Though it occasionally seems as if either David Rockwell or Adam Tihany has signed off on the blueprints of every new space waiting for the gas to be turned on, new restaurants are still offering a staggeringly wide range of environments. Markt's industrialized beer hall, Fressen's earth-toned Mondrian landscape, the Mercer Kitchen's sexy urban grotto, Ruby Foo's mah-jongg tournament, and Maratti's stoic four-handed-bridge clubbiness (complete with bad Impressionist art) have little in common except their lack of adherence to any formula. At places like Pop and Five Points, even serious diners -- the kind who consider visually themed restaurants more pathetic than Steve Forbes's presidential run -- seem willing to have their senses indulged before they open a menu.
Nothing of the kind is happening at Scopa. And while it has nothing on the forest of the Blair Witch, walking in here makes for an eerie first impression. How come the potentially patrician, hi-ceilinged rectangular salon has such bare, obviously slapdash walls? Gold-framed mirrors are too small. The floors are akin to those at some Chinese takeout place where they hose the joint down at night. The huge bouquet in the middle of the room isn't huge enough. There are cheesy café curtains. And the graceful glass chandeliers, the only truly handsome pieces on view, are hung too high. Is there a plan to all this?
Yup. Scopa is doubling its square footage in six months. This is just a temporary set, a pastel-soft and comfortable-against-all-odds, if disorienting, oasis obscuring a surrounding desert of Sheetrock, dust, and exposed wires. That explains why, though the entrance is now on 28th Street, directory assistance claims the official address is 79 Madison.
Still, Vincent Scotto doesn't appear all that bothered sautéing on a construction site. Though no relation to the family that runs Fresco by Scotto as if all its patrons were staying with them for the weekend, Vincent Scotto was their original and defining chef. And he still appreciates the "big" meal as much as his former employers, so why should a little thing like tacky drapery keep him from doing what he's done so well for so long?
A new kitchen is always an example of overworked-in-progress, but Scotto has quite a few reasons to whistle while he works. No one in town makes a better grilled pizza crust -- thin as a bad excuse and crisp as the unforgiving response. That he Scroogily offers only two pizza choices at a time -- we sampled the perfect margarita and a silken but spicy eggplant-purée -- gives one pause to wonder if this Italian ever had a Calvinist step-grandfather. Chilled corn-and-potato soup is soothing yet airy, with a swirl of roasted peppers for bite. I don't get the egg on the roasted asparagus, but sprinkled with pancetta and onion, this beats the usual steamed spears anytime. Caesar is not always the breeziest salad, but this one is as light and summery as the house's bresaola-and-orange salad with endive and radicchio. Tender littlenecks in a clear tomato broth of peppers and fennel are a spray of red-pepper flakes away from being superb. What can't be bested, though, are thick, translucent curls of sweet grilled onion freckled by parsley, showered by parmigiano, dotted with lemon olive oil, and bejeweled by garnet bruschetta croutons.
Not surprisingly, the most rapturously received bowlful on the menu is a deliriously seductive ragout of onions, leeks, scallions, garlic, cherry peppers, and olive oil. This is a great pasta dish. There is also a refreshing if tame pappardelle with tomatoes, corn, and basil, a spaghettini with clams (more hot pepper!), and a delicious ragu of prosciutto and vegetables that barely acknowledges the potato soufflé that somehow got beneath it.
The entrées ain't dainty. Scotto cooks as if his own family had lived in Sunnyside for three generations. But oddly enough, this is the one area of the menu where a man who made his mark ladling gut punches of flavor repeatedly checks his swing, as if he were fearful of intimidating new clients. Veal chops and tuna and pork tenderloin are wonderfully grilled but shortchanged of their distinctive spices. More lemon and garlic for the tuna! Rub that pork in coriander and cinnamon! Don't stint on the basil oil and toasted bread and garlic that all belong on a tender halibut. The cornmeal breading on soft-shell crabs is swell, but the sweet-potato-and-corn salad, lacking in lemon and olive oil, is redolent only of rosemary; this throws the whole dish off. The lamb shank is thoroughly misconceived, tough and flat as if cooked at too high for not long enough. And as for the mania for serving rib steaks barely smaller than a BMW Z3: Yummy as all that blackened edge can be, they're too Flinstonian, too expensive (Scopa's 36-ounce rib eye is $42.50), and too obvious an example of prosperity overkill. It's like buying a Z3 with a "gold" package.
Dessert, on the other hand, should always veer close to overboard. And though Scotto offers just five finales, three teeter happily on the brink. Peach tart is lovely and polite; actually, it's overshadowed by the vanilla gelato and raspberry sauce. But a finger-swiping brown-sugar cheesecake marvelously tarted with caramelized bananas, pine nuts, and a smudge of caramel is true devil's food. Scotto's flourless chocolate cake is expertly guilt-ridden, and his chocolate-hazelnut-praline cookie sandwich filled with chocolate-hazelnut gelato is way too much, almost gross. We should have had two.
But could we afford it? I do find it creepier than that Blair Witch (though nothing will ever be as spooky as Linda Blair) that the price differential between dinner at Le Cirque and just grabbing a bite after a movie is now often not much more than the price of the movie ticket. So how many allowances should one make for Scopa while it finishes hammering out its kinks, both in and out of the kitchen? Lespinasse it's not. But neither does it make you feel like you ought to be dressed in J. Press. And The Four Seasons doesn't have that onion ragout or those cookies. Oh, go. All of you. This way, by the time I get back there, all your charges will have paid for the renovation and I can eat and finally enjoy the view.
Scopa, 27 East 28th Street (686-8787). Dinner, 5:30-11 p.m. Monday to Saturday; open for lunch starting August 23, 11:30 a.m-2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. Appetizers, $8-$14; entrées, $15-$42.50. All major credit cards.