Fine Italian Restaurants To Visit in New York After Touring the Frick's Piero Della Francesca Exhibit

The Frick Collection in New York City is hosting a rare exhibit of paintings by the Italian Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca. Piero is generally recognized as one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance. His cool-color palette of blues, purples and greens, his sensitive renderings of figures and landscapes and his skilled use of architectural perspective all contribute to his reputation of being one of the dominant figures of the Renaissance. Piero may well be the most important 15th century Italian artist in terms of his impact on future generations of Italian artists through his dissemination of the principles of the new Renaissance art.

Yet despite his stature in the art world, most Americans are at best only vaguely familiar with the artist. His artistic output was limited to start with and the majority of his masterpieces consist of stationary frescoes decorating various church walls in Italy. Few of his works are in U.S. museums and those that are are scattered here and there so viewing works by Piero requires some travel. A number of his works consist of painted wood panels too fragile to travel so major exhibits of his work anywhere are few and far between.

This scarcity factor is what makes this exhibit at the Frick so special. Titled “Piero della Francesca in America” the exhibit is the first show ever in this country dedicated to Piero. It is comprised of only seven pieces.

Six of the works are panels from a single altarpiece painted by Piero for the church of Sant’ Agostino in Sansepolcro in Tuscany, Piero’s hometown. The church’s altarpiece was subsequently disassembled Painting of Saint John the Evangilist by Piero della Francescaand the various panels ended up in private collections around the world. Two of the panels are full-length paintings of saints: one is of a humble, barefoot St. John the Evangelist (seen at left) and the other is of a smartly-turned-out St. Augustine replete with a highly detailed bishop’s cope and mitre (seen at right below). Three smaller panels from the altarpiece depict a dispirited Saint Apollonia, Saint Leonard and a dour Saint Monica, alongside of which is displayed an equally small painting of the Crucifixion.

The last painting is titled “Virgin and Child Enthroned with FouPainting of Saint Augustin by Piero della Francescar Angels” (seen at left below) and is perhaps the most interesting of the exhibit. Here Mary is seated on a raised throne in the interior of an ornate and majestic building surrounded by four angels bearing expressions of benevolent detachment, except for one who peers out at the viewer while gesturing toward the Christ child. Mary’s eyes are lowered to her right hand which holds a rose - a symbol of the Crucifixion - which the baby Jesus, sitting on her lap, is striving to reach with outstretched hands. This poignant painting conveys a feeling of solemnity and assuredness.

Painting of Madonna with Child by Piero della FrancescaLike the artist himself, the Frick Collection is not as well-known as it should be, surprising in view of the fact that it is one of premier art museums in the U.S. While the building is small by standards of most museums, it nonetheless houses a treasure-trove of Renaissance through late nineteenth century paintings and other artworks.

The Frick Collection is housed in the former residence of Henry Clay Frick, a fabulously wealthy businessman who made his fortune in the coke and steel industry. While he was a tough, almost ruthless, businessman, he was also a patron of the arts. He had a fine eye for collecting and with his substantial wealth was able to assemble a large collection of valuable Renaissance through 19th century art.

Upon his death in 1919, his neo-classical residence across from New York’s Central Park as well as his substantial art collection were bequeathed to a foundation charged with establishing a public gallery, which formally opened in December, 1935.

Despite its relatively small size, the Frick is one of the preeminent small art museums in the U.S. today. Scattered throughout the museum’s six galleries is an impressive collection of paintings by major Renaissance and later European artists as well as sculptures, prints, drawings and decorative arts such as Chinese porcelains and enamels.

The Frick is always worth a visit but this special exhibit of some of Piero della Francesca’s work makes it even more worthwhile to visit. But you will have to hurry - the exhibit only runs through May 19, 2013.

Out of the hundreds of eating establishments in mid-town Manhattan, I have selected seven wine bars and wine-friendly Italian restaurants that are worth a visit after viewing the Piero della Francesca exhibit at the Frick. They range from casual, trattoria-style establishments to formal, white-tablecloth restaurants. All offer good selections of wines by the glass and bottle and interesting, moderately-priced menus. Most are in easy walking distance of the Frick while a few may require a taxi or subway ride to reach. The restaurants are listed in order of their proximity to the Frick Collection.

Via Quadronno

25 East 73rd Street (just off Madison Avenue) View Map
Phone: 212-650-9880  Website
This Milanese-style café is a short walk from the Frick Collection. It has a coffee bar in front where patrons can stand while sipping cappuccino and espresso drinks. Seating is available in the rear where Italian comfort food, paninis and homemade pastries are served in a casual environment. The tables are so tightly packed together you can help season your neighbor’s entrée, all of which creates a convivial ambience. The Carpaccio served here is outstanding.

Bella Blu Ristorante

967 Lexington Avenue (between 70th and 71st Streets) View Map
Phone: 212-988-4624 Website 
This charming restaurant, the centerpiece of which is a mosaic brick pizza oven, serves interesting northern Italian dishes. It has an extensive and well-thought-out list of wines by the glass and bottle. You can top off your lunch or dinner with an outstanding dessert of fresh strawberries splashed with aged balsamico.

Cucina Vivolo

138 East 74th Street (just off Lexington Avenue) View Map
Phone: 212-717-4700 Website
This gourmet Italian café has a well-prepared, moderately priced menu with salads, panini and other casual Italian dishes as well as well-prepared pasta, chicken and veal entrees and homemade desserts. The waiters are friendly, knowledgeable and efficient. The café shares a kitchen with its more formal and expensive sister restaurant, Vivolo, next door. 

Per Lei

1347 Second Avenue (at 71st Street) View Map
Phone: 212-439-9200 Website
This small, white tablecloth restaurant is furnished in a modern Euro style. It has a classy but moderately-priced list of modern takes on traditional Italian dishes. This hip place is crowded with twenty-somethings and can be noisy. But don’t let that deter you - the quality menu and extensive wine list compensates for these distractions. 

Il Gattopardo

33 W 54th Street (just across the street from the MOMA) View Map
Phone: 212-246-0412 Website 
This name of this elegant and moderately-priced restaurant translates as “the Leopard” and is named after the famous book and movie of that title. Located in the ground floor of a Manhattan townhouse, it serves contemporary versions of southern Italian soul food. The dishes are creative, the service is first-rate and the well thought-out wine list has some hard-to-find Italian gems by the glass and bottle. While the restaurant is relatively small and narrow the tables are well-spaced so one can carry on a conversation with tablemates - no small feat in many restaurants nowadays. Dining in the open, light-filled garden room at the rear of the restaurant is a special treat.

I Trulli Ristorante/Enoteca

122 East 27th Street (near Lexington Avenue) View Map
Phone: 212-481-7372 Website
This Apulia-themed restaurant and wine bar is a taxi ride or, for the more venturesome, a subway ride from the Frick. But the trip is worth the time and effort. The restaurant provides authentic renditions of rustic Apulian specialties, homemade pasta, a great wine list and a casual, family atmosphere. The Enoteca is in an adjacent dining area dominated by a long wood-paneled bar. The Enoteca offers the same full menu as the restaurant as well as hundreds of different Italian wines by the bottle and glass, including some interesting and hard-to-find wines from the south of Italy.

Eatly NYC

200 5th Avenue (entrances are on 23rd Street between 5th & 6th Avenue and on 5th Avenue between 23rd Street & 24th Street) View Map
Phone: 212-229-2560 Website 
This Italian food and market emporium is a taxi or subway ride from the Frick. The extensive Eatly facility includes seven sit-down restaurants. Each restaurant has a different focus and menu ranging from vegetarian and pasta to fish and beef. All restaurants offer table and bar service. Eatly also has several cafes that offer an authentic Italian coffee bar experience as well as book stores offering cooking and wine books and an Alessi store selling contemporary housewares. This emporium of Italian food, wine and other offerings is the next best thing to an actual trip to Italy.

The Piero della Francesca Exhibit at the Frick Collection
Now through May 19, 2013
1 East 70th Street (just off Fifth Avenue), New York, NY 10021
For information, phone 212-288-0700 or visit their website


©Richard Marcis

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