Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Restaurant Review: Scarpetta

Last week, I mentioned how lucky I was to snag a table at Scarpetta to help them celebrate their 1-year anniversary with a special prix fixe menu--$50 for 4 courses with wine pairings. The celebration (for me) was last night, and I thought I'd fill you in on my thoughts.

Let's start by saying this: Scarpetta has been given an endless stream of praise from the food press. With three stars in the New York Times, Michelin nods, James Beard noms, and much much more, it's one of those restaurants that may as well have paid off (or Mafia-style threatened) every critic into showering them with compliment after compliment. With not a stitch of bad press, you have to wonder--can any dining experience live up to this kind of press? The answer: yes. Yes, yes and yes.

I won't fill you in on every detail--this would be far too long. But I'll share my favorite moments. Among them, the bread basket, which came piled high in a nest-like black metal bowl, served with three different dipping options: whipped butter mixed with ricotta, a sweet red pepper tapenade, and the sweetest olive oil I've ever tasted. The herbed roll went great with the first two, while a sliced loaf with proscuitto and cheese paired wonderfully with the sweet oil. By my first bites, I was sold.

The style of Scarpetta, for those who stay away from food press, is haute Italian, with all the pastas made fresh in house. It's no surprise that the risotto that came under my braised short rib appetizer was actually pastina-like bits of pasta mixed with finely chopped vegetables--even still, the misnomer had me expecting something thicker and more decadent. The creaminess craving was easily fulfilled by what was one of my two favorite dishes--a perfect version of truffled polenta topped with mushrooms. I've never tasted anything quite so smooth and rich and indulgent. I can only wonder what they could have done with true risotto.

Scott Conant, the chef, jokes that his customers often gripe about the price of his signature dish, spaghetti with tomato and basil ($26, if I noted correctly), but with one bite it's apparent how much love and hard work goes into making these simple ingredients shine. It's mindblowing, really--there's no real sense of a sauce, rather, everything is coated in aromas and perfectly manipulated textures. From the thick, hearty bite of the noodles to the tender acidity of the tomato and the heady nose of the basil, this dish is a melange of common flavors brought to their best selves. I left wishing for more, and wondering what on earth I could do to replicate it at home. Just tomato and basil, right? Duh.

The capretto, another signature dish, was forgettable--a bit on the dry side, and lacking in any memorable flavors. A sirloin steak, not usually on the menu, was tender and buttery, with a light sauce borrowing flavors from this season's favorite vegetable: the ramp. Desserts were solid, with a chocolate-based parfait and a banana budino served with pecan gelatto. My recommendation? Just go for an appetizer (polenta, preferably) and a bowl of pasta--no matter how good the rest is, it's what you'll come away remembering and savoring regardless of what else you decide to eat with it.

Scarpetta is located at 355 W 14 St., near 9th Ave. Click here for more info.

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