Sitting in Manhattan, with every type of Italian food available (hell we even have places that specialize in Sardinian vittles) it is easy to smugly discuss the rest of America and how sorry we are that they will never know the joys of authenticity. We lament that there are people who believe The Olive Garden is even a version of Italian food, and we contemplate the misery it must be to consider Papa John's pizza, all while gleefully plucking rich, salty, peppery, house-cured coppa from raw wooden boards.
When the topic comes up of what would happen if someone opened a real place, we rather sanctimoniously accept with resignation that even if you could get the right products and only stressed that most Italian of edicts, the best possible fresh produce, no matter what you did people would come in and say, "I want spaghetti and meatballs." Your explanation that there are no spaghetti and meatballs in Italy would fall on deaf ears, they would bring up things like "Italian heritage" and get irate. Sadly, among the people I discuss this with, the consensus is that, no matter what your objective, the customers of America would make you morph into a ziti shop.
In spite of all this condescending conjecture, I have always believed that if a true talent went out there, set up shop, made authentic food, and stood by his/her integrity long enough, Americans would definitely come around and actually demand better food out of all of their restaurants. Italian food has always seemed the way in; well-made Italian food just tastes good, this is why no one is surprised when Mario beats people on Iron Chef. Mario makes food that tastes good, and that's why it wins, in spite of his not serving out of coconuts or using the circle mold.
Easton, is a small, well-heeled town on the eastern shore of Maryland, about 5 hours from New York by car. Easton is a fantastic place to go for crabs on a craft-paper-covered picnic table in the summer. And, as of December, it is a place to experience an Italian chef making serious Italian food with the Italian ethos.
If you drink, and I do, you are aware of Harry's Bar in Venice because they invented the bellini. If you eat, and I do, you are aware of Harry's because they created carpaccio. If you live in New York, and I do, you are aware of Harry's Bar because it begat the group of Cipriani Restaurants scattered about town. So when Thursday told me Giancarlo Tondin, the executive chef of the group, had left to open a restaurant with his partner, Grant Friedman (Thursday's brother), in Grant's hometown of Easton, I decided we should visit and eat.
Scossa is located at 8 North Washington St., in a storefront on a street of quaint, low, brick buildings. There is al fresco seating out front. Once you are through the doors you are at the head of a large marble bar listening to Italian language music. A quick tour reveals a lounge with couches, club chairs and its own bar about half way through the place, and a private dining area in the back. Next to the bar is the main dining area with ostrich banquettes and very comfortable brown leather chairs.
There are cues that you are in an Italian place all around (with quite a collection of grappa behind the bar, and an armless statue in the foyer) but if decorations made a place authentic TGIFridays would really be everybody's sports bar. A look at the wine list is the first clue that these guys seriously consider themselves Italian, and northern Italian at that. There are some great northern Italian wines -- Soave Classico, Teraldego, and Mullër Thurgau among others -- all well chosen and all indicative of the wines Italian people have with food. There is also a nod to the current respected wines of Italy in the form of a Sassicaia, and a Tigninello.
Lets face it, what matters in Italy is food, not ambiance, so all this work would be wasted if the food wasn't great. The good news is Grant and Giancarlo deliver on both.
I think my favorite dish was a shrimp risotto; it was rich and toothsome with the most Venetian of touches -- a little bit of curry. Venice is how eastern spices got to the rest of Europe, and the real cuisine of the Veneto is rife with touches like this.
I also had a sirloin steak with peppers. The steak itself was simply grilled and the pepporanata that accompanied it was slightly sour and slightly sweet and a perfect foil to the richness of the sirloin.
Nothing is more Italian than an understanding that the reason the name of the noodle comes first in the names of pasta dishes is because it is the main ingredient. If you respect the noodle and prepare it properly, a small amount of sauce acting as a condiment is all the dish wants. The three pastas I tried represented this perfectly.
First was the Gnocci, seven light-as-air spinach gnocchi topped with a touch of simple tomato sauce and grated grana, baked in an oven-proof dish, this was the perfect way to show a mastery of the little dumplings.
I also had a Carbonara, which was genuine. For some reason, many Americans view carbonarra as an alfredo sauce with bacon in it. In reality, it is egg, bacon, cheese, and black pepper goodness. Carbonara means something like "the guy that sells coal" and I have been told this is because of the look of the pepper on top of the finished dish. A great carbonara, one comprised of a properly cooked noodle with sweated bacon, a raw egg and a fistful of grated Parmesan all tossed with copious amounts of black pepper, is amazing. The dilemma is many people fear serious doses of pepper, even in a dish with the cheese and egg yolks to temper it, so no chef can go as nuts on it as it deserves. When you find a good one like this, ask for more pepper, and go as far as you dare, it gets better with every twist of the grinder.
Maltagliati Bolognese was the third pasta and it stood out for the finesse with which the noodle was made; think tagliatelli rolled to a thin gauge and cut into three-inch rectangles. The bolognese was rich and had the depth of a slow-cooked ingredient, but the mastery of this dish was exemplified in the bite of the noodle, resistant and resilient.
As far as antipasti go, the carpaccio is as good as it better be from a guy with 25 years in the upper ranks of the Cipriani group. The calamari has a crust with the light crunch of soft flour rather than the denseness of the harder flours of the southern Italy. The polenta with mushrooms is exactly what you would want after a day of autumn hunting. There are prosciutto and bresoala dishes as well, Proscuitto di Parma with real buffalo Mozzerella, these things are sometimes hard to find, even here in NYC. The high point was a special of tuna loin rolled in black pepper and served with lentils. Something in the combination brought out an amazing umami flavor I have seldom experienced in Italian cuisine.
Both nights we were at Scossa it was full. That bodes well for it's future and of course I like that because, ultimately, maybe this is the place that proves that, given an opportunity, people will appreciate better food, and I would love being right.