July 28, 2010

Italian Chef Takes Toronto

Photo Blog July 28 Italian Chef Takes Toronto Scott Conant

Chef Scott Conant, of New York City’s Scarpetta restaurant posted an ‘Open Letter to Toronto’ at The Huffington Post a couple of weeks ago, just ahead of the grand opening of his latest Scarpetta restaurant, in the new Thompson Hotel on Toronto’s Wellington Street. His blog post starts off a little cringe-worthy:

“Dear Toronto (or, “T-Dot”, as I’ve learned you’re affectionately called):


You don’t really know me — and that’s okay. I’d just like to introduce myself. My name is Scott Conant and I’m a chef… I have this restaurant in New York City, where I live. I call it “Scarpetta.” I don’t know if you’re into etymology or anything like that, but in Italian (that’s the kind of food I cook) Scarpetta means “little shoe” — but it’s also Italian slang for when you take a little piece of bread and sop up all the sauce left up on your plate. I like the name, because that’s what I’m always trying to do — make food that people will really want to enjoy down to the last bite, drop, whatever. Just good, honest food, Toronto — cool?”

Photo Blog July 28 Italian Chef Takes Toronto Restaurant

It’s odd that the acerbic judge from Food Network’s Chopped seems to be pandering to Toronto foodies. That said; I’d be afraid too if I was about to open a new restaurant in a swanky new hotel in a big city in a foreign country, especially in this economy.

Photo Blog July 28 Italian Chef Takes Toronto Dishes

But someone should have informed the chef that, culinary wise, anyway, he has nothing to worry about. Toronto has grown up over the past decade. And we like sopping up our food. And we welcome newcomers. Always have. Especially since the 1970s when Trudeau opened the floodgates to immigration, our multicultural influences have bloomed to include almost 100 different countries, their unique cuisines remaining mostly unadulterated and largely delightful.

It has been said that while America is a melting pot — everything mixed together to form a new type of stew — Canada is a salad bowl: fresh, vibrant, with each ingredient remaining recognizable and unto itself.

However, a new breed of clever Toronto chefs has been challenging that notion with an original type of cuisine, one where the world comes together in the Land of Tasty. I’m specifically thinking of Lee’s Susur Lee, Origin’s Claudio Aprile, Nota Bene’s David Lee and Foxley Bistro’s Tom Thai.

That said, we still love our straight-up ethnicities, Italian being one of our faves. And after tasting some of Chef Conant’s rustic Italian dishes at a pre-opening cocktail party — I particularly enjoyed the creamy polenta with a fricassee of truffled mushrooms, roasted radishes with brown butter and sunflower seeds, and perfect spaghetti with tomato and basil — Scarpetta should be a welcome addition to Toronto’s vibrant dining scene, so the chef needn’t worry.

But he should also know that we never call ourselves the T-Dot.

He got some bad advice on that count.

Photo Blog July 28 Italian Chef Takes Toronto Spaghetti Pasta

Scott Conant’s Spaghetti With Fresh Tomato Sauce & Basil

(makes 4 servings)

Says the chef: “This is a straightforward, traditional, fresh tomato sauce in which ripe tomatoes — and little else — get cooked quickly to retain their vibrant flavour. Why then is it such a hit? The key is in the finish. Here’s how I put the dish together at the restaurant: I take a single portion of pasta cooked just shy of al dente and add it to a sauté pan that holds a single portion of hot, bubbling tomato sauce. To toss the pasta and sauce together, I use that pan-jerking method we chefs are so fond of. I do this to look cool. Just kidding. The real reason is that this technique not only coats the pasta evenly with the sauce, but it also introduces a little air into the process, making the dish feel lighter and brighter. To accomplish this aeration with larger portions and without fancy wrist work, cook the sauce in a pan with a lot of surface area. When you add the pasta to the sauce, gently toss the pasta with a couple of wooden spoons (tongs can bruise and break the strands), lifting the pasta high above the bottom of the pot. Finish the dish with some butter, cheese and basil.”

About 20 ripe plum tomatoes
About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more to finish the dish
Pinch of crushed red pepper
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 oz. freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 1/2 cup)
6-8 fresh basil leaves, well washed and dried, stacked and rolled into a cylinder and cut thinly crosswise into a chiffonade
1 lb. spaghetti, either high-quality dry or homemade

Step 1: 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 cook, 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 to flick out the seeds.

Step 2: In a wide pan, heat the 1/3 cup of olive oil over medium-high heat until quite hot. Add the tomatoes, red pepper flakes, and season lightly with the salt and pepper. (I always start with a light hand with the salt and pepper because as the tomatoes reduce, the salt will become concentrated.) Let the tomatoes cook for a few minutes to soften. Then, using a potato masher, chop the tomatoes finely. Cook the tomatoes for 20-25 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 2 days or freeze it for longer storage.)

Step 3: 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 pasta cooking water. Add the pasta to the sauce and cook over medium-high heat, gently tossing the pasta and the sauce together with a couple of wooden spoons and a lot of exaggerated movement (you can even shake the pan) 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.

For more delicious Italian dishes, see our Italian Pasta Recipes.

Photo credits:
1-3. Amy Rosen
4. Chris Villano