May 27, 2008 | BITE: My Journal
Scott Conant Does It His Way at Scarpetta

Sea urchin perfumes the calamarata pasta; mushroom ragu and lush polenta behind.  Photo: Steven Richter
Scott Conants's calamarata pasta; mushroom ragu and lush polenta behind.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Why shouldn’t star chef Scott Conant come back to town doing his top all-time hits at Scarpetta? A friend expressed that scathingly, as he described Conant’s new menu. If the Stones can do it…why not?  I guess he expected Conant to reinvent old faithfuls. Everyone talks like Gawker these days. I feel the whiplash.

       As for Conant, off the radar (except for a stint in Sag Harbor) since he abandoned his three-star mooring at l’Impero last April, the master of rustic Italian simplicity rightly believes fans have hungered for his mushroom fricassee to spoon over voluptuously rich polenta, his crispy fritto misto and juicy short ribs nesting in farro risotto, now that he’s set up shop behind the oddly vintage facade that fronted Gin Lane so briefly, around the corner from Old Homestead.  That polenta may well inspire you to reach for a scarpetta, dialect for the piece of bread you use to wipe up the last bit of sauce.  

That’s Scott Conant checking out traffic at the bar. Photo: Steven Richter

       Though prices seem highish through the prism of our town’s growing layoffs - pastas $22 to $25, entrees $23 to $37 - meatpacking district prodigals may not mind once they hit the bar and the dining room under its retractable glass ceiling where orange leather belts lash the tilted mirrors. The bar with its dark wooden backdrop is especially welcoming. I suspect the transient nightbirds may be less annoyed than I with indifferent lighting and ricocheting noise. Yes, I know architects think eating inside an amplifier is sexy and young. If I want to pass, I should pretend that I love it. And it’s not that dark, just a bit gloomy.

        What I do like is that Conant has assembled a core of veteran old school captains who sweep in to dispatch clueless bus boys as they stare blankly and smile sweetly when you ask for more water or an extra spoon.

Fritto misto for the table to share; that truffled polenta behind.  Photo: Steven Richter

Key lime-torrone “cheesecake.” Photo: Steven Richter
Tonight - it’s opening week after friends and family warmups - I’m impressed with both soups, borlotti bean with pancetta and chickpea porridge with sausage and cabbage, though they ought to arrive hotter. Ribbons of marinated eggplant, Scott’s grandmother’s recipe, our captain confides, comes piled alongside buttery burrata.  Imported pasta rings called calamarata with mixed seafood, tangy sea urchin and a dusting of minted bread crumbs is even lusher than I remember. Conant sends out an extra of meticulously seared scallops on sunchoke puree, so much better than his signature capretto I had to have in honor of great dinners at L’Impero. Alas, it’s not as juicy as it can be. Crusty roasted chicken on parsnip puree comes with a delicious sauce, thickened with liver, chopped almond and currents. I spoon some on my goat. It helps.

        Another perk from the kitchen, bufala ricotta sitting on black pepper-sprinkled-truffle-honey is a roller coaster of sensuousness.  It comes with a small bowl of the hard round crackers called tarelle, baked in-house from another Nonna Conant recipe. You might be tempted at this point to skip a dolce.  Reconsider.  These are happily old fashioned desserts with no herbal intrusions on molecular manipulations, like plum crostata with Port-stewed figs, Amadei chocolate cake with burnt orange-caramel gelato and a key lime and torronne “cheesecake” with citrus salad.  In a world that encourages thyme walnut gelato, cilantro parfait and apple leather, that restraint gives me hope.

355 West 14th Street at 9th Avenue. 212 691 3495


Vino Seeks to Amuse the Neighborhood

 Vintage Italian movies and $4 wines are the draw at Vino. Photo: Steven Richter.  

        With soccer and old time Italian films on the big telly screen and wines by the glass that start at $4 for an ombra (a short glass) of Lambrusco, Vino hopes to draw the same loyal locals that keep its mother ship Mediterraneo hopping next door. Surely the same clusters and clots of Euros who treat the neighorhood trattoria as a second home, will overflow into the house’s new Tuscan wine bar and sidewalk tables.  At least that’s the business plan of Owners Massimo Stocchi and Vito Mezzatesta, who brought in Florentine compatriot Massimiliano Caldina (late of Da Silvano) as manager to stock the cellar with labels that run $7 for a glass of Cataratto to $20 for Brunello di Montalcino, but mostly $10 or less.  That’s a water glass by the way.

        The small plate menu offers salads, carpaccios, Florentine omelet, stewed baby octopus or a small lasagna, even sandwiches (foccacine). Stick with platters of cured meats or cheeses with toasted Tuscan bread – or an order of garlicky fettunta – to feed a flight of Euros.

1268 Second Avenue between 66th and 67th Streets. 212 744 5370


Providing a continuous lifeline to homebound elderly New Yorkers