Spaghetti lessons: Scott Conant makes elegant look easy at Scarpetta

This spaghetti is on its way to becoming the best you ever had.
Photo: Steve Marcus

If you follow the local food scene, certain dishes from certain restaurants will be lodged somewhere in your brain, even if you’ve never tried them. There’s Carnevino’s super-aged riserva steak, Gordon Ramsay Steak’s beloved beef Wellington, Nobu’s miso cod. And at the Cosmopolitan, there’s Scarpetta’s spaghetti ($25), a gorgeous tangle of homemade pasta coated in a tomato sauce that tastes rich and fresh all at the same time. Chef Scott Conant is the man behind the dish—and neighboring Italian eatery D.O.C.G.—and on a recent afternoon, he let me into the kitchen to learn his secrets.

Dressed in jeans and a black coat, the New York-based chef looks almost outsize in the confines of his tight Cosmopolitan kitchen, but he moves through the space with ease, pointing out trays of dated Roma tomatoes and snagging squeeze bottles of house-infused olive oil. Scarpetta, he tells me, means “little shoe” in Italian, and is used to describe the act of mopping up the last bit of sauce on an empty plate with a piece of bread. “Enjoyment down to the very last bite is what the whole concept is all about,” Conant says.

Chef Scott Conant's Tips for Making Great Spaghetti

The other Italian word that defines the restaurant is sprezzatura, though you won’t see it posted over the door. It’s “the art of making the elegant look easy,” Conant explains, and much of the cooking at Scarpetta epitomizes the concept. The food is thoughtful but not fussy, well-prepared but not precious. The dish we’re cooking today is a perfect example: his signature spaghetti.

I watch as Conant creates the famous plate—salted water for the pasta, which is made in-house and thicker than normal; homemade tomato sauce that he reduces in a sauté pan; a couple dashes of that olive oil to add depth to the flavor. When the pasta is cooked it goes into the pan, too, with fresh basil, a scoop of butter and a generous helping of Parmesan cheese. Conant flicks his wrist in an almost unconscious gesture and the pasta leaps slightly out of the pan, sauce clinging to its curves.

The Details

Cosmopolitan, 698-7960.
Daily, 6-11 p.m.

Then, he hands me a towel and ladles a scoop of tomato sauce into a fresh pan. It’s my turn.

The chef coaches me through the surprisingly simple steps that transform this most basic Italian dish into something sublime, and as I cook, we talk—about his mother’s tomato sauce, the Yankees and the chefs who trained him, including Sinatra’s Theo Schoenegger and Paul Bartolotta.

For a moment I feel like a pro, cooking in a Strip kitchen, creating something I know will taste fantastic. Then reality hits. I drop the pasta into the heavy pan and try to approximate Conant’s smooth, casual flip. Nothing budges. I try again, but the pasta just sits there—no graceful leap, no sauce distribution, no good. Conant hands me a pair of tongs, an amateur’s substitute for the move he made look so effortless, but I just grip the pan harder. I give it a determined nudge and the pasta flies, looping through the air before landing back on the metal, coated beautifully in that signature sauce.

I might have let loose a victory yelp in the Scarpetta kitchen. Not quite sprezzatura, but the spaghetti’s delicious.

Conant’s cardinal rules

Pasta dos and don’ts from the Cosmopolitan chef

Do salt your water. Before we start cooking, Conant makes me sip a spoonful of the pasta water. It should taste like broth, he says. And it does.

Do use enough water. Your pasta needs to circulate in the boiling water to cook evenly. Too little liquid and it can’t.

Don’t rinse your pasta. Conant is baffled by the practice of rinsing freshly cooked pasta with water. You want the pasta starches to release into the sauce, he says. Turn on the faucet and you’ll rinse ’em away.

Do add the pasta to the sauce. Never put plain pasta on a plate with a blob of sauce on top. Adding the cooked pasta to the sauce allows it to absorb the flavors of the dish and for the sauce to coat the pasta, so you don’t end up with a puddle when your spaghetti’s all gone.

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