Scarpetta – Los Angeles, CA
Scarpetta, Scott Conant’s flagship Italian restaurant, literally translates to “little shoe”, but according to our server Ian, in Italian slang, it refers to a small piece of bread used to mop up lingering sauce. And after experiencing the stupendous bread basket at Scarpetta, I really wonder if anyone expects there to be any scraps of bread left over to sop up sauce. Textbook-perfect examples of ciabatta and crusty Italian bread dot the top of the basket but digging deeper reveals even more awesomeness..
I reach deep for a piece of focacia. Almost cornbread-like in texture with a fragile, oily crust and slightly crumbly insides, it’s truly one of the best focacias I’ve ever had. And you can’t miss the Stromboli, bread filled with tasty layers of meat and cheese. Along with the accompanying trio of dips (eggplant caponata, mascarpone butter, and olive oil infused with lemon), it was essentially a meal in itself.
After stuffing ourselves silly with bread (we worked through a second basket), a trio of waiters surrounded our table holding large dome-covered plates. Admitedly it was a bit intimidating. Standing head and shoulders above us, for a split second it seemed like they were going to throw the dishes at us for eating too much bread! A whirlwind of movements later, our appetizers were set on the table.
First on deck was Scott Conant’s Creamy Polenta with Truffled Fricassee of Mushrooms. I’m pretty sure if there were KFCs in heaven, God would replace the mashed potatoes and gravy with Scott Conant’s polenta. It’s almost a disservice to merely call this polenta. My first bite left me wondering if the kitchen used equal amounts of butter, cream, and cornmeal. Velvety smooth beyond belief, the polenta was absolutely decadent. The accompany sauce of stewed mushrooms was robust, woodsy, and loaded with what tasted like a red wine reduction. Certainly the best polenta I’ve ever had!
We tucked into a duck and foie gras ravioli next. My friends enjoyed this; for some reason, I did not. While the ravioli skin was very good, the duck meat filling was dry and chalky– reminiscent of shredded overcooked chicken breast. While the drizzled marsala sauce helped moisten the filling, it ended up completely overpowering the hint of foie gras poking through.
Roasted Sea Scallops with Caramelized Sunchoke Puree and Porcini Mushrooms were up next. Though not quite as large as the scallops at L2O, these were prepared perfectly, with a golden-amber crust and a barely cooked center. I often wonder why so many restaurants overcook their scallops, resulting in tough rubbery disks that almost double as dog chew toys. Certainly not the case here! The scattering of earthy porcini mushrooms and caramalized sunchokes was the perfect accompaniment, highlighting the scallop’s sweet creaminess.
Another round of dome-covered plates studded our table. The main courses had arrived. Sitting mere inches from me was the dish that put Scott Conant on the map: a humble Spaghetti al Pomodoro. A wound tangle of noodles, tomatoes, and basil slightly larger than my fist, I questioned whether the dish was worth the $24 asking price.
One bite and I was SOLD. My mouth went slack, and my eyes rolled back as I savored the mess of noodles and sauce sitting in my mouth. A slight groan of pleasure escaped my lips; thankfully my friends were too focused on eating their own servings of spaghetti to notice.
A scant three words on Scarpetta’s menu describe the dish that will likely put Scott Conant’s children through college: “Spaghetti, tomato, and basil”. And honestly, there isn’t much more than that. The noodles have a slightly irregular texture that betrays the fact that they’re made on-site; they’re cooked perfectly and have a lightness about them that can only come from fresh noodles. The sauce, laced with butter, strips of fresh basil, a hint of red pepper, and fistfuls of fresh tomatoes is peerless. I liked the strong basil flavor in the sauce, and my friend Steph noted that red pepper flakes, garlic, and basil are infused in olive oil and added at the very end. Conant believes “the last thing you add will be the first thing you taste”. Simple but profound.
After the spaghetti, I’m really tempted to just stop writing here. It’s not that the rest of the meal wasn’t good– we ordered an incredible pancetta-wrapped veal tenderloin (1). Cooked sous-vide, the meat was tender and juicy, with the pancetta adding a jolt of flavor. A mediocre beet and ricotta agnolotti (2) followed, and a superb spelt chitarra with pumpkin (3) rounded out the entrees. Desserts included a coconut pannacotta with a guava sauce (4), which was so delicate it couldn’t make the trip from the plate to my mouth; an amazing chocolate cake with burnt orange caramel gelato (5), which crispy, brownie-like exterior shell gave way to a moist almost fudge-like interior. The accompanying burnt caramel gelato (6) was superlative– so much so that we asked for extra scoops! Click the collage below for a huge version.
But back to the spaghetti– it just keeps pulling me back. I thought about it the day after. Hell, I can’t stop thinking about it right now! Astonishing in simplicity, this spaghetti represents everything I love about Italian food: it’s soulful, honest, and unpretentious. It highlights ingredient quality and rewards careful preparation. I love how Scott Conant built his Italian restaurant empire on one the most humble and accessible pastas; countless moms across the world have prepared spaghetti at least one point in their lives. I’m convinced this pasta dish ranks up there with what I think are the best pastas in LA: Angelini Osteria’s Bombolotti all’ Amatriciana, Osteria Mozza’s Ricotta & Egg Raviolo with Brown Butter, and Osteria Mamma’s Carbonara.
Italian food resonates so strongly with me, and Scott Conant’s spaghetti reminded me once again of that. Although Italian cuisine is comforting and familiar -people think of fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, and cured meats- it simultaneously manages to be so simple yet so tricky. It’s inherent purity and simplicity means things can easily go wrong if produce and technique are less than flawless.
And that’s where Scott Conant shines. One leaves Scarpetta feeling like the chef respects his ingredients. For the most part, he doesn’t tread far from classic Italian cooking– rustic ingredients coupled with perfect technique. With each dish, Mr. Conant manages to elevate the inherent flavor of the main ingredient without overpowering the dish as a whole. The spaghetti sauce tasted like the very best ripe tomatoes were used. Steph remarked at how the veal was brimming with meaty flavor. Despite veal usually not being an inherently flavorful meat, I couldn’t agree more.
As we paid our bill and stood up to leave, our affable server Ian invited us to take a look at Scarpetta’s kitchen. Of course, we collectively pounced on the opportunity. Scarpetta’s kitchen is gorgeous and expansive, and the first I’ve seen that grows fresh herbs right alongside the Chefs’ mise en place. Although Scott Conant was not in then (he was busy setting up his Vegas location), the chefs who were in were very gracious and encouraged us to eat at the Chef’s Counter -a five-person counter in the back of the kitchen- the next time we were in. Given tonight’s strong showing, I just might have to take him up on his offer.
225 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210