I admit it, I’m late to the Scarpetta party, as the Miami Beach location of Scott Conant’s Italian empire opened back in 2008. Not that Scarpetta needs an introduction or any praise from this humble food writer to validate itself. Myriads of people have visited the many locations around the country and the consensus seems to be this, Scarpetta is one of the elite purveyors of high quality Italian cuisine.
I’ve been a fan of Italian cuisine since my mom served me spaghetti out of a jar as a toddler. Since then, having traveled a bit and eaten meal after tasty meal, I’ve been able to form a clear picture of what truly great Italian food should be. For me, that means simplicity of both ingredients and technique, having a light hand in the kitchen, allowing the freshest of ingredients to do what they do best. Luckily, Scott grew up with these lessons instilled in him from childhood by his mother and grandmother. I’m not sure great Italian food can be learned any other way really.
We arrived at Scarpetta after traipsing through the cavernous new section of the Fountainebleau Hotel. The walk to our table brought us through a slick maritime themed dining room to an outdoor veranda lined with glass, overlooking the ocean. The menu here follows the same code of simplicity. At first glance, there are no surprises, tuna bresaola, fritto misto, polenta. All typical dishes you’d find at any decent Italian joint. Therein lies the beauty. Usually I always try to find the most unusual item in an attempt to try something new, something exciting. Here, your best bet is to leave your cynical dining preconceptions at the door and stick to the old favorites. That’s exactly what we did. After devouring a basket filled with ciabatta, focaccia, soppresata stuffed stromboli, and its accompanying plate of eggplant caponata, mascarpone butter and lemon infused oil, we chose our starters.
Steak tartare with quail egg and crispy shiitake mushrooms, and the creamy polenta with fricasee of truffled mushrooms, said to be a specialty of the house. The steak was chopped so finely that there was no hint of connective tissue at all, it acted almost as a liquid on your tongue. We sensed that the chef had snuck some truffle oil in the mixture as the aroma was unmistakeable. Eyes did roll into heads at each bite, many “mmms” were uttered.
The polenta was equally bewitching. It was easily the best polenta this humble man has ever tasted, it covered my tongue like a fine mink coat. If I could, I would eat this dish for breakfast every morning. The truffle was strangely missing from the flavor, but I didn’t care.
Sadly the appetizers didn’t last long, but the entrées followed close behind. My wife chose another Scarpetta signature dish, the spaghetti with tomato and basil. You almost feel juvenile when you order it. Especially with other, seemingly more mature options like duck and foie gras ravioli or black gemelli with dungeness crab. This feeling disappears as soon as the porcelain dome is removed. You realize that you may be the wisest person in the room. The aroma is intoxicating and the color is almost palpable. It’s a perfect twirl of al dente spaghetti that somehow defies gravity, held together by nothing more than Chef Conant’s luxurious tomato sauce.
The spaghetti more than lived up to the hype. It impressed even this jaded Italian fan to the point that I Googled the recipe the second I got home. I’ll let you in on a secret, the only ingredient in the sauce is tomatoes, salt and flavor infused oil, those flavors being basil, garlic and chile flakes. It doesn’t get much simpler.
The spaghetti was a tough act to follow, but my equally beautiful pici with lobster, calabrese chiles and nduja sausage was an impressive contender. This dish is basically lobster fra diavolo, only executed perfectly. The lobster was tender to the point of melting and the chiles gave you a pleasing kick right in the mouth. It was undeniably delicious, my only nitpick is that the nduja was completely overpowered. I almost forgot it was in the dish. Perhaps it lent the sauce a fattier personality, but honestly, I didn’t miss it.
After two tongue kicking dishes like that, it’s always nice to settle things down with a refreshing dessert. While all the options were tempting, when I saw “guava soup” listed under the coconut panna cotta, it was over. The dish arrived with a petite quenelle of panna cotta in a pond of guava. A coconut tuile leaned nonchalantly and a small pile of pineapple rounded out the tropical theme. To my delight, the quenelle was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Just beneath the guava, the entire bottom of the bowl was lined with even more panna cotta. It was one of those dishes that transports your mind to some more exotic locale.
It’s an understatement to say that Scarpetta left an impression. They men and women in there, are truly masters of their craft, somehow moving Italian food forward by sticking close to tradition. From now on, as I toil away trying to recreate that spaghetti, I’ll be watching Scott on Chopped with a new-found respect.