizes the fluidity of Italian food, he strives not to corrupt its roots.
“Italian cuisine is not static, it’s something that evolves all the time. I welcome [seeing] new ingredients, new products, new wines, et cetera, but on the same token I want to make sure that they respect our tradition, our culture, our heritage,” Sorrentino explained.
Keep it Real
In 2010, Sorrentino was presented with an opportunity. The former Café des Artistes at the Hotel des Artistes had closed permanently, and the space was vacant.
Sorrentino and his wife Paula renovated the restaurant, and restored the illustrious 1920s murals by Howard Chandler Christy that were largely responsible for the old restaurant’s popularity. The murals had been damaged by years of tobacco smoke, but after the restoration they burst with color and life.
Now, at THE LEOPARD at des Artistes, the focus continues to be on classic southern Italian cooking.
“We are very proud because we thought that after a hundred years that this restaurant was French … [it] finally speaks Italian. Our goal is to serve authentic, classic Italian cuisine in a special environment, in a beautiful room, probably one of the most beautiful rooms in New York, and I think we achieved our goal.”
While Sorrentino has tremendous respect and affection toward Italian food, culture, and his heritage, he also maintains a humble appreciation for the concept of the American Dream.
“I am very grateful to this nation because I am the typical example of the American Dream. I came here to work as a waiter, and after a few years of working very hard I made it. I created my first restaurant, the second, the third. I have a decent life, but I never forget my roots.”