Scott Conant’s Scarpetta restaurants can be found in five different cities, each with a uniqueness to match their locale, but all with the same elegant soulfulness that is Conant’s style. Conant’s latest cookbook, The Scarpetta Cookbook, lets the reader re-create the rustic Italian experience at home. Conant discusses the fine art of sprezzatura, his grandmother’s legacy and whether Food Network judges ever get invited to dinner.
You describe Scarpetta as a soulful, rustic restaurant. What is soulful food for you?
We all know that comfort food feeling. If you eat a roast chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, regardless of if you grew up with that as your comfort food—when it’s really well done—there is something comforting and honest about that. I feel like the food at Scarpetta taps into that, but in a little bit of a different way. It taps in from that same soulful perspective, but with little hints of modernity. It’s rustic, but still sophisticated at the same time.
Let’s say I’m a good-not-great but enthusiastic home cook. Where do I start in this cookbook to give myself confidence?
It’s depends on what you’re trying to experience. I want you to be able to recreate the restaurant experience in your home. Whether it’s the food or the lighting or a placesetting or something like that—just to be a little more thoughtful about the overall experience that you are bringing into your home. So I think it could start, not necessarily with one of the recipes, but it could start with the lighting in your home. Little things like that—the tweaks and thoughtful touches--are the starting point for anything.
I learned the Italian word sprezzatura from your book. You define it as a effortlessness with everything you do. I not only like saying the word over and over, I want to know how to achieve this at home.
It’s those little thoughtful things you do. You’re serious about what you do, but you don’t take yourself too seriously. There’s a great picture in the book of all the hors d’oeuvres and little canapés that we make, and the balsamic ribs with the tomato and apricot chutney. For me, that speaks to the overreaching goal of making a lot of little things that are fun for me and also for my guests, whether they be family or friends. Have some fun. It’s a little whimsical, but it’s serious at the same time. I feel like that photo captures that idea of sprezzatura.
I found the photo spread of the canapés very inviting. It made me think “That’s the kind of party I want to have.” Even if I’m nervous the pancetta is going to unroll off the halibut main course, I am still providing an enjoyable spread of food for my guests.
Exactly. I always say, I didn’t build these restaurants for food snobs who will pick apart every detail of everything we do. I built them for people who just love food, and who want to have a good time. The food in this book speaks to people like that, as opposed to uptight people. I don’t do uptight! It doesn’t work in those restaurants. It’s about having that moment of relaxation. That moment of pure enjoyment. If you’re too uptight, you’re never going to achieve that.
You speak fondly of your grandmother’s cooking throughout the book; are any of her recipes in the book?
It’s not limited to the recipes. It’s my grandmother’s inherent sense of generosity—more than anything, which is found in the book. I have six restaurants now, and hopefully, I’ll have more as time goes on, but that’s what I want to bring to my entire company—that old world sense of hospitality. It’s not about me. It’s not about whomever. It’s about the guests.
As for as those recipes go, the starting points are based on the same soulfulness that she and my aunts would cook with. If we go to my aunt’s today for the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, there is still the octopus salad that reminds me of the way I ate as a child. And it’s those starting points that are reflected in the dishes. I could make it fancy or I could make it a little more rustic. But ultimately my understanding of my grandmother’s food is always there.
What’s your idea of the perfect dinner gathering?
It depends on what you want to have. But if it’s a go-for-it-I-really-want-to-impress-people-dinner-party, I really love the idea of starting with those canapés [from my cookbook] over cocktails, some Prosecco or Champagne, or maybe the San Remo, which is the signature drink at the restaurant. Start with those things during a cocktail period—maybe an hour or so—and then bring people into the kitchen, sit them down and cook for them. The polenta with mushrooms is something you cook well in advance and then basically plate for your guests as they’re seated. What I like to do when I have dinner parties is bring someone into the kitchen to help me. That way I’m not just stuck in the kitchen working, and I’m still connecting with one of the guests. Later, I’ll grab someone else and say, ‘Hey can you help me with this course.’ It’s about connecting with the various people in your home while you’re cooking.
Do you still get invited out to people’s houses, or are they too afraid?
Fortunately I do once and a while get invited to people’s houses and I always tell people: “Listen, I’m so easy, I don’t judge food unless of course I’m doing it on a show where I have to.”
Marissa Rothkopf Bates hosts the blog www.sugarandspouse.com.