355 West 14th Street, New York NY 10014 (at 9th Avenue; map); 212-691-0555; website warning: music plays
Veggie Options: 8 appetizers, 8 entrées
Cost: Appetizers $12-15, veg entrées $18-24
Finding a place to take my parents on their yearly visit to New York is challenging. Each dinner needs to be special; we don't get to eat together that often, since we live on opposite coasts. It needs to be delicious, but not exorbitantly expensive. Most importantly, each meal should feel like a New York experience, something they can't get at home in Oregon. Extra points are awarded for good people-watching, a young crowd, and a location convenient for a pleasant postprandial stroll. But: the restaurant must be comfortable, it must take reservations, and it musn't be too loud.
My biggest parent-dinner success to date was a trip to Scott Conant's Scarpetta last year. They oohed and ahhed at the bread basket (you've probably heard about the decadent salami-and-smoked-mozzarella-stuffed stromboli) and praised and praised the pasta. Desserts were fresh and unusual and the room was downtown-chic. A visit to the High Line nearby put the evening over the top; it was the kind of night that sparks a discussion of selling the house out West and moving to the city.
Scarpetta just upped their game by adding a vegetarian menu to the mix; now there are eight meat-free appetizer options and eight vegetarian main courses, making this an even better spot for family gatherings. Although not all the dishes we tried this week were amazing, exactly, there's plenty on the new menu to make a memorable vegetarian dinner.
We started with the creamy polenta ($15) topped with fresh shaved summer truffles. The polenta is heavily dosed with cream, rich and luxurious on the tongue, but the sweet corn flavor comes through, too, especially since the generous serving of shaved truffles offers a delicate (yet not overpowering) earthy flavor and scent. It's a lovely dish. But I have to say, I wish the cooks had devised a vegetarian version of Conant's famous polenta with mushroom fricassee from the main menu instead; where the summer truffle version was a little dry, the mushroom fricassee (made with chicken stock reduction) is haunting and intensely luscious.
We continued with a tower of crispy vegetables ($12), a slightly salty seafood-free fritto misto. While it was beautifully delicate, eggplant and zucchini may not be the best candidates for shoestring-style frying. They ended up being mostly batter, with very little moist vegetable inside. A thicker cut might have allowed them a bit more savory flavor and textural variation. The fried sage and crispy garlic chips were a nice touch, and the peppery fried artichokes in the mix were delicious—perhaps the kitchen should up the artichoke-to-zucchini ratio.
Pasta stars at Scarpetta, and the Red Beet and Smoked Ricotta Casonsei ($22) was delightful. We ordered this dish in part to compare it to the similar one at Park Slope's al di la, and Scarpetta's won by a mile. The pasta was whisper-thin, disappearing on your tongue, and the filling was intensely beet flavored and utterly smooth. A shower of chopped pistachio nuts offered a crunch. This is not homey, clumsy pasta; it's pasta as a polished art. We didn't get much smoky flavor from the ricotta, but we gobbled up every last dumpling too quick to ponder that too much.
I could eat pasta every day, but I was happy to see a few hearty non-pasta options on Scarpetta's vegetarian menu. Our waiter recommended the rosemary-braised lentils with broccoli raab and concentrated tomatoes ($19, photo at top). The lentils were a bit on the firm side (my dining companion liked them that way, but I wished they were a touch creamier.) The bitter bite of the broccoli raab balanced the sweetness of the lightly dried tomatoes. Those tomatoes were definitely the highlight of the dish, full of flavor and just slightly chewy. If Conant sold these in a grocery store, I'd buy them up in a flash. This dish didn't seem quite as refined as Scarpetta's other offerings--it felt like an experiment slightly out of the chef's comfort zone. But we're eager to see how these sorts of experiments evolve.
Though not completely flawless, Scarpetta's new vegetarian menu offers a broad range of delicious dishes for those who don't eat meat. If you're wondering where to take an out-of-towner, especially a vegetarian visitor, you should put Scarpetta on your list.
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