I spin through the revolving door into Scarpetta and land with a thud in a knot of patrons all dressed in black. This was a corporate posse in stilettos and mock turtlenecks, ready to spend big at Philly's latest name-brand Italian import from New York. But they were clogging the door near the bar, oblivious to others as they rattled cue ball-size ice cubes in cocktails and waited for a slinky, catsuit-clad hostess to lead them to the dining room upstairs.
And . . . what was that smell? It wasn't Scarpetta's famous spaghetti or truffled crudo but an unexpected fog of body sweat, cleaning fluid, and strong cologne that emanated incongruously from the chic modern lounge that replaced the old Smith & Wollensky's clubby bar in the Rittenhouse Hotel. Something was already off.
At least there would be a view at the top of the winding stairs, where Scarpetta's expansive dining room of 155 seats should mean a glassy perch over Rittenhouse Square and a bread basket full of warm stromboli.
But don't get your hopes up. Yes, there will be stromboli, its warm crust pinwheeled around sharp salami and mozzarella - a very fine way to start.
But aside from an outer ring of five small tables near the window, most of the main dining room's parkside view is entirely obscured by a hideous macramé wall hanging that looks to have been salvaged from a '70s garage sale.
Apparently, it's a Scarpetta motif, shifting the emphasis to the food and crowd-watching (like at the curious trio canoodling at the table behind us).
It's a bizarre design choice for this small Italian chain with a luxe reputation for handmade pastas, Italian wines, and upscale dining. Celeb chef Scott Conant helped forge its cachet in Manhattan along with executive chef Jorge Espinoza.
Conant is now involved only in Las Vegas and Miami. I've enjoyed a couple of La Dolce Vita Hospitality's other places, Azure and American Cut in the ill-fated Revel.
But we know all too well to be skeptical when a spendy out-of-town Italian concept (this one with outposts in the Hamptons, Miami, and Vegas), lands in ultracompetitive Center City. I was just getting over my Post Traumatic Serafina Disorder. (That 18th Street disappointment recently closed). And I was hoping with all my pasta-loving heart that Scarpetta wouldn't simply be an even pricier rerun with a better view.
Well, so much for the view.
And, unfortunately, Scarpetta's kitchen didn't help much, either, serving some fine ingredients, but with little finesse. Instead, it was a kind of generic pomp more typical of casino cooking, where seemingly every dish is plated as a little tower, piled high and glossed with stock.
Even the fish here gets drenched in rich chicken jus, which feels like a heavy-handed way to upscale the plates. It seems so unimaginative when you already have a very high-quality piece of striped bass with Brussels sprouts, or an otherwise delicious black cod over caramelized fennel, to then finish it like a piece of veal or steak. One exception: the pretty halibut "en croute" (which sounds very French, no?) which was sheathed with a thin slice of toasted bread. Too bad it had turned into a soggy sponge while waiting to be served. It was one of several entrees here that were served less than hot for $30-plus a plate, including a branzino served over a miserly spoonful of lentils, and a tender (though slightly undercooked) veal loin that came with a rubbery brick of doughy gnocchi alla Romana.
No dishes suffered quite so much from the lack of heat as the pastas. The $22 bowl of signature spaghetti - dramatically unveiled tableside with a cloche to reveal a ball of wadded noodles - had too much egg in the dough for the strands to have any semblance of al dente snap in the cooling tomato-basil sauce. The squid-ink farfalle with seafood was fine, but the buttery sauce had noticeably little seafood flavor. We could taste the livery decadence of the foie gras ravioli, but the pasta itself was a notch too thick and the overall effect was leaden. The agnolotti stuffed with pureed braised short rib were sufficiently delicate, but they were served so cool their centers had turned pasty.
Scarpetta's service staff instantly jumped into action, whisking it away for a replacement with the same overeager-to-please enthusiasm that accompanied our choice of wines. The Italian sommelier, a kinetic whirl of flourishing hands and dancing eyebrows, offered us little tastes of multiple glasses while continuously reassuring us: "To me . . . wine is personal!"
The wines by the glass - an aromatic white Greco Bianco by Ippolito 1845, a lusty Tumlin Nebbiolio, and a balanced La Braccesca Prugnolo-Merlot blend - were among the highlights of the meal, despite the hefty markups. And despite my numerous gripes, there were other bright spots. The braised rabbit with pappardelle was the best of the pastas, from the silky noodle ribbons to the tender meat. The short rib was an oddly heavy thing to serve as an appetizer, but the shingled slices of fork-tender beef were delicious over a pedestal of farro. A couple of the crudos showed Scarpetta at its best, showcasing pristine ingredients with a minimalist approach - a yellowtail streaked with ginger oil, and slices of ivory fluke over earthy sunchoke puree sparked with crunchy salt and citrus.
Of course, the starters had their share of misses, too. A scallop crudo was pretty but lacked acidity to balance the earthy truffle. The tuna "susci" play on a maki roll stumbled over a stuffing made of carrots minced to emulate rice but that simply lacked structure. The seafood fritto misto tasted as though it had been fried in dirty oil. A potentially rustic soup of chickpeas and sausage had been turned into a soullessly thin tan puree speckled with the occasional crumble of meat.
In the end, with the bill approaching $100 per person without much effort, I couldn't help but think of all the other great Italian options on the west side of Rittenhouse alone - Melograno, Caffé Casta Diva, Porcini, Sotto - where I could imagine a better meal for far less. But as we spooned into the desserts - an admirably light cheesecake and an espresso budino with salted caramel - I looked around at the moodily lit and noisy room and wondered whether the food and expense mattered to this crowd at all. The business diners were passing around bottles of big-ticket Barolo and having a blast.
Meanwhile, the trio behind us, a man in a green blazer flanked by a blond woman on one side and a brunet on the other, were groping one another with such brazen ferocity (hey, what happens behind the macramé wall stays behind the macramé) the surrounding tables erupted in knowing giggles and Fifty Shades of speculation when the trio finally slipped away.
"I do not judge," the Italian sommelier said with a hand-waving flourish. "I am here to serve."
No, it wasn't the view or meal I'd hoped for, but the show was entertaining nonetheless.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews La Mula Terca in South Philadelphia.