The first time I sucked down Scott Conant’s baby goat was in 2000 at City Eatery, a hapless restaurant on the Bowery that probably never should have existed. In fact, he’s pretty much written it out of his résumé. The goat, however, was stupendous—crackling clumps of dark meat, so flavorful that a tiny shred filled the mouth like an exploding M-80.
By 2003, Conant was born a celebrity chef after a decade of working in the trenches. Oddly located in Tudor City, L’Impero was an instant hit with its louche, circa-1935 cocktail-lounge décor, and menu of rich, salty, and garlicky Italian fare—including a slightly drier spin on the baby goat. A couple of years later, Conant added Alto to his list of triumphs with a boldly conceived menu focusing on Italy’s northern Alto Adige region, tendering adaptations of rustic mountain fare with startling flavors like juniper and horseradish, flinging slivers of truffle like spent matchsticks.
Scott’s stint at Alto was short-lived—his menu was too refined and revolutionary at the same time—and the chef left the restaurant far behind him. Now he’s turned up in the meatpacking district at Scarpetta, where he’s the owner as well as the chef—clearly a career milestone. The place occupies the former Village Idiot, a dive known for its country-western jukebox and $5 pitchers of Bud. These days, you wouldn’t recognize the space: The skylit dining room floods with warm light as the sun sets, the tables are well spaced, and a friendly staff keeps the meal on an even keel.
Literally, Scarpetta means “little shoe,” but in Italian slang, it refers to a small piece of bread used to scoop up sauce. The breadbasket is a miracle of selection, featuring white bread with an airy crumb; a dense, sea-salty focaccia; a crusty dinner roll; and a spin on Brooklyn lard bread opulently stuffed with ham and cheese. The breads come with three dips, including lemon-infused olive oil, chunky eggplant caponata, and a whipped-butter-and-mascarpone mix. Scoop away.
The baby goat has wandered back onto the menu as “moist roasted capretto” ($29), now a hopelessly rich hash incorporating artichokes as well as potatoes. The meat no longer seems roasted, but who cares? Other main courses my crew and I relished were a concentrated pyramid of veal osso buco on a plinth of fever-yellow orzo (the pasta that tried to become rice), and a crisp-skinned swatch of black cod with oven-roasted tomatoes and fennel.
The main courses, however, pale in brilliance compared with the pastas. Foremost, we have the amazing agnolotti dal plin ($24), a standard from Piemonte that Conant, in a Times interview, declared was the last thing he wanted to eat before he died. These bulbous misshapen pouches contain a divine mix of veal, truffles, and cabbage so finely puréed that it would make excellent toothpaste—though you’d insist on swallowing it after brushing. If you want to freak yourself out with richness, I’d recommend the duck-and-foie-gras raviolis ($22), which resemble Revolutionary War tri-corner hats. Less successful is the calamarata—not squid, but squid-shaped pasta lavished with sea urchin fresher than you’ll find in most sushi bars. Though it comes prettily sprinkled with green minted bread crumbs, the flavors don’t quite come together.
Against all odds, the appetizers surpass the two succeeding courses. From among them we selected another of Conant’s masterpieces from the City Eatery era—polenta with mushroom sauce ($16), finding the cornmeal porridge viscous and buttery and the fungal selection exhaustively truffled. Even better was a soup that listed ceci (chickpeas) as a main ingredient, conferring star status on them by featuring a mere handful in a yellow broth with bits of sausage and cabbage. I could eat this every day. The fritto misto is very good, but then you can get an equally good version in almost any modern Italian these days. Instead, turn to the braised short ribs, another Conant classic, in which boneless slices of rich meat malinger on a soupy risotto made with the Roman grain faro. Eating it will make you march like a legionnaire.