Italian Soul Food Simmers at Scarpetta
Executive chef Scott Conant and his restaurant Scarpetta recently docked at the Fontainebleau fresh from the flagship eatery's spectacularly successful launch last year in New York. Conant had previously made his name at that city's L'Impero and Alto, and Scarpetta simmers with a similar Italian soul food ethic — along with his signature touch of refinement. Italian natives might not recognize most of the offerings here, but neither would they be likely to complain.
The sleek décor takes a nautical detour from standard design. Floor-to-ceiling windows and an outdoor veranda wrap around the room, with the ocean and poolscape adding a sparkling backdrop. Portholes, filament lighting, and fat columns bound with leather, rope, and shiny reflective material set a swank and unique Love Boat theme.
All service hands are on deck and well prepped. The crew of waiters and buspersons promptly brings guests water, menus, and wine lists, the last rife with Old World labels from Italy, France, and Spain (although anything from the resort's 900-bottle selection is available at the guest's request). Prices ($28 to $1,000) and markups (2.5 to 3 times) are predictable.
A bread basket also arrived briskly. It brimmed with ciabatta, focaccia, and two small triangles of stromboli rolled with salami, mozzarella cheese, and basil leaves — as richly delicious as a petite pastrami sandwich. Alongside the bread were dishes of lemon-scented olive oil, exemplary eggplant-tomato caponata, and a deliriously rich mascarpone-butter spread sprinkled with sea salt crystals. At this point, I'm thinking, Bring the bottle of wine and let's call it a meal.
And yet the succinct, seasonal menu beckons with alluring offerings. The simplest item consists of six slight slices of exquisitely soft, raw hamachi yellowtail misted with ginger-infused olive oil and speckled with coarse crystals of Hawaiian baked-clay sea salt. Conant's signature spaghetti pomodoro is hardly more complex: Thick, coarse strands of the pasta are twirled into a nest with a slow-cooked sauce made from nothing but fresh tomatoes, basil, a pinch of Parmesan, butter, and olive oil. This clean rendition clearly elevates the elemental appeal of noodles and red sauce — but it was served lukewarm in a covered white tureen, to be divvied onto two ice-cold side plates.
We preferred chewy, roughhewn rectangles of agnolotti dal plin (all pastas are prepared on premises). The Piedmontese pouches — puffed with a smooth purée of veal, pork, and melted fontina cheese — lusciously luxuriate in butter, cream, truffle oil, and Parmesan. Soup du jour was likewise lascivious — the thin, truffled chestnut purée centered by a cylindrical raft of braised oxtail topped with shredded green apple.
A modest appetizer portion of fritto misto evoked considerably less rapture. Calamari, a couple of kernels of rock shrimp, and a few zesty zanchetti — sardine-size, sole-like fish from the Adriatic, which were coated in flour before frying. Other items in the mix were two slim quarters of artichoke heart, wisps of lemon slices, garlic, herbs, and slivers of zucchini as thin and tasteless as toothpicks. Everything in the mix was freshly fried, but nothing was crisp.
Bistecca di manzo, a grilled New York strip served in half-inch slices, possessed a strange, almost grainless texture, as well as marbles of moistening fat and a buoyant beef flavor. A bounty of baby vegetables (fingerling potatoes, heirloom beets, cipollini onions, and baby white carrots) buttressed the beef, as did a thin spinach purée potently perfumed with truffle oil — Scarpetta's unbridled use of which brings to mind Jonathan Gold's quip about truffle oil being the yuppie answer to ketchup.
A two-inch-thick milk-fed veal chop was the most tender I have ever eaten, and nothing can take that away from it — although a packet of grease-soaked greens underneath was an unpleasant addition. The splash of veal jus was oily too, yet entrées are generously garnished (you will not leave Scarpetta hungry), so this course had plenty more to offer — such as two disks of saffron-tinted semolina dumplings and firm, juicy nuggets of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (the only accompaniment really worthy of sharing a plate with the veal).
Turbot's lean and delicate flesh is full-flavored enough to pair with darkly caramelized onions, leeks, and endive, but a bitter, vinegar-tinged watercress purée ("salsa verde") pasted onto the plate thoroughly masks the two thin fillets when applied. Solution: Don't apply. Densely concentrated tomatoes and caramelized fennel more successfully squired a succulent square of black cod; the vegetable flavors echoed in a glaze atop the fish.
One version of the dessert menu was tempting. It included olive oil cake with mascarpone cream, citrus salad, and tangerine sorbet, as well as walnut torte with chestnut mousse and blackberry sorbet. But both items later disappeared from the lineup. Has a conservatism crept into Scarpetta's pastry department, or did our visits inadvertently coincide with duller daily bills of fare? Not sure, but molten chocolate cake consoled as best it could. The size and shape of a hockey puck (which is to say larger than the norm), it boasts a baked exterior of Amedei chocolate from Tuscany that implodes into a warm, bittersweet pool of melted chocolate within. A quenelle of burnt-orange/caramel gelato pairs damn near perfectly.
Mini cannolis flaunt convention via loose pastry cream fillings, as opposed to the thicker, pastier ricotta cream common in Brooklyn's Italian neighborhoods. A disk of lemony cheesecake hewed closer to conformity — its smooth, creamy custard and moist crumb crust lifted by a puff of goat cheese and a scintillating scoop of sorbet featuring bright white bites of sheer vanilla chill. A quintet of cheese selections (choice of three for $12) includes silky Robiola Bosina from Piedmont, served with stewed figs, chamomile, and honey; and Blu del Moncenisio, a creamy cow's milk from the same region, with apple and pear mostarda.
The S.S. Scarpetta wasn't all smooth sailing. Upon arriving punctually for our reservation, a hostess invited us to wait in the lounge until seating was available. There were, in fact, at least four unoccupied tables set at the time, one of which we were led to — 15 minutes later. Generally speaking, there is a bit of snootiness in the air, as well as a high noise volume, which is great for imparting a lively ambiance, but not so hot for conversing. And ceiling vents around the perimeter of the room blow cold air directly upon diners seated beneath them. On our first visit, one group asked to be moved; on another, a patron requested a tablecloth to use as a wrap. Ironically, the defining characteristics of Scarpetta's cuisine are its honesty and warmth. Bring a sweater. Hop onboard.
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