Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Myth, The Spaghetti, The Legend

I have a new digital camera! It's not a DSLR (still too expensive for me), but it's hot pink!!  It's far more intelligent than my last camera, and some actual people I know :) I'm still in the process of learning the different settings, and figuring out what works best for me.  When I took the photos below, I was still in the honeymoon phase, smitten with my new toy, but hadn't really taken the time to learn the intricacies of my new mate.  I tried taking some pictures with the smart automatic setting, and some with the low light setting.  Automatic made the pictures too dark (as on most cameras), and the low light setting made them grainy and unfocused when the subject was very close.  After dinner (a little too late), I figured out what I think is a better setting for taking pictures in a dark restaurant (one of the manual settings), and hopefully next time they will come out better than the pictures below.  I apologize if they aren't the best pictures I, or the universe, have taken, but figuring out a new camera is always a work in progress :)

355 W 14th St
(between 8th Ave & Hudson St)
New York, NY 10014
(212) 691-0555

It's been talked about.  It's been on television.  Hell, it's all over the internet too.  There is a tremendous amount of buzz regarding the spaghetti with tomato and basil at Scarpetta.  Let's back track a tad.  Scarpetta means "little shoe," and in Italian slang refers to a piece of bread used to scoop up sauce.  The restaurant's facade is modest, and after months of walking by it every single day on my way to work, I still had no idea where it was until I really looked for it.  I looked hard.  The only sign was a small one by the door, no awning with large painted letters, no sign screaming "HERE I AM," just tiny, unassuming lettering on a small rectangular placard.  Chef and owner Scott Conant has definitely built up steam leading up to the opening of Scarpetta in spring 2008.  Not only is it located in the swanky and über-trendy Meatpacking District, but what has turned out to be the signature dish, the simple spaghetti, has been featured on Food Network's Best Thing I Ever Ate, Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations (Techniques show), and all over the internet including Serious Eats.

Let's start from the beginning of the meal.  I have discussed my feelings about bread baskets in the past, and can only say how vitally important I believe they are in starting a meal on the right foot.  Scarpetta blows the other bread baskets out of the water.  It's the freaking torpedo of bread baskets.  To start, it contains 4 different bread offerings: a simple crusty white Italian bread, thick and dense focaccia, stromboli (filled with meat and cheese), and a crusty roll.  There is no way you are not going to want to try every option.  If that wasn't enough, the spreads/dips that accompany the bread basket will send you over the edge: a lemon-infused olive oil, chunky eggplant and tomato caponata, and whipped mascarpone butter (yes, MASCARPONE BUTTER).  Do I really need to talk about this?  I mean, doesn't it speak for itself?  Does the fact that we left not a single crumb of bread, nor a single dab of the spreads mean anything to you?

We shared a couple appetizers, and they were both exquisite.  First, the creamy polenta with fricassee of truffled mushrooms.  This was easily the best polenta I've ever had, bar none.  It was creamy, silky, luscious perfection.  Without the mushrooms, it would have been satisfying, but with the mushrooms... again, do I really need to go there?  It was sublime.  I literally scraped every last bit from the bowl and the spoon.  None of this dish would go to waste, and if I could drown in a pool of this polenta, I would die a happy woman.

Creamy Polenta with Fricassee of Truffled Mushrooms $15

Our second appetizer was the braised short ribs of beef with vegetable and farro risotto.  Three thinly sliced pieces of perfectly fork-tender short rib laid atop a small bed of chewy farro and still somewhat crunchy vegetables to offer a lovely combination of flavors and textures.  I can't stress enough how important it is to vary colors, textures, temperatures, etc, on a plate.  This dish was a perfect example.  Topped off with strips of salty Parmigiano-Reggiano, and you have yourself a delectable plate of food.

Braised Short Ribs of Beef with Vegetable and Farro Risotto $16

Time for the main event.  Now, when I noticed all the attention surrounding the spaghetti with tomato and basil, all the fans, I wanted so badly to call them out, to say, "nope, it's not the best I've had," to say it's only spaghetti, it could never be mind-blowing, to say it was overrated, like so many other things in New York.  Well, they sure showed me!  First of all, the portion looks a lot smaller in photographs than it is in reality.  There's actually a lot of spaghetti wound up in that perfect mound.  Scott Conant doesn't believe in cooking his sauce for hours (like many old school Italians might) and he also infuses most of the flavor at the very end of the cooking, because according to him (and this really is so true), the last thing you add is the first thing you will taste.  The spaghetti itself is fresh and fairly thick, with a perfect chewy texture that one just cannot replicate with dried pasta.  It just can't be done.  The sauce clings to every bit of noodle.  It is thick and the flavor is incredibly intense.  I really did not expect it to be so good.  It's freaking spaghetti with tomato and basil!  It almost felt meaty in that way that the flavors were just so powerful, deep, and concentrated.  The spaghetti is worth the hype, it truly deserves its fame, and it's worth the $24 price tag at least once to say you tried it.  I wouldn't lie to you.  Making this dish is truly an art, and I've found the recipe online and plan to follow it to a T and see if I can match what I've tasted at Scarpetta.  Here's hoping!

Spaghetti with Tomato and Basil $24

Finally, I must say that the service here is a delight!  Our waiter (along with his team) was so pleasant, very helpful, friendly, but not overly familiar, always there when we needed, but never intruding.  At the end of our meal I asked him a rather random question, and without hesitation or judgment (yes, I'm weird for asking), he answered.  Scarpetta has the most unique placemats I've ever seen.  They are very thick, not made of cloth, and not pliable.  The underneath side seems like the material used to make portfolios (not plastic, but another stiff and heavy duty material), while the top is textured and stitched to the back making a rather thick and sturdy placemat that could be a challenge to clean regularly (for the vast number that is used daily in the restaurant).  It needs TLC.  So I asked our waiter how they clean the placemats.  Apparently each team is responsible for cleaning the placemats for their section, and they can't use the dishwasher (too delicate for that), but instead use the steam in the espresso machine to clean the placemats (one by one), and then wipe them down with a damp cloth followed by a dry one.  I thanked him for the answer and apologized for dripping olive oil on my high maintenance placemat.  I then proceeded to leave him a very large tip :) Those placemats aren't going to clean themselves.


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