First Bite: Scarpetta, More Than $24 Spaghetti
In an era when chefs become famous for their foie gras cotton candy, oxtail poutine or frog legs in begonia sauce, Scott Conant, the New York chef who just opened Scarpetta in Beverly Hills, may be best known for his $24 plate of spaghetti in tomato sauce, a dish that presumably even his most cuisine-impaired customers can make themselves at home. And when you order his spaghetti with tomato sauce, you get spaghetti and tomato sauce, not truffled tagliatelle smothered in rare heirlooms or chitarra in a fennel-tomato confit - although it is handmade spaghetti in what could be considered a great tomato sauce, texture just south of a puree, scented with fresh basil and beaten with a little parmesan cheese. Is it worth $24? That's between you and your accountant. But even in the dreary weeks of late autumn, when great tomatoes are as rare in the supermarket as fresh peaches, Conant's spaghetti is first rate.
Conant first came to New York's attention at l'Impero, a rather formal Italian restaurant near the UN, and then for his majestic Alto Adige-style cooking at Alto in midtown. He left both of those to start Scarpetta in the Meatpacking District - the menu was similar to l'Impero's, but it was a manly, informal place, seemingly built for export, and he did open branches in Miami and Toronto before opening in this dining room of the Montage Hotel. In Beverly Hills, Scarpetta becomes grand and formal again, like an Italian Bouchon, with headwaiters and high ceilings and sommeliers who don't introduce themselves by saying, "Hi, my name is Jeff.'' Scarpetta is not inexpensive, although there is a $24 prix-fixe lunch menu.
But here is that spaghetti again, and the beet-stuffed Northern Italian pasta called cansonsei, and a clunky ravioli stuffed with foie gras in a sticky marsala reduction. His famous polenta is on the menu, almost more cream than corn, served with his thick, woodsy wild-mushroom stew. The venison loin is cooked sous-vide to a supreme softness, and rolled in the ashes of burnt spices, which gives the burnt, savory flavor of grilling without compromising the texture of the meat. There is duck breast with parsnips, short ribs with farro and steak with Barolo and porcini - this is a meaty place, albeit one with a vegetarian menu available on request.