Scopello's lesson in how not to do Italian.


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Until a few weeks ago, the only option for Italian food in Ft. Greene was Cino’s, a 70s-style spaghetti and meatballs spot. It was a glaring absence for the Brooklyn enclave, which houses good Caribbean, French, Senegalese, New Orleans, Cambodian, Thai, Mexican, Middle Eastern and South African restaurants in about a dozen tree-lined blocks. Scopello is a couple of blocks away from BAM and the new Viennese place across the street from it, Thomas Beisl.


That’s not out of range for pre-theater traffic, but it’s far enough (especially compared to Beisl) that Scopello will likely need the patronage of locals in order to survive. The menu posted in its window is bound to entice everyone who knows their Italian cuisine. The name of the restaurant is taken from a Sicilian village famous for its old seaside tuna factory, and among the listed offerings are specialties from the island. For a hip-yet-down-to-earth district that really needed an Italian restaurant, Sicilian is a brilliant idea.


But Scopello’s atmosphere is totally out of tune with Ft. Greene. Tables are crammed toward the back of a dining room that’s completely empty up front. Waiters are so focused on emptying wine bottles you’d think they were paid by the refill. Blaring out of the stereo speakers on a recent Saturday night was the Gipsy Kings—1993’s favorite of restaurant managers with no idea what CD to play. One should expect such vibes when dining pre-theater dinner off Times Square; it’s not going to fly among the brownstones, where successful restaurants thrive off regulars.


For Scopello to remain in business, it needs to radically revise its menu, too. The signal of knowledge and quality it broadcasts is egregiously fraudulent. Word is bound to get out. What the restaurant can manage are simple pastas with supermarket ingredients. These, along with a crafty strategy of overpriced appetizers ($8 range) and inexpensive entrees ($12-$17), open the door for a policy of bilking tourists and satisfying locals. It’s workable if the bad dishes can be rendered significantly less insulting.


Our first course wasn’t awful. Potato and eggplant croquettes were reminiscent of the fried snacks sold at Sicilian train stations. A plate of swordfish carpaccio was even better. Beautifully sliced and very slightly cured, the meat came off pure and clean. A salad of greens, blood orange and smoked herring, on the other hand, was marred by overdone, pre-packaged fish. Tipping its hand, Scopello calls this salad "vucciria," after a Palermo market known for its ultrafresh seafood. Our second warning was the caprese salad. Little goes into preparing the dish beyond the selection of its tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil and olive oil. When all four are unremarkable, an Italian chef might as well show up at the table to express his contempt in person.


The Scopello special of spinach risotto with shrimp would be substandard for an Italian airline, and can only be described as a lumpy, exceptionally bland failure. Three words from my friend—the unfortunate diner who also took the hit with the caprese salad—sum up the problem with this dish: Fucking Minute Rice.


The sarde a beccafico was another travesty. In Sicily, this is a starter dish made by rolling fresh sardine filets around a stuffing of pine nuts, raisins and breadcrumbs. A quiet wedding of sea and earth, it brings out the breezy sweetness in both. I find it profoundly appetizing, and would have celebrated Scopello’s main-course version had it inspired even a single, fleeting moment of mouth-watering sensation. Instead, I enjoyed a mouth-puncturing. The sardines were unfileted, and, since they were rolled and stuffed, unfiletable. There was no possible forkful devoid of sharply inedible little bones. What little I managed to swallow tasted all wrong, a threat to my warm memories of the dish.


The busboys who cleared our still-full plates didn’t ask if we wanted the leftovers wrapped nor whether something was, perhaps, wrong with them. That’s why it’s a safe bet that Scopello will die young. It apparently doesn’t even imagine that it might need to improve.


Maybe they should put the bartendress in charge. She recommended we try the ravioli, and it was the closest thing to decent that graced our table. The noodle was passably firm, and the squash inside tasty. Adorning the ravioli was a sage-butter sauce that seemed to have been cooked by someone with kitchen experience.


The pasta alla norma (with fried eggplant and salted ricotta) didn’t inspire outrage either. In fact, if a suburban friend who’d just taken up Southern-Italian cooking had you over and served you pasta like this, you’d congratulate him or her on a job well done. After all, not everyone has access to farmer’s markets and import items. Or talent.


Scopello, 63 Lafayette Ave. (betw. Fulton St. & South Elliot Pl.), Brooklyn, 718-852-1100


Salt


Given the above, it should come as little surprise that I sometimes have trouble getting friends to join me for research meals. They’re excited by the prospect the first time, sure, but who can blame a pal for refusing to repeatedly follow you into a slap in the face? To keep my companions on board, I let them lead me sometimes.


That’s how I ended up at Salt, the Soho bistro favorably reviewed in a Times "$25 and Under" column a couple weeks ago. My friend Shawn had no patience for my objections—"They review places you just covered all the time," he countered—but he had enough patience for the long wait you’ll find at every restaurant reviewed favorably by the Times.


The room’s singular feature is an overhead wine rack that runs the whole width of the place. It’s no-frills for Soho, but I’ve seen enough mirrors and old photographs lately anyway. The other design feature of note is equally efficient: in the place of wobbly little banquette tables along the sides, Salt has long, communal slabs. By sacrificing the illusion that your party has its own space, the restaurant provides a sturdier surface with more room for food and drink.


Check out these fancy-sounding appetizers: carmelized onion risotto, red wine reduction ($8.50); wild mushroom bread pudding, saffron-truffle emulsion ($9.50). Thankfully, neither dish, in reality, was quite as pretentious as its description. The risotto was a creamy essence of onion and grain, while the "pudding" turned out to be the most savory Thanksgiving stuffing I’ve ever had the pleasure of gobbling. We also had steamed shrimp and crabmeat dumplings ($9), which might have been superb—if only they’d made it to our table still steaming.


The entree page is split into two sections, one for chef entrees (with chef-chosen sides) and protein 2 (you pick two sides from a list of options). Not everything goes with everything else, we found, and the quick, polite staff doesn’t offer guidance. Our whole roasted dorade ($19.50), though perfectly supple, fresh and moist in its balsamic reduction, tasted a little too sugared by the butternut squash puree underneath it. Sauteed eggplant with roasted garlic was another true note in that dissonant chord. Some quieter complements for the assertive whitefish—say, braised baby autumn vegetables and Yukon Gold potato puree—might have been better choices.


With roasted organic chicken breast au jus ($15.50), we opted for brussels sprouts and pearl barley. This time, the entire plate was smashing. The chicken’s skin was crisp, its meat a potent reminder that when it’s not factory farmed, this bird actually has flavor. Marble-sized sprouts dense with tender leaves and barley redolent of harvest time balanced the dish while maintaining a consistency of springy texture.


From the chef side, we tried the roasted salmon filet with chorizo, asparagus and wild mushroom fricassee ($18.50). This was another excellent piece of fish that was pleasingly candied on the topside. The vegetables made the grade as well, but the dish didn’t quite triumph altogether, owing to some bullying on the part of the chorizo: even the asparagus, down to the last segment, tasted of spicy sausage.


Salt isn’t a bargain, though its prices are fair. Its menu is like its communal banquette set-up: what looks gimmicky and irritating is actually serviceably innovative. I’ll be back to find out if the squash goes better with grilled portobellos and a Newport steak ($20.50), and whether or not the chef makes music with New Zealand lamb shank, merguez, white beans and spinach ($20.50).


Next time, though, I’ll skip dessert. The pecan tart was too dry to be fairly classified in the pie family—it was more of a brittle—and the chocolate bread pudding was no better—it resembled an overbaked breakfast muffin. Shawn, who loves bread pudding and was excited by Eric Asimov’s (somewhat backhanded) praise for Salt’s, was crushed. It was his own fault for trusting a reviewer.


Salt, 58 Macdougal St. (betw. Prince & Houston Sts.), 212-674-4968


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