The dining room of this haute Italian destination, where dark wood décor hints at a measured opulence, is crowned with rafters fitted with rows of dimly lit, exposed light bulbs; the ceiling above is lined with gabled skylights. “Cozy” seems perhaps an ill-fitting descriptor for chef Scott Conant’s generally sublime Italian cooking, but it was just that — at once overseen by too delicate a hand to qualify as comfort food, but also so fulfilling and satiating that it seemed to address the diner on a sub-conscious level of pure desire. In short: I’ve never had pasta like this before.
Scarpetta debuted on the New York City dining scene three and a half years ago, where it was met with glowing reviews. It was chef Scott Conant’s third restaurant after L’Impero, which opened in 2002, and Alto, which appeared later in 2005 (both of which he left in 2007). The tone at Scarpetta inhabits the middle ground between soulful trattoria fare and the stoic refinement and technical precision found in the city’s top Italian destinations.
Before we even had the opportunity to crack the menu, a bread basket appeared packed with an assortment of warm breads and three accompaniments: citrus-infused olive oil, fresh mascarpone, and eggplant caponata. While the ciabatta and focaccia were certainly serviceable, the standout was the stromboli — oozing with half-melted smoked mozzarella, salami, tomatoes, and fresh basil, it could very well have been a meal in itself, and was a fortuitous sign of the feast to come.
Our meal officially opened with the braised short ribs, one of the kitchen’s universally revered plates. To preach to the choir: they were near divine, perhaps the best rendition I’ve had. Ribboned with melting fat, the meat was tender enough to fall apart at the mere sight of an incoming fork. The short ribs were served on a bed of farro, making a savory prelude to the parade of pastas that followed.
But, oh, the pastas! So deliciously complex, so well crafted, so ridiculously compelling that each new plate almost obliterated the memory of the dish tasted previously. The ribbed cavatelli, paired with melting rabbit meat and savory porcini mushrooms; the indulgent tagliatelle served in a frothy zabaglione, dotted with guanciale and covered in a heap of black truffle shavings; the short rib and bone marrow agnolotti, little parcels of sweetness covered with crisp garlic chips; the dessert-like pumpkin casonsei, sweetened with crumbles of amaretti; the near-criminal duck and foie gras ravioli, fatty and rich but tempered with a puckering drizzle of marsala reduction. And yet, despite the mastery and inventiveness displayed in these pastas, it was perhaps the simple spaghetti pomodoro that trumped them all. The spaghetti itself was cooked to a toothsome al dente, and the pomodoro was a masterful distillation of tomato, encapsulating all of the ruby sweetness and acidity found in an end-of-summer tomato just plucked from the vine. Eating this dish was a transportative, transcendent experience.
If there were a shortcoming to this meal, it would be the entrées, which were well prepared, but somehow missed the exaltation of the pastas. The black cod with tomato and caramelized fennel was technically well done but not memorable, and the moist roasted capretto (that’s baby goat) felt cloyingly greasy. The best we sampled was the spiced duck breast, paired with butternut squash.
Still, that quibble feels petty in the face of all that we tasted that night. The pastas were well matched by an expert sommelier who brought us a range of red Italian stunners (particularly extraordinary was the 1971 Giuseppe Quintarelli Amarone della Valpolicella Classico). The desserts with which we — staggeringly, achingly — concluded the meal were no less enjoyable. We savored the rich pumpkin pot de crème, fought over the chocolate cake with salted caramel gelato, and most particularly enjoyed the Pera Bella Helena, a chocolate almond cake paired with yams and white balsamic marshmallows (a dish that came topped with a quenelle of vanilla ice cream so good we asked for a separate bowl of it afterwards).
It was by any measure an extraordinary meal, but what made it so exhilarating was that our expectations of the familiar were completely overthrown. Scott Conant convinces his diners wholeheartedly that, even within a cuisine that is known so ubiquitously, it is still possible to discover dishes that feel entirely new.