Will Scarpetta Toronto live up to the hype?
Restaurant buzz this week is all about the opening of Scarpetta - the main draw at the recently opened Thompson Hotel. This is the third Scarpetta (the other two are in Manhattan and Miami) and celebrated Chef Scott Conant has been here to christen the new venture.
As an aside, the word Scarpetta (meaning "little shoe") is Italian slang for the little piece of bread you use to sop up leftover sauce from your plate. I didn't even know it had a name. I just learned to do it by watching my grandparents as a kid and have done it without thinking ever since. The combination of some form of bread dipped in sauce/oil/dressing (whether it be Italian or any other ethnic cuisine) might just be one of the most perfect food pairings on earth. So nice one on the name and concept, Scott.
With the Thompson's PR reps working overtime this week I managed to snag an interview with the man many refer to as the best Italian chef in North America today. This came on the heels of an open letter to Toronto he published in the Huffington Post on Tuesday that Toronto Life called "a masterwork of contradiction, managing to condescend, schmooze and charm all at the same time."
Wikipedia tells me you're half Italian - that your mom is Italian - and so is mine. I often think about the impact that my Italian-influenced upbringing has had on my understanding and appreciation of food, on my eating habits and traditions. How have your Italian roots shaped your relationship with food and what you do as a Chef?
It's shaped me so much that I decided to pursue it as a career. I don't know in what way it could be more influential than this the restaurant. There's a lot of things that came along with that - speaking about food, nurturing staff and teaching people how to do things.
My father's from the north of Maine. He grew up on a farm up there, and there was always an appreciation for quality food. So on both my mother and father's side of the family they always had great product on the table - very simple high quality product all the time.
I've been perusing Twitter and other media sources and it seems a lot of natives here in T-Dot read the tone in your "Open Letter to Toronto" in the Huffington Post as a tad, ummmm, condescending. What was your intention with the letter? And why the Huffington Post as opposed to a Canadian media outlet?
Huffington Post is a blog that I do. So if a Canadian media outlet had asked me to do a blog then I would consider it. But Huffington Post asked me so I did it.
I'm really surprised that it was taken as condescending. A lot of people have asked me why I would open a restaurant in Toronto. I think that's kind of strange question. Why wouldn't I? So what I decided to do was make a list of all the things I loved about Toronto. And then just tell everyone this is why I am opening here. This is why I like this town. The letter was coming from a very sincere and honest place.
I wouldn't have been surprised if people said "Scott you are so fucking corny, that's the corniest letter I've ever read." That I would get. But I don't understand insincerity. I don't speak down to people. That's not what I do. So, if people know me, they would know it comes from a good place. That was the intention of the letter.
In the Open Letter you waxed poetic about Toronto and Ontario's local food scene. How is our scene different from New York's? How will that impact what you do at Scarpetta in Toronto?
The good thing about New York is that there's a range of really good high-end fine dining restaurants as well as small hole-in-the-wall places where you get really great Bengali food. You know what I mean? That's the balance that I love about New York and that's one of the reasons I like Toronto as well.
What we're trying to do at Scarpetta is that whenever possible we're trying to deal with local purveyors. I'm not trying to open a New York restaurant here. I'm trying to open a good Italian restaurant in Toronto.
I take a very simple approach to things. I don't have a great vocabulary. I'm a cook so I can't think of another word. Ultimately you try to get that to show on the plate, and we're trying to create an environment where people are having fun and it's not stuffy and pretentious but instead they feel comfortable to grab a piece of bread and make a scarpetta.
Ultimately I think we cook food that resonates with people. When people ask me what I'm going to do differently I say I would be crazy to start doing things differently just because I am in a different city. Like New York and Miami I will use local products - everything from a 100 mile radius, more or less, from where we are now.
I always try to find a balance between very rustic elements of Italian cuisine and alta cucina which is the high end Italian cuisine. I can't try to change and adapt. If I do that I won't be being honest with myself and I think then there will be a disconnect on the plate, and we never want a customer to have a disjointed experience.
In that same Open Letter you mention a mouth-watering ensemble of foods (lamb, charcuterie, peaches, mushrooms etc) that sold you on Toronto. Which farms/producers did you visit or sample that really impressed you? Can we expect to see any of these on Scarpetta's menu?
I could talk about it all day long but then if you came for dinner and were like "Geeze this guy talks a good game, but the food kinda sucks" that would be a real shame. So I'd rather just say, here's a carrot. It's beautiful. You have awesome carrots up here. And then just roast the carrot with a little olive oil and some salt on top and you have a phenomenal product. It's not about me at that point, it's really about the product.
Who will be working back-of-house at the new Scarpetta? Any notable Toronto cooks?
My chef in New York (Ryan Morrison) is from Toronto (Hamilton specifically) so he's going to be the chef here. I have one of my chefs from Vegas (Dan Rossi) here as well. We're opening in Vegas in December. And my chef from Miami (Michael Pirolo) has come up for opening week.
My pasta maker from New York (Yssac Vargas) was here. He's been with me for 19 years trying to get everybody up to speed. So far this has been the smoothest opening I've ever done. The staff is spectacular. They are so happy. I feel like the restaurant is resonating with them as I hope it will with diners.
Scarpetta will be opening soon at the Thompson Hotel. Photo by the author.
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