The big review: Scarpetta ****

Spaghetti from Scarpetta at the Fontainebleau.

Mamma mia! She’d kill me if she knew I shelled out 23 bucks for a plate of spaghetti pomodoro, a quickie dish she used to make for dinner when there was nothing else in the house. “But, Mom, it’s not just pasta,” I can hear myself arguing. “The noodles are homemade, coarse-cut and bitey. And the sauce! The sweet, acidic intensity of the tomato is mellowed by super creamy butter. It’s transcendent.” I might never have won that argument, but I still say I have never had a better Italian meal in this town than at the place that produced that pasta, Scarpetta at the Fontainebleau.

It begins on the phone, when a shockingly polite hostess manages to find a table for our anonymous party of four on a night that is packed, we later learn, with such A-listers as Michael Jordan. At once comfortable and sophisticated, the setting is an oddly incongruous sea of chocolatey dark woods, ropes, shiny port holes and curvy booths that might best be describe as nautical Goth. The dining room is encircled by a broad terrace that overlooks the dramatic pool.

Scarpetta (”small shoe”) refers to the shape a piece bread takes on when it’s used to sop up the last drops of sauce from a plate. Here, the selection of ciabatta, focaccia and a stromboli-like round stuffed with salami, melty mozzarella and basil served with a trio of lip-smacking toppings — mascarpone with flakes of sea salt, citrus-infused olive oil and a divinely oily eggplant caponata — makes my bread-basket Top 10.

Conant’s fritto misto surpasses a sunny memory I have been trying to replicate since sampling a plate of tiny fried white fish on the Adriatic 20 years ago. His crisp, greaseless fish, shrimp and calamari, served with frizzled lengths of zucchini and eggplant, let down their snappy, salty guard under a squeeze of fresh lemon and let out the juicy taste of the sea. A burrata salad with a kaleidoscope of local heirloom tomatoes is another delight, while the mozzarella en carozza (”in a carriage” — grilled cheese meets French toast) over stewed baby tomatoes is a fine take on a classic.

Pastas are the real reason to come here. Like the pomodoro, a divine pappardelle with a short rib and chestnut ragu and the agnolotti dal plin — stamp-size pockets of ground meat, melted fontina and mushrooms glossed with a light, buttery sauce — have a rare, delicate opulence. Another must-have is the velvety polenta infused with more cream and butter than seems possible and served in a tiny silver ramekin alongside an intensely perfumed fricassee of mushrooms with a hint of truffle oil.

A braised capretto, a dense, deeply flavored goat stew, begged for more textural diversion that the meltingly soft slivers of potato and nearly disintegrated leaves of broccoli di rabe could not provide. Still, it is deliciously hearty dish for a cool night. A simple tuna “susci” (a crudo with truffles), a trio of plump, seared diver scallops with lemon gremolata and a fantastically rich black cod over roasted fennel — even with an insanely oversalted tomato stew — proves Conant can handle the bounty of the sea as well as the land.

The Italian wine list has plenty of great choices for pairing at prices that are reasonable by Miami standards. Desserts including a tropical coconut panna cotta and a deconstructed tiramisu don’t entirely measure up to the meal, but don’t drag it down, either.

I have long been asked where to find truly phenomenal Italian food in Miami — an authentic, sophisticated, soulful eatery where the most basic ingredients achieve transcendence. This is it.

Scarpetta, Fontainebleau Resort, 4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-674-4660. 6-11 p.m. daily, until midnight on weekends; brunch 11 a.m.- 3 p.m Sunday. Antipasti $13-$17, pastas $23-$26, mains $27-$38, desserts $11, brunch $49.95, $24.95 for children under 10

FYI: Reservations suggested. Full bar; corkage $30. Valet parking $10 with validation. AX, DN, DS, MC, VS.

Published: 1/09


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