“If you are what you eat, I only want to eat the good stuff.” – Remy, Ratatouille
Last Sunday I took the bus up to New York City to meet two very close friends, Vik and Christina, for dinner at Scott Conant’s Scarpetta. I’ve known both of them for over seven years now, and I hold our friendship very dear to my heart. Vik is one of my mentors, was the professor most directly connected to igniting my interest in sociology and criminology during college, and was the most instrumental person in encouraging me to follow a passion and go to graduate school. He and Christina, like me, are also driven by a deep desire to not just eat or make good food, but to experience food. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to see them – and going to a really nice New York City Italian restaurant for dinner with them was the icing on the cake.
What does all of this have to do with a review of a restaurant? Well, for me, it has everything to do with it. This is something you should probably know about me going forward: to me, eating is not just about the act of having and enjoying food, it’s about sharing an experience. At a restaurant, the quality of service, the ambiance of the location, and, of course, the food all combine to create an experience, but it is the people you share the meal with that cement the memories. This is not to say one cannot enjoy a meal alone, I have done so many times, but it is to say that when reviewing a restaurant or describing a meal, the company I share that meal with is often just as important, if not more important, than the meal itself. Last Sunday I spent over three hours enjoying not only one of the most wonderful meals of my life, but I spent those three hours with two of my favorite people – and, at the end of the day, that time is just as valuable to me as the memories of the food I consumed. With that said, let’s dive in and I will do my best to re-create our evening so you can share our experience too.
Scott Conant’s Scarpetta is at first glance a very warm, welcoming space. Upon walking in, the black wood shelving of the softly lit bar to your right grabs your attention and doesn’t let go until you’ve also noticed the bar’s white marble countertop and what appears to be an original brick wall behind the bar in the first room. It is a nice, subtle reminder that this restaurant is a modern take on an old tradition.
Escorted back to the sky-lit dining room, we were surprised to find that in this cozy room that can seat 75, even with most of the seats filled, we never had to raise our voice or talk over the sound of any other patrons. Somehow Conant figured out how to create a space where you are completely surrounded by others yet able to have a fully intimate meal with just those you came with – an incredibly important trick.
The three of us knew going into the meal that there was really only one thing we wanted to have: the entirety of Scarpetta’s tasting menu along with the wine pairing. Conant knows where the strengths of his menu are, and unlike many other chefs, he puts his best hits on the tasting menu. Christina and I really wanted to try one dish that was not on the tasting menu, but we were assured that was no problem at all, and with that, our meal was set and we were in for a delicious evening. For those who may not know, a tasting menu is a culinary tour of a restaurant’s menu through small plates, some ranging from a single bite to larger dishes which may take 8-10 or more depending on the restaurant. Our dinner featured thirteen of these such plates.
To begin, we all got cocktails, I had the San Remo, and the bread basket was the first thing to arrive. Scarpetta’s bread was touted as one of the best in New York City, and it did not disappoint. One bite into the house-made Stromboli packed with smoked mozzarella and salami and we instantly understood our waiter’s warning, “The bread basket is the death of the tasting menu.”
It took all of my self-control not to have another piece. It was, quite simply, the best bread basket I have ever had.
(If you want to follow along with our meal, I linked to the tasting menu above, and this is the dinner menu with more detail for each dish.)
Our dinner started with two pieces of sashimi. The first was Yellowtail Tuna brushed with Olio di Zenzero oil, and topped with sea salt and pickled red onion.
This was one of the finest pieces of sashimi I can remember (and I love sashimi), and one of Christina’s favorite dishes as well. The oil that had been brushed on was neither too oily or too strong; it was just right. The tuna “Susci” with marinated vegetables and preserved truffles was unfortunately overpowered by the sprouts rolled inside and was definitely the weaker of the two dishes.
Our next set of dishes started with the Braised Short Ribs of Beef with Vegetables and Farro Risotto.
It was clear the short ribs had been slowly cooking since the early morning; they melted in your mouth, and the sauce was perfectly applied. The risotto was also wonderfully cooked, with the vegetables included adding a nice, almost fall-like flavor to the dish.
The real surprise of this set was the Mozzarella in Carrozza.
I will leave it to Vik to describe one of his favorite dishes of the evening: “The Mozzarella in Carrozza with oil-poached cherry tomatoes and basil was a revelation. Not only was it the best take ever on both fried mozzarella and the caprese salad, the texture of the cheese, which had been just gently coated with panko and warmed, not fried, was something that I will go back to this restaurant for in the future. It was a simple yet perfect dish.” My sentiments exactly.
As a complement of the chef, we also received the Creamy Polenta with Truffled Mushrooms.
The polenta was perfectly textured, and the truffled mushrooms were delectable, each with a deep, rich creamy flavor that had you craving another bite.
Next we were presented with Conant’s signature dish: Spaghetti Tomato Basil.
It seems simple, and it is, but it’s a dish I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to recreate. The sauce is made from slow-cooked tomatoes and the basil is tossed in with the house-made spaghetti at the last minute to add just the perfect amount of balance. I was personally underwhelmed by the dish, but that is not to say it was not delicious, it was just completely overshadowed by the other two dishes we received during this course. I found myself wanting to finish the spaghetti just so I could eat more of the other two.
The first was Christina’s favorite dish of the evening, and the one dish she and I desperately wanted to try that was not on the tasting menu: the Duck & Foie Gras Ravioli with a Marsala reduction.
This ravioli was absolutely wonderful, with the Marsala reduction being the perfect complement to the dish. The Marsala reduction provided a nice sweet balance to the duck and foie gras – each ravioli was packed with a wonderful balance and texture of flavor.
However, and I apologize to the Duck and Foie Gras Ravioli, but I can’t wait any longer to talk about my favorite dish of the evening, the Short Rib & Bone Marrow Agnolotti served with garlic chips and a horseradish sauce.
I was hesitant about this dish, as I’ve never had bone marrow before, but upon sinking my teeth into the perfectly tender agnolotti ravioli, I sat back in my chair, closed my eyes, motioned to Vik and Christina to just talk among themselves, and I savored that bite for what seemed like an eternity before I reached for another. I couldn’t get enough. The horseradish was not overpowering, and in fact gave just the right amount of zing to the dish. The bone marrow and short ribs combine to create a deep, rich, buttery, and sweet flavor I can still taste when I think about it; it was combination impossible to beat. The Short Rib and Bone Marrow Agnolotti at Scarpetta was easily the best pasta dish I have ever had.
For our next round, Vik had the Fennel-Dusted Black Cod with concentrated tomatoes, mantecato and black olive oil.
I only had one bite of the dish, but Vik was very impressed, saying it was exactly the way Cod should be cooked. Christina and I chose the Spiced Duck Breast with corn, wild mushrooms, cherries, and a foie gras emulsion. The foie gras emulsion (a foam in this case) was delicious, and while the duck was well-prepared, personally, the surprise of the dish for me was the java bean puree on the side. I have never been a huge java bean fan, but Scarpetta made me a believer in its potential. Yet another surprise in a night full of them.
At long last, we were at the mercy of the chef for desert. The three deserts we received were a very rich and decadent Amadei Chocolate Cake with salted caramel gelato and chocolate butterscotch, an off-the-menu frozen Black Forest Chocolate Cake with cherries, and my and Vik’s second favorite dish of the evening, the Coconut Panna Cotta with guava sauce and caramelized pineapple.
I’ll leave it to Vik’s words again: “It was one of the most perfectly balanced desserts I have ever eaten–not too sweet, not too tart, familiar, yet with a few twists that made it new. Most importantly, it was so very refreshing.”
Coffee followed deserts, and not once were we rushed or encouraged to leave as we stayed to talk even more. In fact, quite the opposite – our waters continued to be refilled until the minute we left.
“The bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.” – Anton Ego, Ratatouille
Overall, our meal at Scarpetta was exquisite. For the $90 price of the tasting menu, I do not know if you will find a better deal (although with time, I will be trying to find out if that’s possible!). But from start to finish, every dish at Scarpetta was not only unique and intensely flavorful, but each was satisfying and complimented the next dish in a way that made the meal a three-hour Italian culinary tour de force during which Vik, Christina, and I smelled, tasted, and savored thirteen different dishes, five different glasses of wine, and an evening none of us will ever forget.
Please note: None of the pictures featured in this post were taken by myself, Vik, or Christina. They were gathered from the internet and from a variety of sources including Scarpetta’s website.