Scarpetta–the fancy-pants New York transplant taking over the old Smith & Wolensky space at the Rittenhouse Hotel–opened for business yesterday with a couple surprises. The entire space has been stripped of all memory of the old steakhouse’s heaviness and (let’s say…) venerability. The dinner board is short and tight, customized for Philly’s tastes (by two veteran Scarpetta chefs who have been living and working here for months in anticipation of opening day), and offers lots of options for vegetarians.
But the biggest surprise? Our Scarpetta has a bar menu–something that none of the other 4 locations have. And the chefs (there are two of them, Jon Oh and Jorge Espinoza) put it together because they quickly came to understand how important eating at the bar is in this city.
So for starters, here’s that bar menu. It looks pretty solid:
There was actually a big discussion going on while we were there about how, exactly, the bar snacks should be approached. No one wanted anyone to need a knife and fork. Even plates seemed debatable. Should it all be finger foods? Cocktail forks, perhaps? Sporks? Everyone seemed kind of excited about the sporks.
But we got to hear all this because we got lucky. We got to visit Oh and Espinoza in the kitchen a couple days before opening while they were still tinkering and fine tuning things after a full run of friends and family dinners. As a matter of fact, we spent a good amount of time with them (and John Meadow, president of LDV Hospitality which brought Scarpetta to town), got to talk with them about their favorite local dive bars (Cavanaugh’s on Sansom for Oh, who went for the Yuengling and deep-fried soft pretzel nuggets), their favorite mezcal (Del Maguey for Espinoza, which is absolutely the right answer), and what went into creating the menu and the dishes for this Philly expansion.
Because look, this could’ve been a disaster, right? A big time New York restaurant (with additional locations in Miami and Las Vegas) coming to Philly and trying to do modern Italian in a market that is already full of modern Italian (and traditional Italian, regional Italian, streetcorner Italian, etc.) seems like the last thing we need. I was skeptical going in, but then we got to talking and now I am…less.
Spaghetti with tomato and basil
These are chefs who know the game. They understand exactly what they were walking into and what the expectations are. And they answer them with an almost cultish dedication to product and to process. Espinoza, for example, had spent weeks trying to find just the right meat for his dry-aged ribeye with trumpet mushrooms and cipollini onions. He came in every day to sort through cases of tomatoes to find the right ones for his red sauce, and to hand-roll (not hand-make, but hand-roll) spaghetti for the house’s signature spaghetti with tomato and basil (which is just about as pure and beautiful an expression of Italian pasta as you’re going to find, stripped of all modern bells and whistles). The roasted capretto (goat) is portioned out so that every plate gets a little leg, a little belly, a little rib, and it all comes with broccoli rabe because this is Philly and because it’s awesome. The fluke crudo was finished with black volcanic salt because of the delicate, almost vanishing flavor of it and the perfect, gentle crunch.
Short rib and bone marrow agnolotti
Roasted capretto with broccoli rabe
A lot of what they serve at Scarpetta are simple dishes, elevated by the focus of the kitchen on what few ingredients are left after having stripped down the plate to its essentials–a mindset I wholeheartedly endorse. Granted, this can often be a risky proposition. A spare, confident simplicity can often be read as dullness or lack of inspiration by diners who are basically children and need everything served with sparklers stuck in it and an egg on top, but when you can convince the crowds that your spaghetti with tomato sauce is good precisely because it is so basic, so uncomplicated by style or ego, it looks like genius.
For those of you curious about what the dinner menu looks like in its entirety, check out the link below. We only got a small sampling of the dishes (and I’m still on the fence about the bone marrow and short rib agnolotti), but I’ve got high hopes for Scarpetta. I felt good eating there. The chefs answered every question right.
The rest of it is going to depend on who shows up for dinner.
Scarpetta Dinner Menu [pdf]