John Curtas is …

SCARPETTA – Seriously

Scarpetta‘s problems are twofold: First, it’s the hardest restaurant to find on the third floor of The Cosmopolitan; second, how to distinguish itself from the other top Italians in town.

Finding it isn’t hard if you take the east parking garage elevator to the third floor. Follow the restaurant signs and you’ll run right into its (rather subtle) sign. If you come up the escalator, you will have to seek out it’s slightly hidden doorway to the left of D.O.C.G. — its more casual cousin. Once you find it, you’ll be struck by the architectural challenges of shoehorning a restaurant into an oddly-shaped space. Then you’ll notice the long thin hallway housing the long, thin bar running parallel to a bunch of two-top cubby holes/enclaves running along the wall, and when you finally get to your seat, you’ll notice that the food is big and bold, befitting the boffo reputation of its bohunk benefactor Scott Conant. The problem ELV has with it is: some of it seems a tad business-like and blasé.

This is not a bad thing…especially if you’re the business brains behind the Conant Plan — seeking to put Scarpettas and D.O.C.G.s in every corner of the gustatory globe. “He’s going to be the next Todd English,” a friend of ELV’s opined. “God, let’s hope not,” groaned ELV, “If the quality-control and flavors we’ve tasted at his New York and Vegas outposts are any indication, he’s headed more towards Mario Batali-land… and that’s pretty cool.

What’s not so cool, of course, is that Scarpetta, like most restaurants that plant their flag in our humble burg, is a clone, craftily conceived to convey comestibles coolly and carefully to convention-al crowds. High-wire cooking is not its concern, so it causes a kerfuffle in ELV’s constricted cranium when the food is this concupiscent.

Which means it’s worth a confabulation, even if it is a chain.*

Not any old chain, mind you, but one that rose from the ashes of Conant’s break with his NYC partners to pursue more gutsy, less precious cooking. His cuisine seems designed to cleave to critics and the consumer class…no small feat that. By and large he succeeds, with a spaghetti pomodoro that appears to be the last word on the subject, and a lineup of pastas that will give any in town a run for your money.

As for that spaghetti, it’s secrets are simple: good, fresh, al dente pasta, plenty of basil, rich, red, ripe Roma tomatoes treated with respect, add butter for richness and chile oil for some zing and there you have it. The buttery finish may have writers and customers swooning, but it’s something Joel Robuchon has been doing with spaghetti at L’Atelier for years. That being said, Scarpetta’s is a thing of beauty.

Before you get to it, though, you’ll be tempted to fill up on the house-made stromboli bread. Actually, you’ll be tempted to fill up on any and all of the superior bread basket, but resist the lure because lurking ahead is some of the best raw crudo in town, along with such alimentary attractions as a woodsy mushroom fricassee over the creamiest polenta imaginable, sinfully rich duck and foie gras ravioli, and superb stracci (broad, flat noodles festooned with leeks, clams and mussels). The purpose of these primi piatti and paste is to put patrons into pirouettes of praise, and by and large they perform perfectly. But provisions got a bit more pedestrian once the scallop appeared.

That scallop claimed to be roasted, and might have been for a second or two, but it was obviously finished by butter-braising its top to an amber crispness. Cooking-term quibbling? Quite rightly, but like all scallops ELV has been served recently, it was seriously over-salted. (Memo to chefs: Stop over-salting your scallops! If you are getting superior raw ingredients — as these certainly were — let them speak for themselves.)

Our other puny disappointment was the pancetta-wrapped veal loin. It neither looked nor tasted of veal, resembling baby beef instead. Conant assured us of the meat’s pedigree, so perhaps it was the bacon wrap that colored and flavored the meat thusly, but lovers of fine-grained, milky-white, creamy-tasting veal might find themselves scratching their heads.

Culinary quibbles aside, there’s no denying the pedigree of Conant’s team: Executive Chef Dan Rossi, Pastry Chef Vita Shanley, Sommelier Mike Donaldson, Manager Jason Terry et al, all of whom bring a certain youthful vigor to their restaurant, and to our Italian restaurant scene. With these pros in place, and Conant’s sizable presence in the background, this is Italian food that demands and deserves to be taken seriously.

As do the sumptuous sweets of Conant’s secret weapon: Ms. Shanley.

Shanley’s desserts are a bit more minimalist than we remember from her past stint at SW Steakhouse, but no less drop-dead-delicious. The creme brûlée Napoleon is a wonder of delicacy and richness, and a simple cube of crostada — made by baking apples in a cinnamon-sugar brioche — ought to be in a museum of sweets. Unfortunately, given her restless creativity, it may or may not still be on the menu when you arrive, meaning: ELV will have to keep coming back to Scarpetta, again and again, to see what she’s cooking up.

Damn pastry chef….knows ELV can resist anything, but temptation.

ELV’s food was comped, but he spent $150 on wine and left a $50 tip.

SCARPETTA

In The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino

3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.698.7960

http://www.scottconant.com/restaurants

* Vegas is the fifth Scarpetta. The others are in New York, Toronto, Miami (Florida, not West Virginia) and L.A..

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