It might seem like a stretch to call a bowl of pasta “elegant,” but Scarpetta’s tomato and basil spaghetti is an unquestionably sophisticated dish. “Something as simple as spaghetti with tomato-basil [sauce], if you can do that right, it really speaks volumes,” chef Scott Conant says. “Inherent simplicity—that’s what’s elegant about it.” And Scarpetta sells about 2,000 plates of Conant’s legendary tomato and basil spaghetti every month.
The key to turning a traditional dish into a refined work of art lies in the ingredients. Conant uses only fresh tomatoes, “00” grade flour and homemade pasta in his dish. “If you want something special and unique, you need to source the right products for it, because that’s what it’s all about,” he says. “If you don’t want to get the right flour and you use AP flour, and you don’t want to use fresh tomatoes and you use canned tomatoes, you’re not going to end up with this. You’ll end up with something very good, but it’s not going to be this.” Beyond basic quality of ingredients, Conant says the trick is keeping it simple, which means not over-thinking (or over-cooking) things. “The key to this is what not to do, as opposed to what to do,” he says. “I think a lot of people get in the way with cooking these tomatoes for hours and hours. I think there’s a place for that, but not when it comes to something like this.”
For this dish, he cooks peeled tomatoes for 40-60 minutes, and no longer than that. “I want to preserve essence of the tomato,” he says. “That spirit of what that tomato is should be intact.” As the tomatoes cook, he crushes them with a potato masher so big it could double as a branding iron. “I’ll just keep mashing this, you know, keep crushing. I will never put a blender inside there,” he says between assaults. “Whenever you feel like you need to take out some stress, that’s what I do. So it’s pretty often.”
The rest of the recipe is quite simple: Conant infuses extra virgin olive oil with garlic, crushed red pepper and lots of basil (“I’ll let it steep, just like tea,” he says), then strains it directly into the sauce—but that’s about as complicated as it gets.
As for the noodles, Scarpetta cooks them in salted water that tastes just shy of seawater. “The water should taste like broth,” Conant says. “Some people say the ocean, but I think that’s too salty.” The end result is bold flavor and straight-forward, palate-pleasing simplicity unlike any other bowl of spaghetti in the city. Conant says that shouldn’t come as a surprise: “The only time I’ve ever seen a spaghetti like this is in Benevento [Italy], where my grandparents are from.”
“With Scott Conant’s signature spaghetti with tomato and basil, I recommend a fresh, young white wine with slightly herbaceous characteristics and low alcohol that’s fermented in stainless steel and has lively acidity,” says Paolo Barbieri, the wine director of Scarpetta Las Vegas and D.O.C.G. His selection: 2009 Ravello Bianco by Marisa Cuomo, produced in Campania from 60 percent Falanghina and 40 percent Biancolella grapes. $70 at Scarpetta. A comparable wine, available at Khoury’s Fine Wine & Spirits (435-9463), is the 2009 Soave by Pra for $14.
Spaghetti with Fresh Tomato Sauce and Basil
- 20 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled
- cup extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to finish the dish
- A pinch of crushed red pepper
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 ounce freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about ½ cup)
- 6 to 8 fresh basil leaves, washed and dried, stacked and rolled into a cylinder and cut thinly crosswise into a chiffonade
- 1 pound high-quality dry, fresh or homemade spaghetti
To peel the tomatoes: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Have a large bowl of ice water nearby. Cut a small X on the bottom of each tomato. Ease about five tomatoes in the pot and let boil for about 15 seconds, and then promptly move them to the waiting ice water. Do this with the remaining tomatoes. Pull off the skin with the tip of a paring knife. If the skin sticks, try a vegetable peeler using a gentle sawing motion. Cut the tomatoes in half and use your finger or a spoon to remove the seeds.
To cook the tomatoes: In a wide pan, heat cup olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes, red pepper flakes, and season lightly with salt and pepper. (Use a light hand at first as it will become concentrated as it reduces.) Let the tomatoes cook for a few minutes to soften. Then, using a potato masher, mash the tomatoes finely. Cook for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tomatoes are tender and the sauce has thickened. (You can make the sauce, which yields about 3 cups, ahead of time. Refrigerate it for up to two days or freeze.)
To serve: Bring a large pot of amply salted water to a boil. Cook the spaghetti until just shy of al dente. Reserve a little of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the sauce and cook over medium-high heat, gently tossing the pasta and the sauce together until the pasta is just tender and the sauce, if any oil had separated from it, now looks cohesive. (If the sauce seems too thick, add a little pasta cooking liquid to adjust it.) Take the pan off of the heat and toss the butter, basil, and cheese with the pasta in the same manner (the pasta should take on an orange hue) and serve immediately.