Good to the Last Drop | by Jesse Stirling
News flash: Italians are passionate about food. Just as the Eskimo culture employs dozens of words related to different types of ice and snow, the Italian language is nuanced with phrases surrounding the dining experience. The term “scarpetta” (literal translation: “little shoe”) dates back to Roman times. The phrase describes the act of using a piece of bread to gather the remnants of sauce on a dish. Considered bad table manners by some, Italians might find it uncouth if every last drop of their homemade sauce is not “scarpettaed.” (Yes, I just invented a new verb.) Observes award-wining Chef Scott Conant, “You see a lot of clean plates here.”
Scarpetta is situated in the “Golden Triangle” of Beverly Hills, steps from Rodeo and Canon Drives, housed within the prestigious Montage hotel. Everything in this area oozes refined luxury. The adjacent Beverly Canon Gardens creates an enchanting backdrop for al fresco dining. Outside, a majestic fountain bubbles away in the center of a Mediterranean inspired courtyard. Modern curves, clean lines, a dramatic staircase and stunningly high ceilings permeate the inside space. Service is excellent, neither rushing you nor making you wait, with a white-gloved, formal feel. The distinguished clientele is an interesting mix of locals and destination diners. Dim, warm lighting casts a romantic glow throughout.
We begin the evening with a sampling of the cocktail program, designed to open the palette and complement the food without upstaging it. The “Spritz” looks like it will be sweet, yet Compari soda creates a solid base and a pleasing, slightly bitter aftertaste. Another concoction mixed with rock candy and muddled strawberry is similarly subdued. The wine list is broad and approachable, affording perfect pairings for each course. The fragrance of freshly baked bread wafts over our table. Lordy, Lordy, Lordy, the breadbasket is amazing. Mouths drooling, we decide that no matter how the meal turns out, this treasure chest alone is worth the price of admission. Warm focaccia with citris-infused butter is exceptional, everything is super. But the real masterpiece is the stomboli, which is sort of like a mini-calzone stuffed with salami, light cherry tomato, a bit of garlic and fragrant smoked mozzarella. Bravo.
Scarpetta describes their menu as, “Italian cuisine that’s modern, earthy and refined.” All pasta is crafted on-site and they pride themselves on the use of seasonal ingredients. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the most glorious dish of the evening is the most basic – spaghetti with tomato and basil. Simple, gorgeous, flavorful yet understated, combining incredibly fresh produce with a perfect al dente noodle, this is the “must-have” item. If real Italian food is what you crave, save yourself the trip across the Atlantic and order this dish.
Waves of courses continue. The duck and foie gras ravioli is delicate yet rich. Braised beef short ribs are outstanding, while roasted sea scallops with sunchokes delight. Looking for something a little more daring, we find the ash-spiced venison loin wonderful. On the other hand, creamy polenta with fricassee of truffled mushrooms is surprisingly bland. The black cod seems overpowered by the carmelized fennel and concentrated tomatoes, while aged sirloin with fingerling potato and porcini mushrooms is merely pedestrian. The barley risotto, cooked for three hours with cream and finished with butter and parmesan, is delicious; the beet and smoked ricotta casonesi, with pistachio nuts and poppy seeds, not so much. Too many weird flavors in one dish. We finish the meal with coconut panna cotta, olive oil cake with citrus salad and tangerine sorbet, chocolate cake with espresso sauce and burnt orange caramel gelato, and best of all, a world-class cheese plate. Our night concludes with tawny port and creamy cappuccino.
Despite disappointment with some dishes, we found ourselves sopping up every last drop of flavor from our plates more often than not. This is the essence of Scarpetta. With authentic cuisine, lavish service and glamorous ambiance, Scarpetta’s reputation will continue to grow. Viva Italia!