Scopa Italian Roots’ adventurous kitchen draws from the best of two worlds
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
The phrase “cultural roots” is often used to denote fidelity to tradition, though it isn’t entirely appropriate. Arborists routinely graft branches of different trees onto healthy roots, and they flourish with greater vigor. I have a tree in my front yard that gives four kinds of apples, and had they been in stock at the nursery that day I could have had one that bears peaches and cherries, too.
A sign for Scopa Italian Roots started me thinking about metaphors for the ways traditional ideas have been used as a launching pad for fusion cuisine. Japanese spaghetti is only one example of an unlikely but successful graft on Italian tradition. I was curious about whether this restaurant was an heirloom plant or an exotic hybrid, so I decided to stop in.
The cavernous but stylish dining room with shared tables is modern rather than rustic, and the crowd is generally young and hip. The long and extravagantly well-stocked bar is a big draw, but there’s a difference between this one and others around town: the variety of Italian liqueurs and bitters, and the traditional and modern drinks crafted from them. Most cocktail menus are generic, but some thought has been put into this one.
The food menu also shows a mix of tradition and modernity, which comes together in some dishes. Lasagnette — a narrow flat noodle with scalloped edges — is served with lamb neck, pecorino, peas and pea tendrils, and fennel pollen, that last item being an item adventurous chefs have been raving about. It also happens to be an ancient ingredient in Northern Italian dishes, albeit one rare outside of a short spring season. It added a delightful scent of sweet herbs to the lamb ragu pasta, which was impressive even without it. Lamb neck has much better flavor than the more popular chops and racks, and tasting this dish made me want to experiment with it.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself, because we started with antipasti and salads. I was with a large party, so I was able to taste quite a sampling of the 30-odd choices. Some of these were classics: a nicely presented cheese board, fried cauliflower, crisp arancini (fried risotto-and-pea balls stuffed with mozzarella), and perfect stuffed zucchini blossoms with just a dash of chili in the tomato sauce.
The highlights of the starters were the fried calamari and the beef tartare, both of which involved creative presentations. The calamari was bathed in squid ink before frying, and whether it was that or some seasoning in the breading, this dish was particularly delicious. The tartare was the typical mix of raw beef chopped with lemon, capers and chives, but it was topped with a raw quail egg and served with lardo toast. Lardo is a type of fatty bacon cured with rosemary and spices that is as rich as it sounds, and putting it alongside the clean, pure flavors of tartare was an inspired idea. To alternate bites of fatty richness on bread with citrusy, oniony meat was delightful, and if you have ever considered trying tartare this is a great place to start.
The flavors in that dish were all rich, so a kale salad with bottarga, egg, pickled shallots and lemon was perfect to follow. (I wish I could say we planned it that way, but we didn’t — either that was the order in which it came from the kitchen or our server structured our meal for us.) Bottarga, a variant on caviar popular in Sicily and Greece, has the briny flavor of an ocean breeze — a tricky ingredient. It’s usually used in pastas but played well with the slight bitterness of kale and tang of lemon. I’d like to see more experimentation with bottarga locally, as it’s an undervalued item.
Our pastas followed, the lasagnette mentioned above and a simple spaghetti chitarra with pecorino and a grind of black pepper. The juxtaposition of such a simple item with a complex one was another accident: we ordered the chitarra because one person at the table viewed the lamb neck with suspicion. As it turned out he liked both, and so did we. Alternating bites made so that each one cleared the palate for the other.
One of the people at my table owns a wineshop and zeroed in on two bottles to pair with our meal: a Fuso Barbera and something with the menacing name “Aglianico del Vulture.” I had been rather concerned that carrion-eating birds might be involved, but it turned out that there is a region of southern Italy by this name — the Italian word for the bird is avvoltoio. It’s an ugly name for a beautiful wine, one I intend to find again.
We didn’t try any of the large main courses at Scopa, though we saw some going by that looked lovely. We wanted to sample tapas-style, and our bill was probably a bit lower as a consequence. We spent about $40 per person food-wise only, and about double that when wine and a cocktail were taken into account, and had a delightful time.
The name of this restaurant still contains one mystery for me, however: the word “scopa” can denote a rake, a broom or a card game, and it’s also obscene slang for a sexual tryst. Whether or not that that ambiguity is deliberate, the Italian roots of this restaurant are clearly healthy and bearing good fruit.
Scopa Italian Roots 2905 W. Washington Blvd., Venice (310) 821-1100 scopaitalianroots.com