355 West 14th Street, New York NY 10014; (Ninth Avenue; map); 212-691-0555; scarpettanyc.com
Must-Haves: Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil, Polenta, Short Ribs, Capretto
What You'll Spend: $75 for two courses, a cocktail, tax, and tip
If you follow the bouncing chefs in New York these days, you know that Scott Conant left Alto and L'Impero a year ago to pursue other interests. I've been following Conant's career for ten years now, ever since he cooked at Chianti, where what he calls his modern take on rustic Italian food was first fully realized. After that Conant cooked at City Eatery in 2000, L'Impero in 2002, Bar Tonno in 2004, and Alto in 2005. Got all that? Quiz to follow at the end of the review.
Now Conant has, for the first time, become a chef-restaurateur with the Meatpacking District's Scarpetta, which turns out to be a warm, inviting space with a a modern baseball stadium touch—a retractable roof. The food at Scarpetta is not a radical departure for Conant. In fact, you can call it Conant's Greatest Hits, with a few new tracks thrown in for good measure. Conant's food has always been honest, soulful, and mercifully devoid of gimmickry, and I wanted to see if it could withstand a retractable roof.
The space, formerly Gin Lane, consists of a front bar room with a few tables, and an airy, expansive, back room, where, if you go in good weather, you might see the retractable roof in action.
Diners are greeted by a bread basket stuffed with house-made whole wheat focaccia, Sullivan Street Bakery filone and ciabatta, and the killer bread app, house-made stromboli studded with smoked mozzarella and salami. All these breads are served with whipped mascarpone cheese and butter enlivened by fresh thyme and sea salt. I could easily make a meal out of a bread basket like this, but then my diet would be doomed.
Among the starters I immediately recognized from Conant's previous menus his impossibly rich large-grained Bramata polenta ($16), made oh so creamy with milk, butter, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and, yes, heavy cream, served with a fricassee of truffled mushrooms. It's a fabulous dish, mostly because anything made with this much cream, butter, and cheese would taste great, and also because Conant uses preserved truffles instead of truffle oil.
Another familiar dish is the short ribs ($16). Conant loves to cook things at low temperatures for a long time, whether they're slow-roasted or braised, and these short ribs are meltingly tender and deeply flavorful. They come with sautéed vegetables and a farro risotto.
A ceci (garbanzo) bean, cabbage, and sausage soup made with Salumeria Biellese sweet and hot fresh sausage, is surprisingly light and subtle, though it could use a shake or two of salt. There are two crudo (Italian-style raw fish) preparations, one made with tuna and preserved truffle, the other with yellowtail and ginger oil (both $16 each), and they're well-executed if unexciting. Neither of them will have you crossing Esca off your restaurant speed-dial list.
Spaghetti with tomato and basil ($26) is another vintage Conant preparation. Sounds pretty pedestrian, doesn't it? Not in Conant's hands. This is one of the great rustic, simple, and shockingly flavorful pasta preparations in New York. The sauce is made using only fresh tomatoes cooked for 45 minutes.The result is a sauce that is just sweet enough from the fresh basil Conant throws in the sauté pan at the last moment. The house-made fresh spaghetti holds the sauce perfectly. It's one of those dishes that you swear you should be able to make at home and yet you know you won't be able to.
Conant's food is deceptively simple. Each dish clearly calls for many steps deftly executed by a cook with major chops.
The agnolotti dal plin ($26), accompanied by honshimeji mushrooms, organic carrots, and Parmigiana, is an extraordinary stuffed pasta. The delicate pasta wrappers are stuffed with an earthy combination of pork, veal, beef, and a fonduta of fontina cheese and milk.
The duck agnolotti ($23) with a Marsala reduction were a little too one-dimensionally sweet. It's one of those dishes you swear you've had at three or four other Italian restaurants in New York—and you just may have.
Conant has always known how to cook goat better than just about any other Italian chef in town, and here his moist-roasted capretto ($29) is tender chunks of goat meat interdispersed with sautéed potatoes and peas. If my late Jewish grandmother had grown up in Italy, this would have been one of her specialties.
Slow-roasting concentrates the flavor of the sirloin of beef ($37) that's served with meaty porcini mushrooms and some shaved Parmigiana. Boneless osso buco ($30) was dry and uninteresting, which is a surprise, considering Conant's gift for braising.
Dessert (all dishes $11) brought the very fine if obligatory chocolate cake (made with the superb Italian Amadei chocolate) served with burnt orange-caramel ice cream, a flaky plum crostata with ricotta gelato, and my favorite, a sort of horizontal parfait with layers of panna cotta, coconut sorbet, caramelized pineapple, and guava purée.
The food at Scarpetta is so good that it's clear that, left to his own devices, Scott Conant knows exactly what he's doing. Even though the restaurant has only been open for a few weeks, Conant is in mid-season form. It has all come together rather quickly—Conant's satisfying food, the inviting space, and a fine energy emanating from the back room. Now that Conant is running his own shop with a retractable roof, diners will never be rained out, and the satisfaction derived from his cooking never needs to be postponed.