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Scarpetta

The second coming of the Meatpacking District.

355 W. 14th St., at Ninth Ave. (212) 691-0555
Seven days a week, 5:30 p.m.-11:30 p.m.
CUISINE Southern Italian.
VIBE Grown-up Meatpacking.
OCCASION Trendy date; group dining.
DON’T-MISS DISH Spaghetti with tomato & basil; scallop crudo; roasted capretto.
PRICE Appetizers, $12-$17; entrees, $22-$37; dessert, $11.
RESERVATIONS Highly recommended.

In the past three weeks, I’ve eaten at
Scarpetta three times. And every time, I ate too much. I ate polenta
and panna cotta. I ate borlotti bean soup and imported burrata, braised
short ribs and boneless veal shank. I ate scallops seared and as crudo.
I ate cod and capretto. I ate ravioli, raviolini, tagliatelle,
spaghetti, stromboli and lots of mascarpone butter.

Wait, there’s
more. I ate “pie” and “cheesecake.” Not to mention yellowtail, octopus,
tuna and fritto misto. And all the homemade bread I could get my hands
on.

I probably went up a size, which is not something I want happening every week.

I blame Scott Conant.
He has a wonderful way with the simplest ingredients. Polenta, after
all, is just boiled cornmeal. Until you add milk, cream and Parmesan
and layer it with preserved truffles and a couture mix of mushrooms.

Then
it becomes almost opulent. Or the spaghetti – just eggs, water and
flour. But the spaghetti at Scarpetta embraces its humility. It wants
nothing more than a wash of fresh tomato sauce and basil. It costs $22
and earns it.

So many chefs in New York are busy serving arguments. Conant serves conclusions.

And
to think, all this happens in a room that was once The Village Idiot –
a place where you could buy a five-dollar pitcher of beer, spill most
of it on your waitress, listen to the jukebox and gamble at the
worn-out pool table.

How do you get from The Village Idiot to Scarpetta? That’s what the Meatpacking District is asking. Florent is about to close after 23 years. Mark’t was replaced by an Apple Store. Sascha quickly became Merkatto 55. Nothing lasts forever in this trendy corner of town.

Scarpetta
suggests the direction the Meatpacking District might be heading,
bringing an uptown crowd downtown for an uptown esthetic. The mirrors
in the dining room wear orange leather belts and lean forward, so that
diners facing the wall get a panoramic view of the room. The roof
retracts.

I prefer dining in the cafe, next to the bar. The
tall, wood-strip walls give it the feel of an urban sauna. But Scott
Conant could open a halal stand and his uptown following – remembering
his success at L’Impero and Alto – would flock to it.

In
a way, Conant seems to be cooking from an idealized barnyard full of
fat, contented animals. His goat – capretto in Italian – is caramelized
on the outside, soft inside. His roast chicken is soothing, crisp and
baptized with a sauce of chicken livers, currants and almonds. The veal
shank – in too many restaurants, a Neanderthal hunk of meat – is
surprisingly feminine, brightened by a lemon gremolata and reclining on
a saffron-scented chaise longue of orzo.

As for the so-called “pie” and the so-called “cheesecake,” order
both. The apple pie crust is made of polenta and the caramel sauce has
a pronounced bite of pepper. The cheesecake is indeed cheese-deficient.
It tastes like Key lime cake batter topped with torrone, a convincing
substitute for Marshmallow Fluff.

I have fond memories of The
Village Idiot from the days when I was underage. But now that I’m
overage, I’m quite content to find myself sitting in front of a bowl of
spaghetti at Scarpetta.

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