Intimate and designed to provide what the owners describe as a rustic Italian experience, La Scarpetta is owned and operated by Emilio and Rosaria Ferrara, originally from Parma, Italy. The space, which seats 44, is just one room divided by a half wall into two dining sections with a service bar and the kitchen at the back. The name refers to the Italian expression “fare la scarpetta,” which means to make a little shoe by bending bread to sop up the last of the sauce in a dish. This implies that everything on the menu is good to the last drop.
To set the culinary mood, there’s always an amuse-bouche for you to nibble on while looking at the menu and wine list. Recently, we were treated to a generous presentation (arranged on an irregular piece of smooth wood) of warm-from-the-oven onion focaccia, house-made caponata and baguette slices. The eggplant relish or salsa was toothsome, delicious and exactly the right amount to come before an appetizer.
For that, a dinner partner and I selected the chicken liver paté. The consistency was like mousse and the taste was extravagant. On crostini with a little mound of pecorino cheese shards, it was just the thing, and we shared it because the portion was big at $8.90.
The menu at La Scarpetta is meat-centric. This is a place that celebrates lamb with pappardelle (house made) in a heavy sauce ($16.90), lamb ravioli (($18.90), rack of lamb with pistachios and mint sauce ($31) or lamb osso buco served with risotto ($38). The chef loves lamb and wants to offer as many recipes as possible on any given night, often as off-the-menu nightly specials. A beef tenderloin with green peppercorn sauce is $32, while a sliced grilled flap steak with Parmesan cheese, truffle sauce and arugula is $28. Flap steak stuffed with truffle and porcini mushrooms is $32. Braised beef pieces simmered in red wine are served over mashed potatoes for $30. The dish is absolutely simple and ever so appealing, like pot roast elevated to something better.
Veal and Italian sausage aren’t left out, and my dish (again deceptively simple) of pappardelle and Bolognese sauce was so full of chunks of full-flavored, sauce-soaked Italian sausage that I couldn’t take a bite without encountering the tender meat. My dinner partner had the veal osso buco over risotto. Our capable young server, Dancho, brought a steak knife to the table for the veal and said as he placed it on a fresh and folded cloth napkin, “I bring you this but I promise you will not need it.” And we didn’t. The veal chunks tumbled off the bone with a gentle tug of a fork. This dish is every single thing you want osso buco to be ($32).
We enhanced our meal with a 2010 Piancarda Rosso Conero ($33), a Montepulciano that had the right heft for our burly meat dishes. There isn’t a full bar at La Scarpetta, so the wine list is important. There’s good depth to the Italian collection and the markup is quite reasonable at 100 percent. Many of the labels are not readily available locally, which makes trying new wines at this place inviting. Additionally, three wines are served by the glass for about $9.
Seafood devotees will find two octopus dishes, one a salad composition and another that mingles octopus with fresh pasta and baked cherry tomatoes ($17.90). There’s also the ever-popular branzino served with oil and garlic spaghetti for $29, and a baked salmon preparation that includes pistachios. The Chilean sea bass comes with risotto.
The decor at La Scarpetta establishes an eclectic rustic ambiance with found objects and everyday household items (including cans of tomatoes, a collection of non-working wall clocks, a giant jar of Nutella in a frame, a jug of wine corks and mismatched light fixtures) along with references to Italy, such as the front end of a Vespa mounted high on a wall.
The tables at La Scarpetta are country-style plain wood set with woven placemats and cloth napkins, and the background music is usually jazz. Soft lighting makes the room cozy, and if you eat when the kitchen isn’t under pressure (before 6:30 p.m. or after 8:30 p.m.), La Scarpetta really will seem like a relaxed, informal neighborhood restaurant with uncommonly good food and wines and plenty of personal attention.
The Verdict: An intimate Italian restaurant specializing in rustic fare paired with surprisingly good wines. Pasta, breads, desserts and everything else are house made. A worthy addition to the Sarasota food scene, because its menu stands apart from most other Italian restaurants.
La Scarpetta | 3809 S. Tuttle Ave., Sarasota, (941) 941-8716
Hours: Dinner: 5-10 p.m. nightly, closed Sunday
Parking: Angle parking in strip mall