Italian Artistry

Scarpetta adds rich, colorful cuisine to the Strip landscape

Photo by Anthony MairInside Scarpetta.

Photo by Anthony MairNutella-filled dessert is among the many treats at Scarpetta.

Photo by Anthony MairSorbet is among the many treats at Scarpetta.

Photo by Anthony MairTuna is among the many treats at Scarpetta.

Cooking is an art, and Scott Conant of Scarpetta is an artist, his palette Italian cuisine. He’s not one of those chiaroscuro types who work in light and shadow, however. He’s more of a colorist. His food tends to be vivid and rich, more Modigliani than Caravaggio.

Is this your style of Italian cooking? It works for me, most of the time. People swoon in rapture eating his famous $24 spaghetti, composed of fresh pasta, tomato, basil and too much butter. I’d like it with less, but would I dare to suggest this to the maestro? The noodles are perfectly al dente, at least, served in a neat little pile.

At any rate, this latest incarnation of Scarpetta, a restaurant with outposts in New York City, Miami, Los Angeles and Toronto, is trying to be a game changer for Las Vegas. And at this attempt it succeeds on many levels—one being a giant vegetarian menu that is without peer in the city in scope, quality or invention.

The Studio Gaia design makes clever use of suede wall paneling to muffle sounds, making it one of the most civilized dining rooms in the city. Serpentine banquettes that curve in and out against one another in a long row are both romantic and casual. Service is overseen by an old Vegas pro, Antonello Paganuzzi, who will ensure that your evening flows smoothly, without a hitch.

Conant plies his trade with confidence. Primi—appetizers and pastas—display variety and imagination. Tuna susci is his take on crudo, the now de rigueur raw-fish course found on every upscale Italian menu, a delicate take gently embellished with preserved truffle. A silken puree of chestnut soup leaves you breathless from its elegance.

Beyond the famous spaghetti, the pastas are dazzling. Agnolotti del plin are tiny Piedmontese ravioli with a forcemeat of veal and pork. A delicious invention called red beet and smoked ricotta casonsei (little pasta envelopes kissed with poppy seed) are the lightest—and actually my favorite—pastas on the menu.

The real surprises at Scarpetta are main dishes. Most Italian restaurants soar with primi and run out of steam with the entrées. Here I liked the entrées even more than the first courses (though I’d like to try the ash-crusted venison that Conant has on his menus in New York and Los Angeles). He is one of the few non-Japanese chefs, for instance, to do wonders with black cod, a.k.a. sablefish. This take has crisp skin on one side, a wonderfully springy texture, and the contrasting flavors of fennel and concentrated tomato buoying it up.

Moist-roasted capretto is like a rich goat stew with potato, pancetta and rapini, an audacious conceit. But best of all is Sicilian-spiced duck breast, flanked by trumpet mushrooms, baby vegetables and cherries.

You’ll be rewarded if you don’t run out of steam by dessert. The talented Vita Shanley, who also does the amazing cookies, candy and gelati next door at Conant’s casual venue, D.O.C.G., is definitely a force to be reckoned with.

Her chocolate beignets, vanilla-crazy panna cotta with guava syrup and meltingly grainy blood orange sorbet are the work of a true artist—so watch your step, Mr. Conant.

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