Although world-class chefs don’t move history, as a rule, they do share certain characteristics with world-class prophets. Like prophets, star chefs tend to be intuitive figures, with grand egos. They scribble their teachings in fussed-over books, collect legions of worshipful acolytes, and are known, occasionally, to speak in tongues. Also like prophets, chefs sometimes disappear for periods of time to wander introspectively in the desert. Joël Robuchon famously took a sabbatical from cooking, then returned with the haute bar-dining concept he’s since popularized around the globe. Thomas Keller bombed with his first big New York venture, Rakel, languished for a time, then resurfaced a changed man at his great French Laundry, in Napa. Now comes Scott Conant, who rose to prominence as the chef and co-owner of the fine midtown Italian restaurants Alto and L’Impero. Last year, Conant abruptly quit, and now, after wandering for a time in his own wilderness (actually, the Hamptons), he is back in a new location, with a brassy, appealingly reconceptualized restaurant called Scarpetta.
Conant began his career when the French “haute cuisine” model (tuxedoed waiters; opulent menus; small, stuffy rooms) still dominated the fine-dining world, and both L’Impero and Alto were conceived as upmarket midtown restaurants of exactly that kind. At Scarpetta, he’s chucked that old orthodoxy in favor of the new one pioneered by downtown restaurateurs like Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio. The big, airy space on 14th Street is relaxed and inclusive, and borders the meatpacking district, not the glittering towers of midtown. There’s a casual tavern area up front (à la Mr. Meyer), and the spacious dining room is lit by a skylight and colored in muted, earthy tones (à la Colicchio and Craft). The waiters wear tobacco-colored vests (Craft), and the menu has been stripped of all ornate description (again, like Craft). You half- expect to see Colicchio himself emerge from the kitchen.
But when dinner begins, it’s clear that this is Conant’s restaurant. His high-minded, almost priestly brand of Italian cooking hasn’t changed very much, but in this more casual downtown setting, the food seems more enjoyable and less precious. There are several cool, summery appetizers to choose from, including a chaste arrangement of sashimi-quality yellowtail flecked with sea salt, a mint-green pea soup with fresh crab, and delicious cubes of scallop “carpaccio” tossed with bits of citrus and soft chunks of avocado. Conant’s trademark “creamy” polenta (folded with industrial amounts of Parmesan, milk, and heavy cream) is as opulent as ever, and you can complement it with an appetizer portion of nicely braised short ribs. My favorite of these early dishes, however, was the simple, expertly cooked seafood fritto misto, which the chef mixes with frizzled bits of artichoke, eggplant, and lemon and serves the way they do on the Amalfi Coast, on a folded white napkin.
Conant devotees will be familiar with many of the pasta recipes on the menu at Scarpetta, which doesn’t make them any less exceptional. The agnolotti dal plin he introduced at Alto (little pasta pouches stuffed with ground pork and melted fontina cheese) is reproduced here, and so is the house-made tagliatelle, which is sprinkled with a rich, creamy ragù made with ground braised lamb shank and spring peas. I have dim memories of enjoying the chef’s ravioli stuffed with duck and foie gras at one of his uptown restaurants, but the dish seems a little baroque (it’s flavored with an overly sweet Marsala reduction) for the meatpacking district. This isn’t the case with Conant’s famously restrained spaghetti pomodoro (with basil and delicately simmered Roma tomatoes), or the fat rings of “calamarata” pasta dusted with mint-infused panko bread crumbs, or the delicious stamp-size raviolini, which are stuffed which a creamy, esoteric form of ricotta and finished with sliced squash blossoms and anchovy butter.
Bulky, farm-style cooking is the rage today, which may be why Conant’s entrées seem to have grown to supersize portions. At L’Impero, the chef’s much-hyped baby- goat dish (“capretto”) was served in delicate spoon-size portions. At Scarpetta, the goat is as tender as ever but lands on the table with a thud, accompanied with summer peas and a platoon of chopped fingerling potatoes. My too-dry, oven-roasted “baby chicken” wasn’t baby-size at all, and was carpet-bombed with a thick ragù made with crumblings of chicken liver. The formidable braised veal shank is fashioned in the shape of an artillery shell and topped with a delicious lemony gremolata mixed with chunks of oily, sinfully rich bone marrow. If you want something lighter, I suggest the orata (in a refined stew of mussels and giant Sardinian couscous) or the turbot, which is served with sweet caramelized endives and a nice sharp salsa verde made with anchovies and fresh parsley.
During his uptown period, Conant kept trying, in an increasingly obsessive way, to shoehorn his talents into a certain prim, Michelin-approved sensibility. At Scarpetta, the opposite is true. Restaurants in meatpacking land are always in danger of being overrun by mobs of fine-dining Visigoths from the hinterlands, but right now the space feels fresh and forward-thinking, and the cooking feels that way, too. It’s supported by a deep, Italianate wine list and a roster of competent if not mind-blowing desserts. There’s a cooling snifter of “chocolate and vanilla” parfait (flavored with hazelnuts) and a professionally constructed molten chocolate cake touched with burnt orange and made with high-grade Amadei chocolate from Italy. The most innovative dessert is the coconut panna cotta. It’s topped with caramelized pineapple and served with a spoonful of coconut sorbet, and it all melts together in a happy progression on the tongue. It’s the perfect dessert for a hot summer evening, and also the perfect antidote for a bellyful of braised goat.