Scarpetta's Michael Pirolo and Nina Compton, Incoming and Outgoing Chefs, Talk Conant, Pomodoro, and Flavor (Part One)

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Michael Pirolo, chef de cuisine at Scarpetta, worked his last day at the Fontainebleau restaurant last Friday; he is moving on to partner with the Pubbelly guys on Macchialina Taverna Rustica (820 Alton Road, in the space formerly filled by Silvano). Nina Compton, formerly Scarpetta's sous chef, has taken over the helm -- just the second female chef at the Fontainebleau.

The two have teamed here since Scarpetta's pre-opening, and were still together in the kitchen cooking up some of Scarpetta's new menu items while we talked. Actually, they talked. I mostly ate, trying to jot down some notes while doing so. When I did ask a question, I would generally have food in my mouth, so it would sound like this:

Tho, Nina, where are thu thrum?

She's from St. Lucia, and came to Miami 11 years ago. The first part of this conversation with the two chefs includes what Nina learned from Michael at Scarpetta and from Norman Van Aken at Norman's; an unexpected guest at her tryout for the head chef position; the beauty of Scarpetta's spaghetti pomodoro; details and photos of menu items, and more.

Upon coming to Miami, it apparently didn't take Nina long to figure out who to learn cooking from: She worked under local heavyweights such as Philippe Ruiz at Palme d'Or and Norman Van Aken at the original Norman's restaurant. "Seeing Norman work with yucca, plantains, and conch opened my eyes. Coming from the Caribbean, I didn't see people doing this on a fine dining level. I realized these foods don't always have to be rustic."

I ask Nina what she had learned from Michael. "I've learned a lot," she starts, when he interrupts while cooking at the stove just a few feet away, "I can hear you. Embellish." They both laugh. She continues her thought: "It's not always about the price of the ingredients, but how to bring out the simplest, brightest flavors from them."

Like the spaghetti pomodoro, I suggest, mentioning the nationally famous signature dish of Scott Conant, executive chef of Scarpetta in New York City and Miami. "It's our simplest dish, but you never get tired of it," Nina says. "It takes on a life of its own," interjects Michael. "Customers will come in and say 'I want to try the so and so, but I have to have the spaghetti pomodoro'." "It's a must," Nina adds, but both are content with that, as the dish represents the ideal of the simplicity of cooking they adhere to. "If we do 500 covers," Michael says, "we'll sell a hundred spaghetti dishes. Easily."

The scallop dish pictured below is one of Nina's creations that are new to Scarpetta's menu. "Going into spring, I wanted to keep the flavors light and refreshing."

New menu items need to be OK'd by Conant. "We email recipes and photos back and forth," Nina says of the process. From there they get prepared "in the test kitchen in New York." Conant is "open to a lot of things." "Working with Scott gets you really focused on the customer," says Michael. "Nothing else matters except the customers -- are they happy?"

Scott Conant was just one of "a lot of tough judges" at Nina's tryout for the chef de cuisine position. "It was with the VP of Food & Beverage Jeff Klein, the Fontainebleau executive chef Thomas Connell, and -- unannounced -- hotel owner Jeffrey Soffer. "I didn't know he was going to be there," Nina recalls. "Nobody told me until I presented my first dish. I almost clamped up -- 'What is he doing here?' It added more pressure, but they loved it."

Michael was in the kitchen helping out. Nina recalls saying to him, "'How do you want it plated?', and he replied 'No, how do you want it plated?' I said, 'Oh, right' It was so odd."

Most of chef Compton's family still resides in St. Lucia. They were all thrilled to hear of her getting the promotion, but none more so than her 97-year old grandmother. "She was so overwhelmed, she was crying," Nina recalls. "Out of my family, it was the biggest deal for her."

Tomorrow: Michael's feelings about leaving Scarpetta and moving on to Macchialina; the duo's favorite cookbooks, chefs, and local restaurants; details on two amazing new pasta dishes; and the time a surprise guest came knocking at Scarpetta's kitchen door during a busy Friday night (hint: a big superstar).

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