Born and raised in Bombay, Vivek Kagzi currently lives in New York City, where his vegetarianism is considered only slightly less alien than his love for cricket. His column will appear regularly on bpb. You can also find him at http://lonelyveg.blogspot.com.
My childhood was very conflicted. My parents loved to travel and explore new places, and they loved taking us everywhere too. Before the ripe old age of 12, I had already been to Australia, Bangkok, Switzerland, Mauritius, London, Hong Kong (twice), Singapore (thrice) and even 2 different Disneylands (Paris and Orlando). And yet, wherever we went, we always ate Indian food. There was no exploration when it came to matters of the stomach. There was always an Indian restaurant waiting to be found in a city and somehow, we always found it. If it hadn't been for my uncle AK, I would probably have left Switzerland never knowing what fondue was. The one exception to the rule, however, seemed to be for Italian food. Pizza and pasta were somewhat tolerable to my dad, and we always looked forward to the respite it provided from the cuisine monotony, creating an everlasting bond with the food. Yet, it almost got to a point that when my food horizons were finally expanded, new Italian restaurants were one of the last few I wanted to try. Still, it is always hard for me to say no to a great bowl of pasta and luckily for it, Scarpetta has a few.
I had been to Scarpetta once before with TR, but it really caught my attention a couple of years ago when it announced, with much fanfare, the introduction of a vegetarian menu. Ever since, I have meaning to give it another try and took the opportunity when my friends, RM and JP, decided to visit from home. The lack of pizza caused a little skepticism at first, but on my assurances, they came along as we all headed down to the meatpacking district.
You immediately notice two parts to Scarpetta when you walk in - the bar area up front and the main dining room at the back. The bar is long and well manned, but there never seem to be any spots to grab a drink while waiting for your party to arrive. I suspect this has much to do with the full menu being served at the bar, resulting in that being the only space available for walk-ins. I appreciate that restaurants are trying to accommodate as many diners as they can, but I personally would much prefer if restaurants kept a couple of tables open for walk-ins and left the bar to its original purpose. I also feel for the few tables by the door, because the main dining room just adds a touch of class which is hard to replicate outside. Walking through the spectacular, floor to ceiling glass doors, you just feel like you are entering a world only a select few are meant to experience. The room itself is bright and plush, full of leather and dark wood and, save for the dimming of the lights during our meal, makes for a very pleasant setting.
On to the food then. The vegetarian menu has an ample selection of appetizers and main courses, and creative enough to venture away from the traditional pasta and risotto selections. The three of us debated a few selections, but ended up choosing the Cippolini Agrodolce and Creamy Polenta to start, followed by the Tagliatelle, Spaghetti and Rosemary-Braised Lentils. Service at Scarpetta is pleasant, quick and efficient and it wasn't very long before our food was being placed in front of us. The Cippolini Agrodolce was overall a little disappointing - the agrodolce was altogether too sweet and the onions were just drowning in the sauce. The pine nuts and goat cheese tried to provide some balance, but it was very difficult to cut through the overpowering sweetness. The polenta, however, was all I remembered it to be from my first visit and more. The polenta itself is rich and creamy, but what really makes the dish stand out is the fricassee of truffled mushrooms that gets spooned all over. The scent of the truffle just wafts all over your palate and is in complete harmony with the rest of the dish, making for one enjoyable bite after the next.
The main courses came out shortly thereafter and did not disappoint either. The tagliatelle came with vegetables and a truffle zabaglione poured over it. It was a very nice pasta dish, and although a little on the creamy side, it was well balanced by the lightness of the vegetables. RM and JP didn't care much for the rosemary lentils, given their marked similarity to Indian "dal", but I thought they were very good and full of flavor - although the concentrated tomatoes didn't enhance the dish the way I had hoped. The star of the evening, though, and one of Scarpetta's signature dishes, was the spaghetti. It's as simple a dish as it gets - spaghetti with tomato and basil - but it is in the simplicity that the genius lies. Sometimes, you really don't need much more than that and it takes a confident chef to realize that and put it on the menu. No gimmicks, just plain old, well cooked and sauced spaghetti. A delicious ending to a very good meal.
My mother Loves spaghetti - yes, with a capital L - and I've caught some of her bug. The years have gone by, my travels have now become almost centered around food, and yet, the love for that perfect plate of pasta remains. There was a time I moved away to other, more "complex" forms of pasta, but I've rediscovered my fondness for spaghetti these days. Joel Robuchon's atelier in London had something to do with that, as did the restaurant at my hotel in Ravello - my two favorite pasta plates of all time. Time to add a third
Scarpetta is in New York's Meatpacking District, at 355 W 14th Street. Expensive. Very Veggie Friendly. Recommended.