Is there anyone who doesn’t love pasta? With countless jarred-sauce concoctions being served in homes across the country, pasta in its most unpolished form is almost as American as hot dogs and burgers. But unlike with the latter, even the most novice of cooks could feel great about their pasta by simply adding a few extra ingredients. Ground beef, sliced mushrooms, chopped jalapenos, and presto! Congratulations. You’ve officially transformed that jar of Prego into spicy spaghetti.
But that moment when you’ve tried a pasta dish that’s made from scratch? No, not just the sauce, but the pasta noodles itself. Heaven. Enter Freddy Vargas, chef de cuisine at Scarpetta. Housed inside the Beverly Hills Montage, Scarpetta is where Vargas dishes out the restaurant’s signature dish: spaghetti with tomato and basil.
With its Italian-inspired cuisine, you might be surprised to find chef Freddy Vargas hasn’t an inkling of Italian in him. He grew up in Staten Island, New York, an area heavily populated with Italian-Americans, and though his wife is Italian-American, and father-in-law is from Bari, Vargas grew up with a Puerto Rican mother and Ecuadorian father. He recounts growing up eating “rice and beans, pork chops that were cooked ‘til they were dead, roasted chicken—really simple things.” His father, in part due to his Ecuadorian heritage, could always be found eating soups. “Even in the middle of August in New york, one hundred degrees outside, you’ll still see him in the kitchen, shirt off and eating a bowl of soup.”
And that’s the root of where Vargas’ cooking lies. Although Scarpetta is distinctly Italian-influenced, Vargas tells us that the heart is Latin. And the two are reconciled in a cooking philosophy that emphasizes seasonal ingredients and simplicity. And the more simple the dish, the more important the quality of the ingredient. As Vargas reasons, it’s about “always going with what mother nature’s giving you. Especially being in California and having this great produce. It’s something I think is to be cherished and respected at the same time.”
The focus on ingredients is what makes the food at Scarpetta special. What elevates the spaghetti with tomato and basil, though deceptively barebones in description, is sourcing the best tomatoes.
“The process is just making basil-infused oil, putting it into the tomatoes,” Vargas explains. “It emulsifies together, and we cook the spaghetti with the sauce. We’ll put about 2 oz of the pasta water with the sauce, and as the pasta’s cooking, it releases starch. The starch makes it nice and viscous. The noodles, when you eat them, you’ll taste it, they were really swimming together and really getting to know each other. Everything plays off one another, and it’s really, really simple.”
On this occasion of pasta enlightenment, Vargas cooks up a brown-tinged pasta, which we learn is Porcini Tagliatelle. It’s dressed up with house-made veal sausage, cherry tomatoes, and Pecorino Romano. The combination of earthy, perfectly chewy, al dente pasta with just the right amount of salt and fat from the Pecorino and veal sausage is absolutely wonderful combined with the bright, sweet zing of cherry tomatoes. It’s an illuminating moment.
There are non-pasta dishes at Scarpetta, too, like the soft-scrambled eggs served with truffle. Or the grilled Spanish octopus, served on a thick smear of black garlic purée, with peanut potatoes & tomato-olive vinaigrette. The presentation is as lovely as the taste, a philosophy Vargas brings even to sandwiches, at Paninoteca, a Scarpetta offshoot he runs during lunch.
“We make our own roast beef, turkey, a smoked pork loin called lonza, and porchetta. Something as simple as a turkey sandwich, we just wanna make it really fricken good … Come here 1 pm, and there’s a line out the door. We really made an impact,” Vargas says. “That was my intention: really simple ingredients, thinking about acid and mayonnaise, thinking about different fats, full-on intention to make these the best sandwiches around.”
Vargas goes on to explain that Scarpetta translates to “little shoe,” but owner/restaurateur Scott Conant’s intention was all about enjoying the meal to the very last bite.
“Because Scarpetta means you take a piece of bread, you sop it up, whatever sauce is left in there. That was his intention for the brand, and it’s what he really wanted to capture in Italian cooking. That’s why this brand has done so well and resonates with everyone. Who doesn’t want to go out and really enjoy a meal in that way?”
As I finish up my Porcini Tagliatelle, I’m left wondering where my “little shoe” of bread is. A finger will have to do.
Tell us about your upbringing and how food came to play its role in your life.
I’m a chef at an Italian restaurant; however, I’m not Italian by any means. I grew up in Staten Island, New York, where it’s heavily populated with Italian-American culture. My wife is actually Italian-American, her father’s from Bari, in Italy, so you grow up with that kinda stuff, but my background is that my mother’s Puerto Rican, my father’s Ecuadorian. You don’t really hear that too often—two people from two different Latin countries, per se. So I grew up eating rice and beans, pork chops that were cooked ‘til they were dead, roasted chicken, really simple things. My father, being Ecuadorian, he would always eat soups! You would even see him, middle of August in New York—it’s a 100 degrees outside—you’ll still see him in the kitchen, shirt off, eating a bowl of soup. That’s where I think a lot of my cooking heart is. I do work in an Italian restaurant, and that’s always going to have an influence on my style, but at the end of the day, my heart is Latin.
What is your philosophy in the kitchen?
Cooking food that is seasonal, always going with what Mother Nature’s giving you. Especially being in California and having this great produce. It’s something I think is to be cherished and respected at the same time. I’m a born and raised New Yorker, I’ve only been out here for five years, so I’ve really adapted that Cali-style to make sure you have a good amount of salads, for example. That’s the way people eat, so you kind of have to go with the culture. Cooking seasonal, making sure it’s the best ingredients, and keeping it simple, you know? There’s no reason to go with foams and molecular gastronomy. I’m not saying there’s no place for it, there definitely is, but everything needs to make sense. That’s my philosophy. You’ll see foams here and there, but it’s not like it’s in every dish.
When you keep it that simple, you have to have more of an emphasis on really good ingredients, and technique, right?
Exactly, it’s not just picking the best ingredients, there’s a big technique. Especially here at Scarpetta, we pride ourselves in cooking pasta. All pastas are made in-house. It goes from a mix of double-zero semolina, egg yolks, or even semolina with just water. Depending on the pasta, it’ll dictate what that dough is, but you know, I think our dough in itself is one of the best doughs out there. I’ve eaten out a lot, even in New York, and I think we really have really good pasta game. One technique, too, is that we cook all our pastas with the sauce that’s going to go with it. For instance, what we’re known for, the spaghetti with tomato and basil, it’s about sourcing the best tomatoes. The process is just making infused oil, putting it into the tomatoes, it emulsifies together, and we cook the spaghetti with the sauce. We’ll put about 2 oz of the pasta water with the sauce, and as the pasta’s cooking, it releases starch, the starch makes it nice and viscous. The noodles, when you eat them, you’ll taste it, they were really swimming together and really getting to know each other. Everything plays off one another, and it’s really, really simple.
You also opened up Paninoteca here in this space. Sandwiches are such a staple in American cuisine and in others also. What are some ways you elevate sandwiches?
A lot of the sandwiches we serve are things I ate back home. Where I grew up in Staten Island you could always go to a deli and get an Italian hero. When I came out to LA, I realized it was kind of lacking. People rave about Bay Cities, and it’s a great sandwich, but I think they’re the only ones really doing that. That’s one thing I wanted to take advantage of. In terms of our sandwich, everything always has a purpose. There are lots of layers of flavors, full-on and intended to be that way. Anything that we can’t make—we make our own roast beef, turkey, a smoked pork loin called lonza, we make our own porchetta—anything we don’t have the capabilities due to our environment… for example, we don’t have capability of making own in-house prosciutto and mortadella, so we buy that stuff, and some of the cheeses. But again, the cheeses we use are the best product that you can get. So taking something as simple as a turkey sandwich, we just wanna make it really fricken good. That’s my purpose, it just making every single sandwich, really, really good. And I think we’re doing a good job of accomplishing that, especially with the help of Uber eats, it’s really hit the market, especially in this area with so many agencies around here. Come here 1 pm, and there’s a line out the door. We really made an impact. That was my intention: really simple ingredients, thinking about acid and mayonnaise, thinking about different fats, full-on intention to make these the best sandwiches around.
Scarpetta’s menu isn’t necessarily what you’d find in Italy, but you’ve said previously that you’re harnessing the soul and essence of it. What is that?
It’s really focusing on simple ingredients, the best ingredients, and cooking technique is really, really simple — the layers of flavor. Here at Scarpetta, we have things on the menu you’re not going to go to Italy and find, even the pastas. But we’re taking the influence of the locality, California, where we are. Scarpetta [in Italian] really means “little shoe,” but Scott’s intention was enjoying the meal to the very last bit. Because Scarpetta means you take a piece of bread, you sop it up, whatever sauce is left in there, if you eat a bowl of spaghetti for instance. That was his intention for the brand, and it really captures what he wanted in Italian cooking. That’s why this brand has done so well and resonates with everyone. Who doesn’t want to go out and really enjoy a meal in that way?
What are your proudest moments here at Scarpetta? Or in your career?
Definitely being named “Top 30 Under 30” in Zagat. That really gave light to me that I’m making a mark. That was something I was really proud of. And Paninoteca, 100 percent, that’s my baby. It’s been open since May of 2014.
Holiday issue. What’s something special you look forward to during that time. Whether in your personal life or at the restaurant?
Well, both, especially being a professional chef, you’re married to your job, so to speak. If you’re not ready for it to become your life, I suggest you find something else to do. I look forward to the holidays, I look forward to getting together with family—my brother and sister are out here now. But also at the restaurant we do big buffets for Thanksgiving and Christmas, a big display of carving meats and seafood. I really look forward to that. For brunches we do this delicious (not to toot my own horn), but I do this delicious sausage stuffing with dates and porcini mushrooms. That’s one thing that I usually bring back every year, because we have a lot of guests who are regulars who always come to these holiday brunches. It’s truffle season during the holidays, too, so right now we’re serving soft scrambled eggs with truffles over them. Something really, really simple, but delicious.
SCARPETTA | 225 N Canon Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Photography by Trisha Angeles