Chef Scott Conant returns to NYC with more Italian.
Thu Jul 10 2008
Photograph: Jeff Gurwin
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
Once one of New York’s most hyped young chefs, Scott Conant all but vanished last year while his reputation and restaurants, L’Impero and Alto, were still riding high. Fans moved on with their dinners and lives, embracing his revolving-door replacement, former Fiamma chef Michael White. Out of sight and out of mind, the rising star seemed quickly forgotten. But a few weeks ago, Conant, who’d been touted by New York’s fickle foodies as the next Mario Batali, was suddenly back on the scene. Scarpetta, his new spot in the Meatpacking District, is a comeback as comedown, a less-is-more middlebrow trattoria.
It may be the least obnoxious restaurant to open in the neighborhood in years. Though a great deal of money has clearly been pumped into the place, the results aren’t in-your-face showy. The cavernous space features a mood-lit front lounge with a floor and bar in matching white marble. It contrasts with the airy back dining room, done up tastefully in rustic wood. Stripped down to its beams, the ceiling is outfitted with a retractable roof, offering on warm nights what may be Manhattan’s only real indoor-outdoor dining experience.
While the noise level can be deafening when inclement weather seals off the room, the buzz spilling in from the bar doesn’t persist—during our visits, the happy hour crowds thinned out early. Another indication that the food, not the scene, is the focus was the service—veteran-restaurant smooth rather than velvet-rope prickly, with wineglasses filled promptly and food that comes out in choreographed unison.
The restaurant takes its name from the Italian slang for sopping up sauce with your bread, and the generous bread basket is clearly designed with la scarpetta in mind. Among the four types there’s a delicious smoked mozzarella and salami stromboli, ideal for topping with the accompanying chunky eggplant caponata, citrus-infused olive oil and butter-mascarpone spread.
Starters offer a sort of greatest hits of Conant’s earlier work. A truffle-scented riff on sushi (spelled susci on the menu) featuring raw tuna slices rolled around brunoise carrots is an elegant holdover from his crudo-stocked menu at Alto. You’ll also find the butter-saturated polenta he once served at L’Impero, indulgent as ever with aromatic mixed wild mushrooms.
Conant, like Batali, rose to prominence on the shoulders of his ethereal pastas. At Scarpetta they still merit top billing. As stuffed pastas go, his plump, meaty duck and foie gras ravioli, slicked with a rich marsala-duck jus, are as gorgeous as you’re likely to find in New York. A close second: miniature ricotta-filled specimens topped with paper-thin slices of baby zucchini, petals from their wispy blossoms and a drizzle of briny anchovy-laced butter.
Entrées—mostly on the lusty, peasant end of the Italian food spectrum—are where Conant falters. Braised veal shank lacks the desired slow-cooked, falling-off-the-bone succulence. It’s served with a minimalist saffron-laced orzo that, unlike a more traditional risotto, isn’t rich enough to stand up to the meat. Capretto (goat), one of Conant’s more celebrated entrées at L’Impero, was among the most disappointing dishes I tried at Scarpetta. Instead of roasting it until golden as he’d done in the past, the chef braises the goat then offers it shredded—the leathery meat is tossed with green peas, lubricated with gelatinous drippings and then stacked in a messy heap, like a sloppy joe.
The rustic meat dishes I tried were all missing one thing: soul. As a chef, Conant may be more at home cooking in the upscale style he made his name on, rather than the Bold Italian (the title of his new cookbook) that he’s going for here. His delicate turbot, for instance, is a throwback to his best high-end cooking. The flaky fillets get an appropriately light touch, gently browned and served with a mild pickled-onion and parsley salsa verde and melt-in-your-mouth endives and leeks.
While Conant struggles to find a middle ground between upscale and homey, pastry chef Gary Minos, formerly of L’Impero, nails it. His apple “pie” features caramelized apples, brown-sugar streusel and a layer of apricot puree on an earthy polenta crust. An almost flourless warm chocolate cake, made with chocolate-of-the-moment Amedei from Tuscany, and served with chocolate-espresso sauce and burnt orange gelato, is so remarkably rich, only true choco-fiends will be able to finish it. Personally, I’d gladly skip it for an extra plate of those remarkable foie-stuffed ravioli, the dish at Scarpetta that ought to inspire the rest.