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Restaurants & Bars 7

Scarpetta: Old(er), but still kicking

michelleats | Sep 2, 201101:12 PM

Accompanying photographs here: http://www.girleatscity.com/2011/09/s...

Scott Conant's Chelsea gem is no longer as trendy as it was two or three years ago, but it's still good. On our recent visit, I started with a long-time menu standard of chilled pea soup with crabmeat, cucumber & riesling gelee (pictured at the top of this post). Its longevity isn't difficult to explain: The soup was excellent, the best dish we tried at this recent dinner. It's a pretty shade of bright, vivid green, with an equally vivid flavor. Cucumber and -- I think -- thinly sliced snow peas or sugar snap peas added a lovely crunch, which contrasted nicely with the generous portion of substantial, non-fishy crabmeat. A riesling gelee added a touch of sweetness, interesting texture and some glamour quotient, though I didn't really think it was necessary, flavorwise. The natural sweetness of the peas was potent enough on its own.

Another appetizer of olive oil braised octopus with saffron potatoes, green garlic & celery included some of the most tender octopus I've tried, anywhere. I'm not sure I enjoyed the almost-but-not-quite mushy texture as much as I enjoy octopus with a very slight bite, but the flavor was deep and rich, and the softness contrasting very nicely with the crunchy, fried potato garnish sprinkled over top. Cut fingerling potatoes in the dish had a pleasant, slightly leathery skin, the result of either pan frying or roasting. Fresh celery leaves and mild, sauteed garlic scapes helped lighten what would've otherwise been a very heavy dish.

One dining companion has ordered the famed spaghetti with tomato and basil on every visit and this time was no different. I've never tried it, but he clearly loves it passionately, managing to finish the generous pile despite our late, large lunch. It seems like a very simple dish, but by all accounts I've read, it's supremely well executed, made with slow-simmered Roma tomatoes.

My other dining companion's main of wild striped bass with baby artichokes, leeks & spring onions was surprisingly hearty. Impeccably fresh, meaty fish, cooked to a perfect temperature, came with gorgeously crisped skin and went nicely with the oily, but delicious, sweet leeks and artichokes, tossed with a bit of bacon or pancetta.

I wavered between a lighter main of black cod with caramelized fennel and concentrated tomatoes, and the moist roasted capretto with rapini, pancetta & potatoes, before our waiter disclosed that the latter was a house specialty. I'm a sucker for house specialties, but I probably should've gone with the more seasonal fish preparation. The capretto was fair, with tender, but sometimes oddly dry, pieces of a boneless short-rib-like cut of young goat, barely gamey. The oily dish included still-crisp, fried, small dice potatoes, diced pancetta and some much-needed bitter rapini to cut through the heaviness. It was not the best rendition of capretto I've had, but it was competent and I probably would've enjoyed it much more had the temperature outside been about 20 degrees F cooler.

We shared a bottle of Dolcetto d'Alba Roagna 2009 (Piemonte), which was a bit young, probably, but we wanted a red that was light enough to work well with most of our food. This straightforward, simple, easy-drinking wine fit the bill. There were hints of cherry on the nose and maybe a light whiff of tobacco, with hardly any tannins. The bottle came at a great serving temperature, though it did become slightly too warm, sitting on our outside table, by the end of the meal.

We didn't order dessert because my dining companions had filled up on bread before our food came, but that bread basket does deserve mention. Both of them raved about it and one (who has partaken of many a good bread basket in our fair city) said it was the best he'd had, yet. The bread that garnered such lavish praise was a thin slice of what appeared to be focaccia stuffed with cured meat (salami?) and a green that could've been kale. There were other fragrant, fresh slices in the basket as well. These came with three accoutrements: good, spicy olive oil; an eggplant and tomato spread not unlike Moroccan zaalouk; and a pretty egg of sweet butter and mascarpone, topped with coarsely ground sea salt and a sprig of thyme.

Service was also noteworthy. Our waiter (Stuart S., according to our bill) was friendly, gracious and efficient, without ever making us feel hurried. Unlike some waiters, he didn't seem at all miffed that we chose to drink tap water and not order dessert.

Like child stars, New York City restaurants sometimes have identity crises after an initial moment of fame and glory, when food critics fawn at their feet. Some decline quickly, others slowly as celebrity chefs turn their attentions to other endeavors. But some, like Scarpetta, settle into the comfortable, pleasant routine of middle age, serving consistently well-made food night after night, even as the hordes of trend-seeking diners rush off to the next new thing. Scarpetta will, I'm guessing, continue to be a neighborhood favorite for many years to come.

355 West 14th Street, New York, NY 10014

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