It’s hard to reinvent Italian food. Even amid the global culinary landscape, the cuisine is iconic. After all, in what other flavor family do tiered stacks of lasagne tempt with oozing layers of mozzarella and ricotta, while smooth scoops of gelato sing a siren song during sunshine-filled summer days and warm autumn afternoons?
Scott Conant gets the appeal. For more than 30 years, the famed chef has developed a reputation for himself as a leader in the culinary world, first as the whiz behind classic Italian kitchens like il Toscanaccio, Chianti, and City Eatery, and later as the ringleader at European eateries like Mora Italian in Phoenix and Masso Osteria in Las Vegas.
Most recently, Conant, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, returned to the Hudson Valley in May 2018 to cut the ribbon on Cellaio, his new Italian-inspired steakhouse at Resorts World Catskills in Monticello. The restaurant is something of a departure for the Food Network face (you may recognize him from a little show called Chopped), whose family of restaurants tends to lean toward subtle, flavorful twists on traditional Italian fare.
Now, as the dust settles and Cellaio dives headfirst into the holiday season, we touched base with Conant to discuss trying new things in the Hudson Valley and balancing approximately 527 projects at once.
“I wanted to do a steakhouse and an Italian restaurant for a while,” Conant begins. The hybrid may sound unusual, but it felt like a natural next step for the chef, who first fell in love with riffs on Mediterranean flavors as a youth growing up in an Italian-American household in Waterbury, Connecticut. That’s why, when he heard the chairman of Resorts World Catskills wanted to do an Italian eatery and a steakhouse separately, he suggested a fusion of the two instead.
“Opening a restaurant these days is getting more and more difficult,” he observes. “I wanted to do something that was going to work.”
And so he did. Named after the Italian word for a butcher’s pantry, Cellaio achieves a rare balance between American rib-eye and pasta al pomodoro, between New York strip and creamy polenta.
How? It could have to do with the fact that the menu is incredibly streamlined; only a curated smattering of antipasti and pasta courses form a partnership with the seafood and meat entrees that take center stage on the lineup. Yet it could also have something to do with the fact that many of the dishes on offer are in and of themselves a representation of the fusion that the restaurant embodies as a whole.
Case in point: bistecca Fiorentina, one of Florence’s most iconic foods, features prominently on the “American” steak menu, as does veal chop parmesan, which comes dressed to the nines with burrata and arugula. The selection of sides, meanwhile, are a particularly successful illustration of the restaurant’s Italian-American pairings. Baked potatoes get a boost with mascarpone-scallion cream and crispy prosciutto, while roasted carrots upgrade from humble root vegetable status with an indulgent drizzle of truffle honey.
“I’m the first to admit that I don’t do traditional Italian in any way, shape, or form,” he notes. “I know the classical way to make these things. But once you understand the Italian rules, you can break them a little bit.”
Rule-breaking aside, food remains a constant work in progress for Conant, whose overall goal is to “make people happy.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever written a menu and said, ‘this is the perfect menu,’” he declares. “The wine list, the food menu, all those things are in a constant evolution.”
True to his words, at the time of our conversation, Conant was onsite at Cellaio for menu tweaks with executive chef Mark Pollard. As always, he makes sure to keep in mind the price point when crafting something new.
“It’s really easy to put caviar and lobster on everything in a steakhouse. I don’t want a super expensive menu that [wouldn’t] resonate with people,” he says.
After a pitstop at Cellaio, Conant keeps up his whirlwind pace with visits to Mora Italian in Phoenix, The Ponte Ristorante in Los Angeles, and Masso Osteria in Las Vegas as the need for his expertise arises. He also carves out time to film the next season of Food Network’s Best Baker in America, which he hosts. Add to that work on a new cookbook and the development of his Italian food line, Sprezza, and you have one very, very busy chef.
“I’m really enjoying this,” he says of the many facets of his life. In the midst of it all, however, he makes a point to take time out for family and relaxation. For Thanksgiving, he hit pause to make a whole-roasted bone-in beef rib-eye with a coating of adobo, green onions, oregano, and parsley.
“I loved it so much that I think it’s something I’ll make every year,” he admits.
Coming up in winter, he has plans to retreat to Mexico for the holidays to mentally recharge with his wife and children. An admitted fan of Mexican cuisine, he reveals that he has considered opening a non-Italian concept or an eatery that leans into fresh, nutritious flavors and seasonal ingredients.
“As you age, you think about the things that are most important,” he says.