The last time I went to the Village Idiot, I splurged: $6 for a pitcher of beer and $1 to cue up Willie Nelson on the jukebox. I knew it would be my last visit to the honky-tonk, the victim of a rent increase. I didn't guess, however, that soon I'd be back in the same space, nibbling foie-gras dumplings at a mahogany bar. Scarpetta is the latest upscale Italian restaurant by chef Scott Conant, known for simple, luxurious cooking at L'Impero and Alto. A scarpetta is what we call a sop, a hunk of bread with which to scoop up the sauce from a bowl. Indeed, a meal at Scarpetta comes with a terrific breadbasket containing focaccia, ciabatta, and stromboli-like breads filled with meat and cheese. And there's plenty of sauces, but in too many cases the sop is better than the sauce.
The ravioli was a case in point. A reduction of Marsala coats the triangle-shaped dumplings of thick house-made pasta ($22), which gape at their seams, exposing a reddish-brown filling of duck meat and liver. But the sweet, intense wine does nothing to cut the impact of the hyper-rich, gamy meat; the dish yields just one heavy, monotonous forkful after another. In a different pasta-pillow preparation, agnolotti dal plin ($24), thinner, baggy wrappers are filled with melted Fontina cheese and a paste of veal and pork that's reminiscent of baby food. They sprawl in a buttery Parmigiano sauce, dotted with tiny savory mushrooms; but again, it's overly rich and unvaried. After eating a plateful, the last thing you want is to sop up the sauce.
The best of the pastas was the simple but hardly plain spaghetti ($24). The noodles, served in an elegant, molded heap, have rough-cut edges and coarse-textured surfaces to prove that they're made on the premises; they absorb Mr. Conant's long-cooked, buttery tomato sauce to their cores. The sauce has the pale orange color of fresh tomatoes, piqued with red pepper and strips of fresh basil.
To start, there's no need to look further than the fritto misto ($17), thin strips of zucchini and eggplant, delicate miniature fish, shrimps, slivers of lemon, and calamari in a light, un-greasy batter. The mega-creamy, coarse-grained polenta ($16) is the apotheosis of creamy polenta; it's a bit like eating a bowl of butter.
Osso buco translates to "hollow bone" — one wonders why Mr. Conant uses a deboned veal shank. Conventional wisdom says that cooking meat on the bone imparts moistness and flavor; Scarpetta's shank is rather tasteless and dry. Bone marrow is spooned on top: too little, too late. The saffron-soaked orzo that serves as a bed is flabby and overcooked, but so full of taste that one is tempted to forgive the $38 dish. A heap of goat meat ($27) is braised with a sticky, fatty tomato glaze that reddens and infuses the toughish meat. On top is a tiny, rare-cooked rib chop, just two bites of delicate, subtly flavorful kid.
Scarpetta has yet to justify its presence in the memorable space. The chef, demonstrably capable of tasty things, seems to spend his evenings schmoozing at the bar, while the kitchen's output feels rote and uninspired.
Scarpetta (355 W. 14th St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues, 212-691-0555).