Sometimes, when I am having a particularly bad day, 5 minutes of internet browsing or even a quick walk through Madison Square Park are not enough to make me forget the barrage of emails or exasperated sighs of co-workers. What inevitably does give me a lift, though, is taking a few minutes to write a bit about food. Today, I need a serious pick-me-up, and for that type of need a serious restaurant is necessary. Enter, Scarpetta. Some of you may have heard of Scott Conant or seen him as a judge on Food Network’s Chopp’ed. Scarpetta is his restaurant, and it’s superb. At Scarpetta I fall victim to a common flaw I have when visiting a favorite restaurant — I tend to order the same dishes because I love them so much. So, this review will focus primarily on their pasta dishes, because that is the heart and soul of Scarpetta. That is not to say that their meat/fish entrees are bad, just that they do not stand out in my mind like their pasta. Also, I need to say that, sadly, I do not have pictures of everything I will be reviewing. I hope to remedy that in the near future.
First, the bread basket. I mentioned a wonderful bread basket at Da Ciro in an earlier post, and Da Ciro’s ranks largely because of the Soppressata bread. Scarpetta’s bread basket has many, many delicious breads, all served hot and with a tasting of olive oil, mascapone butter and eggplant caponata. The most famous one, the stromboli bread, is my boyfriend’s favorite — in fact, whenever we go to Scarpetta, he inevitably asks for an additional basket comprised of just stromboli bread. It’s filled with salami, basil and some type of semi-hard cheese, and the cheese gets just a bit gooey as the basket is transported to the table. It’s delicious, but I favor the focaccia or the straight Italian bread, because I find them a better vehicle for the array of dips they give you. The olive oil is wonderful, somehow both nutty and fruity, and one of the best I’ve been served in the city. The mascapone butter is good, somewhat creamier than regular butter, but nothing that I would write home about. The caponata is really the star. I find myself eating it with a fork after I’ve met my limit of eating a whole bread basket by myself. The flavors are intense, and include the strong brininess of capers, but they’re still clean and delicious. You really could make a meal just with the bread and dips, but I would recommend you hold out.
My two favorite appetizers at Scarpetta, and I regret I only have a picture of one, are easily the creamy polenta with truffled mushrooms and the braised shortribs served atop farro risotto. I’ve already discussed my deep, deep love for farro risotto in my post about Perilla, and Scarpetta’s does not disappoint, but the ribs are the highlight. They fall apart in your mouth and are intensely flavorful, braised in red wine and herbs. I order them whenever I am feel adventurous, although when I want a bit of comfort, my go-to is the polenta. Scarpetta is known for this dish, and it’s simplicity is its power. It’s just polenta done very very right. Tons of butter and cream, with cracked black pepper and topped with really well seasoned mushrooms. I will go to great lengths to finish it, even if I know it will result with my rolling out of the restaurant (after my pasta and bread) in less than an hour. The only appetizer that stands out as one I was not a fan of is the mozzarella in carrozza. It’s Italian for fried mozzarella, and fried mozzarella can’t be bad, but it wasn’t special either. It was done well, and it was tasty, but with all of the other fantastic appetizers to choose from, I wouldn’t order it again.
Now, onto the pasta. The first time I ever went to Scarpetta I was torn between practically all of them. I am sad that right now their truffled ravioli is not on the menu, because that is worth an order, but my favorites are still there. My top recommendation goes to the most seemingly simplistic one on the list, and one I never would have ordered myself if a friend of mine hadn’t insisted I try his the first time I went: the homemade (all of their pastas are homemade) spaghetti with tomato and basil. When I go out to eat, I want to eat something new and exciting, or something I can’t whip up in 20 minutes, and you may think that the Scarpetta spaghetti is exactly the type of thing you can make yourself. It isn’t. I do not know what they put into it, if it is crack or butter or bit of both, but this spaghetti is unlike anything I have ever had. Yes, it is simple, but the parm, basil and tomato are in perfect balance and precisely seasoned, in a way very different than your mom used to make. It’s just a comforting bowl of tomato, cheese and herbs, and I could go on for another 15 lines, but I won’t. My second favorite pasta is their short rib and bone marrow agnolotti. It’s rich and the pasta is so thin that it practically burst in your mouth. The sauce, that has some horseradish, is barely there, so you really taste the richness of the filling. The foie gras ravioli is something I ordered the first time I went. I loved it, but I think it’s best if you order a few pastas to split and don’t have it as your only course. It’s almost a bit too rich, and the flavors meld together after about halfway through the dish. It’s still very good, and one I recommend trying, just when split with a few people.
If I had one criticism of the restaurant itself, it’s that the service, while great, is almost too speedy. If you get there early (we took my boyfriend’s mother for her birthday in July and sat at 5:30pm), they very clearly get the food out quickly in order to make room for the 7:30 onslaught. If I am going to a restaurant of Scarpetta’s caliber, I want to relax and enjoy my meal, not be served the entree within 30 seconds of finishing the appetizer. I have had similar problems when dining there in the 7:30-8:30 time-frame too (it’s a hit or a miss at that time), and the only solution I can think of is just to eat slowly.