Craig Wallen Is Rustic and In-your-face at L’Impero

Wallen relaxes with a couple of friends.
Wallen relaxes with a couple of friends. Photo: Melissa Hom

Name: Craig Wallen

Age: 31

Background: Without any culinary-school background (he was an English major), Wallen landed a job at Lupa, working his way up, under Mark Ladner. He did the same in Tom Colicchio’s Gramercy Tavern, before rising to chef de cuisine at L’Impero, under Scott Conant. When Michael White took over there last year, the transition was basically seamless.

Why He’s a Comer: Wallen transcended the difference between Conant and White at L’Impero, and today White considers his chef de cuisine invaluable to the kitchen. “I totally have faith in his sense of taste. He understands fusilli with braised pancetta, pork shoulder, red wine; he knows what tastes should be out front. And he’s my forager — the guy who is on the phone with Vermont Quality Lamb or with Sylvia Pryzant, at Four Story Hill Farm. He finds me the right product and knows what to do with it.”

Self-described Style: “Rustic. I don’t necessarily go for beautiful food, but for big, hearty, in-your-face food.”

Judge Him By: Tortellini de amatriciana. If one dish represents the spirit of the cooking at L’Impero right now, it’s this one, an explosively porky and flavorful stuffed pasta that concentrates all the power of one of the great pastas into a single bite. What makes it even more remarkable is that it’s served with a black-pepper-and-pecorino fonduta, thus marrying two classic pastas at the same time. “That one’s going to stick around for a while,” says Wallen.

Guesstimated Time of Arrival: “I’m pretty happy here with Michael and Chris [Cannon, Alto and L’Impero’s owner]. They have big ideas, I have big ideas, and I hope we can do our big ideas together.”

Craig Wallen Is Rustic and In-your-face at L’Impero