|By Edith Hall Friedheim
A relative newcomer to the Broadway restaurant scene- it opened in October, 2005 -Scarlatto is already one of the theater district's most successful Italian restaurants. Understandable. With moderate prices, a stylish but casual ambience and the creative clout of its Executive Chef Roberto Passon, how can it miss? Authenticity is guaranteed by the fact that virtually everyone connected with the restaurant is Italian, from Chef Passon, who comes from northern Italy, near Venice, to owner Tom Bifulco, to all of the bartenders, managers and wait staff.
The 150-seat dining room done mostly in white soothes and nurtures. But some of the original brick is exposed, there's a working fireplace, and as if to remind customers that Scarlatto's Italian cuisine is Roman-influenced, photographs of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in scenes from "Roman Holiday" decorate the walls.
From the outset we felt pampered, indulged. What the waiters lacked in efficiency the evening we visited they more than made up for in enthusiasm. Colorfully clad in jackets of bright red, they cajoled and suggested, encouraged and editorialized, and in the end became indispensable if slightly discombobulated.
As to the cuisine, Chef Roberto Passon is known in restaurant circles as an alchemist who can elevate Italian comfort food into distinguished cuisine. For example, at Scarlatto ordinary rabbit is stewed in spicy red peppers and kalamata olives and then served with creamy soft polenta. The simplest braised lamb shanks are ennobled with caramelized pearl onions and stewed lentils. Lobster risotto is his signature dish, however. "It should look like pearls, al dente, he explains. "You know al dente? Risotto. You have to believe in it."
Believing in Passon's special dishes is part of the experience. On a recent visit we decided to share two appetizers that reflected the Roman influence: steamed white asparagus with prosciutto, poached egg, brown butter and parmesan cheese and chicken livers sautéed in port wine and enhanced with arugula and poached pear. (Chicken livers seem unjustly headed for extinction as a menu item these days when organ meats are thought to be unhealthy.) More conservative but equally worthy starters are traditional antipasto misto of cold meat and cheese, hand-cut buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes, and a spicy crab cake on warm mushroom salad. Among entrees, my companion enjoyed the straightforward but tasty Mediterranean sea bass, or bronzino, with lemon sauce, broccoli and roasted potatoes, while I ordered veal saltimbocca, a positively symphonic marvel of pan-seared tenderloin, prosciutto, sage and provolone atop sautéed spinach.
The restaurant is is justifiably proud of its extensive wine list which includes a good selection in the $8.00 to $10.00 range for a glass. Our full-bodied 2004 Tuscany chianti at $10.00 proved a terrific choice.
The desserts fulfilled their sweet obligations, though the best of them, a warm chocolate souffle with raspberry coulis and vanilla ice cream, poached pears in wine, and a warm apple tart, seemed geographically unsound. But the very Italian sgrappino honors Roberto Passon's Venetian roots with a regional version of a "smoothie" combining champagne, vodka, lemon sorbet, mango cream and raspberry puree.
SCARLATTO- 250 W. 47th Street
(between Broadway & Eighth Ave.)
Web Site: Scarlattonyc.com
AMBIANCE: Elegant but casual and friendly.
SETTING: Long, narrow dining room with large full-service bar in front. White walls are warmed with mellow wood floors, soft recessed lighting, plenty of candlelight, exposed brick and a large fireplace. The entire space seems designed to increase emphasize hospitality