Alpha And Omega: Scarpetta Reviewed
Along the arc of a graph reading “Why Is My Restaurant Not Good?,” two opposite mistakes hold down either end of the bell curve. On one side, you have a good concept crippled by poor execution. On the other are bad ideas masked by a talented, passionate crew trying like hell to fight its way out of a losing situation. Between these two points falls every other reason for a restaurant to go bad: terrible food, awful service, a coked-up owner snorting away the profits, rats, that weird smell, location, location, location. But existing with beautiful, snow-white purity are the alpha and omega of reasons: Either you had a good idea ruined by thumb-fingered losers who turn all gold to crap, or you had a bad concept that no amount of earnest polishing will ever make shine.
The first one? That’s unforgivable. And the second one is Scarpetta.
Now, let me say a few things here while that sinks in. Scarpetta served me what was probably one of the three best polentas of my life—this rich and cloud-soft and impossibly smooth bowl of it, with a side of delicately cooked shiitake and beech mushrooms done as a truffled fricassee served in a tin pot. They were spooned out for me by the floor manager, which should have been a thousand percent weird and intrusive (I don’t like being shown how to eat any more than the next guy) but came off as comforting and natural instead because he moved like he’d done this exact thing a million times before, with all the grace of someone performing a Japanese tea service.
Twice I had nearly identical plates of agnolotti stuffed with shredded short rib and bone marrow as smooth as butter, topped with a snowfall of shaved horseradish—a hard trick that speaks to the consistency of the kitchen. The signature spaghetti is approached with an admirable seriousness and presented simply–just hand-made pasta, from-scratch red sauce, a little basil, nothing more. It’s used like proof that the kitchen can get the little things right. And I once listened to the opening crew debate, loudly and fiercely, what sorts of utensils ought to be given to customers at the bar (our Scarpetta is the only one in this New York-based group to offer a bar menu, because Philadelphia), since the dinner silver was too serious but cocktail forks were too twee. These are people serious in their intention to make Scarpetta as good as it can be.
But Scarpetta is still that second kind of restaurant—the one on the far right end of the curve. From the start, it seemed like a bad idea to bring a New York Italian restaurant to Philadelphia at a time when the absolute last thing Center City required was another high-end Italian restaurant. I mean, to make that choice is to say that Scarpetta is better than what we have, or at least something novel that we haven’t seen before.
And it isn’t. It is, at moments, very good (and rather expensive). The upstairs space is refined, all dark woods and huge windows, and a significant improvement over Smith & Wollensky (which lingered here for years too long). But the menu is uneven. I had a plate of striped bass with brussels sprouts that was flat—a two-note presentation with no salt, no acid, and a flavorless caper and peperoncino jus. The braised short rib over farro risotto was disappointing. And even though there’s been a noble attempt to make this Scarpetta a very Philly Scarpetta (there’s the downstairs bar menu with small snacks, done nowhere else in the chain, and lunch, which is also unique), none of it is quite enough.
Because, honestly, that battle was lost before the doors even opened. From day one, Scarpetta was the Apple Watch of Philadelphia dining—an accessory no one was asking for and none of us needed.