Byline: Alison Oneacre
NEW YORK — If you’ve strolled past the corner of Bowery and Bleecker lately, you may have spotted Scott Conant darting into City Eatery to prep for the evening. He’s 29, roguishly handsome and the executive chef of this three-week-old venture, housed in the former Astor Restaurant.
Conant’s tender age belies his experience. Introduced to authentic Neapolitan cooking by his Italian grandmother, he enrolled in his first cooking class at 11 and entered a culinary trade school at 15.
“I was a fat kid,” says Conant. “I just loved the acceptance and camaraderie I felt in the kitchen. I was carrying an Escoffier book in my backpack at age 15.”
Later, while he trained at CIA, Conant commuted weekends into the city to work in San Domenico’s fabled kitchen, where every employee was an Italian immigrant.
“I wound up sleeping on the floor at these guy’s houses,” says Conant, who was still clinging to his dream of becoming a fussy French chef in the grand tradition. “And then I had a revelation.”
Conant saw a plate of halibut coming off the line that the head chef had prepared. “It was done with such simplicity.” Since then, he’s never strayed from Italian food.
After a quick pastry stint in Europe, Conant returned to work in some of New York’s better Italian kitchens — Pino Luongo’s Il Toscanaccio and Barolo.
But when he was tapped to redirect Chianti on the Upper East Side, Conant came into his own. Ruth Reichl, then the food critic for The New York Times, awarded the restaurant two stars and placed it on her short list for best new restaurants of 1998.
“It was thrilling,” he says. “We had been open for such a short time.”
After years in the uptown trenches, Conant harbors no fear about heading south to Bleecker Street.
“Here, I can really be myself,” he explains. “My food is very personal, without pretension. I believe in this concept, my food, this space.”
Conant has sought out small organic farms in Vermont for much of his seasonal produce. He developed the wine list, a first for him, and selected unconventional bottles like a white Rioja and a Slovenian Cabernet.
The menu features braised short ribs over risotto, polenta with truffled mushrooms and his grandmother’s homemade macaroni with braised porcini and snails.
“I want my food to breathe,” insists Conant, “for it to be like a perfume that fills up your head and stays with you.”
Diners have been making their way back to City Eatery for yet another reason — Conant’s movie-star looks.
“Oh no!” he cries, going crimson when asked about his hunk status. “I’m just a cook.
“These five women came in the other day wanting to meet me because they’d seen the picture,” he says shyly. “I came out and said hello. Then I sent them an extra piece of cheesecake.”