Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Scarpetta: The Importance of a Signature Dish
From falafal to french toast, certain dishes at restaurants become so popular that they eventually transcend just being food and become somewhat of a signature. Nowadays, while it seems that just about every restaurant has their own signature dish, only a handful of these actually manage to live up to all the hype. Still, everyone seems to agree-- positively I might add-- on one so-called signature dish: Scott Conant's spaghetti with tomato and basil. Staking one's reputation on something as ubiquitous as spaghetti means you better have the best damn version of this pasta to warrant both its effusive praise and $24 price tag. Though personal preferences and tastes will ultimately dictate whether you believe this dish to be as good as everyone says, rest assured, even the other (non-signature?) food at Scarpetta is delicious, and is worthy of a visit alone.
Uncharacteristically finding ourselves in the meatpacking district on a Saturday night, MW and I arrived to a packed restaurant. Greeted by two hostesses, we were asked to wait by the bar until our table was ready but were surprisingly never asked whether we'd like to check our coats. After 30 minutes or so, we finally were told our table was ready, and only then, were we offered to check our coats. Led to our table in the restaurant's sleek dining room, we couldn't help but notice the prominent skylight in the ceiling and curiously belt-clad mirrors along the walls. Unlike the hostesses, service was attentive and knowledgeable. I was a bit disappointed after learning that the restaurant's tasting menu was not available on the weekends (really?), but our proficient server helped us cobble together an unofficial tasting menu.
While we waited for our first course, we were brought the restaurant's famed bread basket. While I routinely describe each restaurant's bread service out of formality, I often find that very few are really worth mentioning, and even fewer are worthy of an entire paragraph. But I'm happy to say that Scarpetta falls squarely into the minority of restaurants with a phenomenal bread basket, truly worthy of an entire paragraph. Said by many to be a meal worthy on its own, Scarpetta's bread basket contained a perfectly fine Filone and Ciabatta from Sullivan Street Bakery, but also included two fantastic house-made selections: a Whole Wheat Focaccia and the true pièce de résistance, a Stromboli, stuffed with Smoked Mozzarella and Salumi. But that was not all, accompanying the bread was a Citrus-Infused Olive Oil, a tangy Marscarpone Butter and a sweet Eggplant Caponata.
Knowing we had ordered two pastas and secondis between us, MW passed on the restaurant's short rib, and instead, opted for the lighter sounding Cauliflower Panna Cotta with Crab, Brescia Ossetra Caviar, Sea Urchin and Truffle. Containing a plethora of our favorite ingredients, this dish fell terribly short of our expectations. The panna cotta was served too cold and lacked the creaminess needed to blend seamlessly with the briny crab and urchin. Both, the caviar, as well as the shaved black truffle, seemed to be somewhat of an afterthought, as neither contributed much to the dish flavor wise. Served with toasted Brioche, we were confused how the dish was meant to be eaten exactly and overall, felt the dish was poorly conceived and executed.
Much better, was my Creamy Polenta with a Fricassee of Truffled Mushrooms. Whereas the panna cotta was unsuccessful and somewhat confusing, this dish was straight forward and satisfying. Our server spooned the umami-laden fricassee of truffled mushrooms over a bowl full of creamy polenta table side to complete the dish, forcing us to wait politely before we could eat. Warm and comforting, we both felt this was one of the most successful dishes of the entire evening, a complete antithesis of the previous dish.
Moving into the paste or pasta portion of the meal, MW and I ordered two pastas and requested split portions for easier sharing. First, was the Duck and Foie Gras Ravioli with a Marsala Reduction. Delicious, but obscenely rich, these tiny triangles filled with savory duck meat and foie gras were pure decadence, ever so slightly enhanced by a finishing drizzle of the sweet marsala reduction.
But as good as the ravioli were, and they were plenty good, MW and I were more eager to dig into our bowls of Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil. So instead of dancing around the issue any longer you probably want to know if the dish was worth it? I'll cut straight to the point, and in my humble opinion, Conant's signature pasta was well deserving of all of its praise, save for the fact that the pasta was slightly overcooked. Make no mistake, this was no ordinary spaghetti from your childhood. Refined, but not haute; hearty, yet not rustic. The beauty of this dish lie in its simplicity, coupled with near-flawless execution. Strands of housemade spaghetti were coated in an ethereal sauce made from fresh San Marzano tomatoes, olive oil and herbs. The sweetness of the tomatoes, combined with the herb-infused olive oil created a sauce so smooth, it resembled an emulsion that complimented the pasta perfectly. Together, all of the components had the potential to form one of the best pasta dishes in all of the city, if only the pasta had been cooked al dente! Good enough to warrant its $24 price? That all depends on who you ask, however, I feel it would be remiss for any self respecting lover of Italian food to eat here and not order the dish, if only to judge it for themselves.
Moving on to our secondis, MW's Black Cod with Caramelized Fennel and Concentrated Tomatoes was just outstanding. The fish had been perfectly cooked, with crisped skin on one side and moist flesh on the other, it was the best of both worlds. Together, with the the acid of the tomatoes and the sweet anise flavored fennel, the accompaniments really accentuated the pure taste of the fish.
Whereas MW's cod demonstrated a nuance of flavors and textures, my Moist-Roasted Capretto (goat) with Rapini, Pancetta and Potatoes was hearty and bold. The goat meat itself was moist and tasting faintly gamey, but not unpleasantly so, and married wonderfully with the bitter rapini, luscious pancetta and crunchy cubes of potatoes.
Between the bread basket, two pastas and our secondi, our stomachs were rapidly approaching their limits. However, we managed to save just enough room for dessert and chose to split the Banana Budino with Pecan Gelato and Oat Tuile. Said to have been another "favorite of the restaurant," the budino was more similar to a banana cake than an actual pudding. Nonetheless, this discrepancy hardly affected its flavor, and was absolutely delicious. The faux budino was incredibly moist and was coated with a gooey substance reminiscent of a caramel sauce. Resting atop an attractive oat tuile was a nutty pecan gelato and two pieces of caramelized banana which tasted even better when eaten inbetween bites of the rich budino, allowing for an interesting interplay of contrasting of tastes, textures and temperatures.
While some may consider the "signature" dishes at Scarpetta to be somewhat of a gimmick, headlined by his pricey pasta, I find the comparison flawed. Many of the so-called favorites we ate were popular holdovers during Conant's time at L'Impero, and in a competitive city like ours, filled with countless outstanding Italian restaurants, these dishes helps separate Scarpetta from the rest of the pack. Was our meal perfect? Hardly. After being served a lackluster appetizer and overcooked pasta, I'd never claim it to be. But with our meal's lows came its high, and there were plenty of them. From the excellent bread basket, umami bomb that was Conant's polenta, to the perfectly executed cod and carpeto and sticky budino, I'm willing to chalk up the missteps of our meal as outliers, and focus instead, on the restaurant's more successful non-signature dishes.
355 West 14th Street
New York, NY 10014
To see all the pictures of this meal click HERE.