Chef and Guests Living Large at Strangely Sybaritic Scopa

Scopa is one of the strangest restaurants I have been to recently. It officially opened this summer in Murray Hill, which has always struck me as a lugubrious part of town but which I’ve read is now the cool place to live. There certainly were no signs of life at the address I had, 79 Madison Avenue, so I went down 28th Street to ask directions. The doors of a small cafe and takeout were open, but most of the counters were under wraps for the night. A hostess appeared out of the shadows. “Are you dining with us tonight?” she asked.

I had a vision of the cases being uncovered and old pasta salad being quickly ladled onto paper plates and slapped down on the table with some plastic forks and paper napkins. But she showed us into a dining room next door.

The dining room was an improvement over the deli, but it looked about as pared down as it could get. The floors have been tiled since my first visit, but on that day they were concrete. The walls are painted creamy white but are bare except for a couple of gilt-framed mirrors. A giant urn filled with a spiky flower arrangement stands on a table in the middle of the room, and large glass chandeliers hang from the ceiling, which is 18 feet high. The lighting is low and diffuse, but the overall effect is odd-like a cross between a hotel dining room in some remote Eastern European city under a Communist regime and one of those austere restaurants you find in Northern Italian towns.

It feels like a work in progress-and it is. More construction is planned, including a couple of party rooms, a bar, a lounge, an open kitchen and an entrance on Madison Avenue. When the work is completed, the dining room will be doubled in size, with a mezzanine.

But since Scopa (named for an Italian card game) opened last July, the food has attracted a lot of notice, with good reason. Chef and owner Vincent Scotto worked at Al Forno in Providence, R.I., and Ristorante Vini di Al Covo in Venice, and then went to Fresco (although he is no relation to the family who owns that restaurant) in midtown. There is nothing pared-down about the cooking here, beginning with Mr. Scotto’s famous pizzas, which originated at Al Forno. “They were too good to leave in Rhode Island,” said Mr. Scotto over the telephone.

His secret is not to proof the dough in a flour coating but instead to put it in a pan and coat it in olive oil. Then he drapes the flattened dough on the grill, cooks it on one side and flips it over. “The trick is to go sparingly with the topping so you don’t make the dough soggy. Too much, and you lose the whole effect.”

The pizza arrives at the table not in a round shape, but in a very thin, large oval, with a flat crust. The margherita is topped with a bubbling layer of bel paese and Romano cheeses over fresh tomatoes and is extraordinary, with just the right proportion of crust and melting cheese. Mr. Scotto also makes a pizza topped with white bean purée and sun-dried tomatoes, and another with mashed potatoes and corn. The foccaccia is also very good, served in a basket with sliced country bread and a wonderful, creamy dip made with chick peas, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic.

For a first course, fresh anchovies are marinated in lemon and olive oil, and then the delicate white filets are served on

a bed of greens tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette with red grape tomatoes. It’s a clever combination, with the lemon and the balsamic flavors playing off each other. Thin, silken slices of pink duck prosciutto come with a salad of arugula, tomatoes and shaved Parmesan in a vinaigrette made with an aged balsamic vinegar from Modena. The vinegar cuts the richness of the prosciutto and adds another dimension to the dish.

Another first course is made with roasted littleneck clams and a julienne of fennel, onions and red peppers, caramelized over high heat, in a lovely clear tomato broth with hot pepper and white wine.

A friend who had eaten here urged me to try the onion salad, and he was right. It was brilliant in its simplicity, made with thick rounds of sweet grilled onion, bruschetta croutons rubbed with garlic, shaved Parmesan, parsley, lemon and olive oil.

Pastas include ribbons of pappardelle in a rich veal ragout with carrots, onions and fennel and tomato, or in a lighter, less assertive sauce of corn, baby tomatoes and basil. The selection changes daily and might include rigatoni with a ragù of beef braised in red wine or tagliolini with manila clams.

Main courses are reminiscent of Little Italy in size if not spirit-among them the grilled 12-ounce veal chop, filet mignon of tuna and pork tenderloin. The potato cake that comes with the grilled wild striped bass is great, made with Yukon gold potatoes flavored with rosemary, caramelized onions and Parmesan cheese, and it is also served with a ragù of portobello, shiitake and chanterelle mushrooms.

And if you think the steaks at Peter Luger are big, you should see the specimen that arrives at the table at Scopa. “It’s the best steak in New York City,” said our waiter firmly when I asked him about it. It should be, at this price, a hefty $42.50. (It’s the sort of thing Ron Perelman and Patricia Duff would consider a fair deal for a kiddie dinner.) It’s certainly the biggest steak I’ve ever had, enough to feed a family of six. According to Mr. Scotto, he personally cuts each one from a dry-aged whole prime rib that he butchers into six steaks. “I just put on salt, pepper and olive oil and grill it,” he said. “Nothing to it.” It then appears on a serving platter, nicely charred on the outside and rare in the middle, with a tomato and onion salad and smashed Yukon gold potatoes. And most of it goes home in a doggy bag.

On my first visit, I was unimpressed by the leaden chocolate cake and soggy peach tart with vanilla gelato and raspberry sauce. But that was early on; lately the desserts have included a creamy panna cotta with stewed rhubarb, and a remarkable brown sugar cheesecake with caramel sauce, bananas and cinnamon-toasted pine nuts. I love almost anything made with figs, but this tart was exceptional, baked with a light pastry cream filling.

“I like simple flavors,” the chef said. “I want you to taste what you’re eating.”

A man after my own heart.

Scopa

* *

27 East 28th Street (off Madison Avenue)

686-8787

Dress: Casual

Noise Level: Fine

Wine list: Interesting Italian wines, low prices

Credit Cards: All major

Price Range: Dinner main courses $14 to $42.50

Lunch: Monday to Friday 11:30 P.M. to 2:30 P.M.

Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5:30 P.M. to 11 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor