I’ll admit it – being from the Midwest where “good Italian” pretty muchentails Olive Garden it is easy to get swept away by the hype surrounding Batali’s joints, Il Mulino, and other well established New York institutions – with that said, my meal at Babbo last year was absolutely fantastic and the pizza at Otto was pretty darn good – my attempts at dishes from the Babbo cookbook have also fared quite well. Those things noted, after two good Italian visits to New York in past years I’ll have to admit I’ve been largely unimpressed by other “fine dining” Italian aside from Spiaggia in Chicago and Rigsby’s in Columbus ever since – from La Botte to Valentino to Batali’s Mozza the California Italian left me mostly indifferent and as such I looked forward to getting back to NYC for some good haute-Italian.
Originally considering Del Posto I sought the opinions of other foodies and found the reviews to be mixed – at best. Complaints of small portions, snooty service, and high prices seemed to dominate and when I e-mailed the restaurant for information I must admit the response was quite condescending – the responder explaining to me “the complexities” of the menu and how I “might not understand.” Knowing I’d be in the area I sought another option and was offered Scarpetta – a place I’d not heard of and not recognized in the Michelin guide…yet. E-mailing the restaurant I was assured walk-ins would be accepted, but that reservations would be safest. Not knowing my friend’s schedules until the day I left I held off, but when it turned out they were unavailable I made sure to swing by Scarpetta on my foodie travels to secure a reservation – 6:30pm in the bar area as the main dining room had been booked a month in advance (Sounds a bit Babbo-esque to me!)
Arriving after a great day of eating and browsing the galleries and stores of lower Manhattan I checked my bag at the hostess stand and was immediately led to a small table near the window up front – great for people watching out in the meat-packing district and with a full view of the main dining room and bar. While I will admit the music was a bit loud for my liking, it certainly was no more-so than Babbo and the temperature up front was cool enough to wear a jacket, yet not so cold that I felt chilly or that it affected the food – though my neighbors did complain of both. (note, I was the only solo diner present and the complaining diners were an older couple who seemed quite confused by the “new Italian” menu – the male particularly grumbling about everything non-spaghetti – thankfully they were later replaced by a younger male-couple who were quite friendly and inquired about my picture taking and job and had great recommendations for what was/wasn’t worth seeing in Chelsea – much more pleasant, for sure.)
Shortly after seating I was greeted by my server, an attractive and friendly yet professional young lady named Anastasia (seriously, the service at Scarpetta – even in the bar area – was on par with what I received at Jean Georges and with more personality.) Handed a menu to browse I was also presented with a bread basket featuring a hearty and crusty ciabatta, oiled and aromatic rosemary forcaccia, and an absolutely mind-blowing Salami and Mozzarella Bread with a trio of toppings including Citrus infused Olive Oil (good, but standard), Roasted Eggplant Caponata (superb, I finished 3 servings,) and Mascarpone Butter (tasted like a sheep’s butter, but more airy and succulent.) While I must say I have a strong love for Bread Baskets in general, this example was particularly impressive and in-and-of-itself a reason to love Scarpetta.
Taking my focus of the breadbasket for a moment and focusing on the menu I was suddenly faced with a conundrum – there were 3 appetizers, 4 pastas, and 2 mains that sounded delightful. With wishful thinking on my mind I asked Anastasia (who I must note I think I may have fell in love with during the meal – any friendly and attractive woman who bears salami mozzarella bread is a winner in my eyes) whether half orders of the pasta were available – alas, no luck. Judging my hunger and knowing dessert was a must I decided at that point 2 pastas would be my max and as much as I wanted to try the spaghetti I just couldn’t do it – thankfully I picked up a copy of Chef Conant’s magazine at the front which contained recipes for both the Spaghetti and the creamy polenta with mushrooms – for free. Placing my orders I sat and listened to the music and the conversation around me while devouring more bread.
After approximately 20 minutes my first dish arrived – and oh what a dish it was. Entitled DUCK AND FOIE GRAS RAVIOLI with Marsala reduction I’d experienced similar once before – the famous version at Babbo…as a matter of fact, aside from the Gnocchi at Bouchon it was probably my favorite pasta of all time – until I took my first bite of this. Words cannot describe the texture – like silk, butter, cream – you get the picture. Pasta so thin it seemed impossible, a marsala sauce clearly enhanced with balsamic vinegar, butter, chives – sweet and savory all at once – bringing the meaty perfection of the duck/foie filling to a peak that permeated the nose and palate as much as the tongue – completed true Scarpetta style I wiped the plate clean with a piece of the ciabatta.
Already impressed yet perhaps wishing I’d received the Foie second in order to “save the best for last” I once again waited approximately 15-20 minutes (while trying desperately to keep my hands out of that damned bread basket) before my second dish arrived on a covered dish and dramatically “unmasked” by a male from the kitchen-staff at tableside. Entitled BLACK MACCHERONI with mixed seafood, sea urchin & bread crumbs the very first thing to strike me was the beauty – the thick, long, and perfectly al dente noodles intermingled with long strands of long-cut calamari and glistening with hints of a light broth highlighted with yellow chunks of uni, fresh pieces of crab and lobster, and breadcrumbs accented with a spice I couldn’t identify (perhaps a refined oregano.) The second aspect of the dish, the smell, matched the visual effect – it smelled like the sea, capturing its very essence with a hint of spiciness and butter providing a base. Finally, the taste – incredible – not since Kinch’s “tidal pool” at Manresa have I experienced so many different tastes and textures with the spongy pasta, meaty yet flawless seafood, smooth and light broth, crunchy bread crumbs, and fatty/melt-in-the-mouth uni. Once again a piece of bread found its way into my hand as I sopped up every last drop – and considered licking the plate.
Feeling somewhat full at this point I opted to skip the interesting cheese plate (essentially a “select your own” approach with each cheese paired with 1 or 2 complements) and stick with a single dessert – although 3 sounded amazing. In my traditional fashion when faced with such decisions I deferred to my server who began by saying everything was good but quickly corrected herself to saying the Chocolate Cake was “amazing.” “Amazing works,” I said – “and I’ll take some coffee as well.”
Thankfully with the bread basket was taken away from me at this point and the coffee was brought quickly (again without Equal) – a bold yet somewhat boring blend that, for me, seemed more like a breakfast coffee than a “feature” coffee, but it certainly wasn’t bad. Another 10 minutes later my dessert arrived. Apparently Scarpetta’s signature dessert - AMEDEI CHOCOLATE CAKE with burnt orange-caramel gelato and espresso sauce. Having had a great chocolate lava cake the night before at Crop and two weeks earlier at the Ritz Dining Room (and subsequently having the fabled version at Jean-Georges) all I can say is that if you’re going to have a signature dessert, make it this well! Utilizing the deep Tuscan chocolate to the maximum of its breadth by accenting both the sweet (with the sublime caramel-blood orange gelato – possibly as good as the balsamic caramel at Humphry Slocombe) and the bitter (with the rich yet understated espresso sauce) the cake was absolutely amazing – the best I’ve ever had and, like the breads and pastas, reason enough to return.
All things stated, I simply cannot recommend Scarpetta enough. Reading Conant’s magazine (and soon ordering his new cookbook) I love his simplistic ideals of enhancing the very essence of the ingredients without “overdoing it” and everything about the restaurant, from the ambiance (not casual, but not stuffy) to the food (both Conant’s incredible pastas and Minos’ surreal desserts) follows that goal with great aplomb. If I were to offer one complaint (more a suggestion) it would be a Babbo-esque pasta tasting menu because, quite frankly, if I went back I’d want to order things I hadn’t tried but would have a hard time not re-ordering the same thing because it was that excellent.