At the new Italian restaurant Scarpetta, we have another telling of the usual story these days: a former three-star chef in one or two-star surroundings.
Here, the former big-time chef is Scott Conant, who had five stars to his name between L’Impero (three, per Asimov) and Alto (the deuce, per Bruni). He left the two restaurants in 2007, consulted a while, and is now back in Manhattan at Scarpetta, on the edge of the Meatpacking District.
The former Gin Lane space looks like a quiet country home on the outside, despite the Meatpacking madness just steps away. Indoors, there’s a large bar space for the bridge-and-tunnel set.
The dining room is decorated in a modern rustic chic, with mirrors fastened to the walls with leather saddle belts, and matching saddle leather placemats. A retractable roof could be delightful in the spring and autumn, but it was closed on a hot Saturday evening in June, so that the dining room could be air conditioned.
The exposed hard surfaces make Scarpetta a noisy restaurant when it is full—and full is how you’ll most likely find it, thanks to the sterling reputation that Conant brings with him. He’s serving the same seasonal modern Italian cuisine that brought him accolades at L’Impero.
Scarpetta, which means “little shoe,” has potential if the kitchen can work out some inconsistencies. Our first and second courses came out quickly, but we waited an eternity for the third, and we observed similar waits at other tables. When they finally came out, our entrées were somewhat disappointing.
Prices are in line with other restaurants in “former three-star chef” club, with appetizers from $11–17, pastas $22–25, and entrées $25–37. The server told us that appetizer-sized pasta portions were quickly dropped after opening, when they found the kitchen couldn’t keep up. That was apparently a wise move, since the kitchen still isn’t keeping up.
We fashioned a three-course meal by ordering an appetizer to share, followed by a pasta to share, followed by two entrées. The kitchen plated each of the first two courses as separate “half-orders” without being prompted.
The bread service could quickly become addictive. Four kinds of homemade bread came with soft butter, an eggplant spread, and a pool of olive oil. Raw Yellowtail ($16) in sea salt and ginger oil had a bright taste, and there was a nice ring of fat around the fish, although the salt crust wasn’t spread as evenly as it should be.
The second course, Agnolotti dal Plin ($24), was impeccable. Pasta pillows were filled with mixed meat and fonduta, with mushrooms and parmigiano.
Neither entrée quite lived up to expectations. A Boneless Braised Veal Shank ($31) had been allowed to cook too long, and was slightly dry—still edible, but not as well executed as it should be. We loved the bone marrow & gremolata garnish, which was applied at tableside. Pacific Orata ($26) needed to have a crisper skin. I should note that both dishes had great potential. Neither was bad, and both could very well be winners in the long run.
The wine list emphasizes Italy and France, and there are plenty of bottles at reasonable prices. A 2000 Portulano was only $53.
For a restaurant as crowded as this, the serving staff did an excellent job of staying on top of things. This bodes well for Scarpetta, assuming that the kitchen can work out of its early growing pains. There is some very good food here, though no one should have the illusion that the quality or consistency matches the palmiest days at L’Impero.
Scarpetta (355 W. 14th Street, east of Ninth Avenue, Meatpacking District)