What could be more relaxing than the clickety-clack of wheels on steel rails, a distant horn, and the gentle vibration of a train whisking you to a far-away destination?
On one fine weekend, I boarded the Amtrak in Solana Beach, and not more than two quick hours later, I was de-boarding in busy Union Station in the center of Los Angeles. Pacific Surfliner is an appropriate name for this route between San Diego and L.A., as much of the trip parallels the ocean, with nothing between your window and the water. These modernly equipped cars have spacious and comfortable seats, much like airline first-class accommodations, with power outlets and free Wi-Fi. But I must admit, my laptop was closed the entire trip, as I enjoyed the ever-changing landscape and endless sights of life beyond my own little world. What an extreme difference compared to a drive up I-5, gripping my steering wheel tightly as I navigate the traffic and feel the anxiety rise by the minute.
What a wonderful beginning to the weekend, and my mood can only get better as my driver slowly enters the circular drive of the opulent Montage Beverly Hills. Located in the heart of the most exclusive area of Los Angeles, the shops of Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Blvd are just a short stroll from the front door. Every aspect of this high-end resort is top-notch, from the fragrant bouquets of flowers lining public areas, attentive staff, rooftop pool, pristine rooms with every possible amenity necessary, and of course, one of the finest dining establishments around.
Enter Scarpetta, the flagship restaurant specializing in fine Italian cuisine, and led by two highly-respected chefs. Created by award-winning Chef and author Scott Conant, the Beverly Hills location was nominated for the Best New Restaurant by the revered James Beard Foundation, and joins a family of similar establishments stretching as far as New York, where Conant calls home. Recently, Conant added an esteemed colleague to lead his kitchen, none other than Chef Alex Stratta. With a wealth of experience in French and Italian cuisine, his reputation has garnered many awards, as well as a national spotlight on Season Three of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters. Watching Conant and Stratta work together was an inspirational journey and testament to their special partnership. No competition here, although Stratta was glowing at my remarks on a phenomenal appetizer of Octopus wrapped in Pancetta, as he jokingly pronounced, “that was my creation!”
Unlike many of its peers in the area, this dining room was completely full soon after we arrived. Open and vibrant, one entire wall is filled with windows highlighting the spacious patio and Beverly Canon Gardens outside. The staff was friendly and attentive without being too distracting, clearly a necessity in a city that caters to the rich and famous. The Wine List was so massive that we invited the Sommelier to surprise us with a dark Italian vintage, and he did not disappoint. There’s something special about a complex Sicilian red paired with authentic Mediterranean cuisine.
Conant and Stratta offer a modern Italian cuisine that boasts finesse and simplicity, complete with bold and straightforward flavors. “Scarpetta in Italian means to make a little shoe, so we encourage our guests to grab a piece of bread and use it to sop up everything from their plate” Conant explains.
From Leek and Spinach Soup to Raw Yellowtail, or Tuna ‘Susci’ with marinated vegetables and preserved truffles, Stratta says they try to stay with local ingredients as much as possible. “We get a large percentage of our vegetables from farmers markets, small growers, and purveyors who specialize in organic produce,” he says. “Now that we are starting to incorporate some of my own dishes and techniques, we will continue the evolution of the Scarpetta cuisine.”
Cooking as seasonally as possible, Stratta focuses on the freshest, simplest and brightest flavors. I highly recommend the Herb Fettuccine Carbonara with Pecorino Sardo and the Creamy Polenta with truffled mushrooms. If you are a seafood lover, don’t miss the Crispy Sea Bream with caramelized fennel, candied citrus and red wine sauce. “ Other popular favorites include the Pancetta Wrapped Tenderloin and Braised Veal ‘Osso Bucco’ or the Roasted Duck Breast with apicius spice glaze.
Stratta loves Italian cooking because of his roots and some of his training, even asking his guests what their preferences are. “Italian food is delicious, fresh and unpretentious,” he says. “A variety of styles can be found in all of the regions of Italy, from Northernmost to Sicily. Each region has its own distinct personality.”
No doubt, we have a handful of really great chefs here in San Diego. But venture up to Scarpetta in Los Angeles and you’ll find there’s some serious competition in the kitchen.
-Written by Maria Desiderata Montana