After the split, Mr. Conant took some time off to ponder his next move. He consulted on a new restaurant in the Hamptons, got married to pet-accessory mogul Meltem Bozkurt in Turkey, honeymooned in Tahiti, and spent a lot of time on his laptop, plotting out ideas for his own restaurant over glasses of red wine, Bob Dylan songs playing in the background.
“Ultimately, what I came up with was this space,” he said of Scarpetta, which is located on the edge of the meatpacking district at 355 14th Street, with a marble-topped bar, brown-leather banquettes and a retractable glass roof. He described the intended vibe as “urban Milan meets rustic Tuscany.”
Mr. Bruni wasn’t particularly pleased with the décor, but the food—ah, the food! “Is any other chef coaxing more or better from it than he?” he raved of Mr. Conant’s work with the tomato. And the spaghetti? “[I]t stacked up against any spaghetti al pomodoro I’ve had in Italy,” Mr. Bruni gushed.
It’s a simple recipe that the chef has been making for years. “Frankly, when I was single, I’d get dates with this dish,” Mr. Conant said.
And the ladies are still swooning, at $24 per plate.
“The spaghetti—you have no idea—it’s insane,” he said. “We sold 140 orders of spaghetti the week before the review. The week of the review, we were selling on average 75 orders a day.
“Speak of the devil!” he cried, as servers carried over platters of the lauded foodstuff.
The pasta is homemade. But the key is the sauce, Mr. Conant said: “Peel and seed tomatoes, cook ’em for 45 minutes, then put an infused olive oil inside it, which that fat content, I think, is really important for the palatability of it, the perfume. The oil consists of an infusion of basil, crushed red pepper and garlic. And that’s it. The idea is, we cook it in a big pot, so then when we heat the sauce up per order, we do it in a sauce pan so there’s a larger surface area, so that it still maintains its freshness. And then we just toss the pasta inside of it, finish it with a little bit of butter and a touch of Parmesan cheese, and then the last thing that goes into the pan is the first flavor, the basil.”
Mr. Conant said he was “undeterred” from using fresh tomatoes, despite a rumor of salmonella earlier this year.
“A raw tomato, if it’s ripe and beautiful, is almost a perfect product,” he said. “It has sweetness, it has acidity, it has texture. It has a combination of three different textures between the seeds, the flesh and the skin. There’s a lot of different things inside of that that makes it interesting.”
“It may be the perfect example of what I think my food is meant to be,” Mr. Conant said of his hallowed red sauce, “where you take something that’s a commodity, a staple, something that’s necessary from an Italian kitchen. My ideal is to just kind of elevate it a little bit.”
Not that he plans a whole-scale makeover of red-checkered tablecloth favorites: “The most important thing to me in this restaurant, I didn’t want meatballs,” Mr. Conant said. “I’m not a big fan of the meatball.”