Chef Wants Diners to Sop Up Food With Bread

At the end of a meal, when the food is that good, it's not unusual to see diners scooping up the last delicious mouthfuls of a meal in order not to leave one bit behind.

That's what chef Scott Conant strives for. So much so that he named his new New York City restaurant Scarpetta.

"You know, when the food is really good, especially for some reason Italian food, it kind of inspires you to grab a piece of bread and sop up what is on the plate," he said. "And the Italians, God bless them, have a word for it. Sopping up is called scarpetta."

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Scott Conant
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"So the idea and the intention for this restaurant is to be able to just have an environment where it kind of invites," he said. The food is so good and you feel comfortable inside of it enough to make a scarpetta."

Scarpetta is the third Manhattan restaurant opened by Conant, a beloved and award-winning chef whose Italian dishes have dazzled many. He was named Best New Chef in 2004 by Food & Wine and has appeared on numerous television shows, including Bravo's "Top Chef."

He's published two cookbooks, 2005's "New Italian Cooking" followed by "Bold Italian," released in April.

And last month, the New York Times reviewer Frank Bruni gave Scarpetta three out of four stars and said no one was better with a tomato than Conant.

It All Started in a Cooking Class

His passion for the kitchen began at 11, when the Waterbury, Conn., native found himself in a community cooking class.

"I didn't think much of it at the time, you know," the 37-year-old said.

"I learned how to make a three-to-one dough," he recalled. "So like pie crust, and I remember making it later, you know, nice and simple. I made a great apple pie. I still make a good apple pie actually."

Conant enrolled in vocational school in hopes of getting into the plumbing business, but when that program was full it was his second choice -- culinary art s -- that stuck.

"I started working in a family friend's restaurant, and I was working like 60 hours a week, plus going to school," he said. "I was really, I was never home. I would leave for school at 7 o'clock in the morning and get home around 1 a.m., and I would be back at school the next morning. I loved it. I really loved it."

It was something different from what he'd ever done, and he enjoyed the camaraderie even though at 15 he was the youngest employee in the restaurant's kitchen.

And, Conant said, it was probably a good thing that he got into his second-choice program at school.

"The third choice was, I probably shouldn't say this, but the third choice was hair dressing," he said. "I think that would have killed my father."

That's Some Good Lasagna

For Conant, cooking came naturally, and culinary arts was the only class in which he got an A, besides gym.

"I remember making lasagna, something like this and the teacher saying to me, in front of the chef instructors, 'you're good at this, you know, you have an eye for this, the hands for this,'" he said. "I said 'yeah, yeah, yeah. You're saying that because you want kids to take your classes.'"

Another motivation for Conant to do well?

The hottest girls in the high school were in that culinary class," he said, laughing.

Conant grew up in a traditional New England family with what he called the "Norman Rockwell-esque Thanksgiving."

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