Scott Conant is sitting in a crowded, loud airport with poor reception. "I apologize if you get a lot of talk behind you," he says.
Airports are a familiar setting for the busy chef and cookbook author. Between running three restaurants in three states, launching the Sprezza line of cooking and pantry essentials, and appearing on Food Network's Chopped and Best Baker in America, "I don't know how I balance it; I'm always on the go," says Conant.
Among these many commitments, a top priority is spending time in his own kitchen, in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his 9- and 6-year-old daughters. "I try to cook with them all the time," says Conant. "There's something about the process of cooking that kids seem to really enjoy."
At 15, Conant was just a kid himself when he took his first restaurant gig, in Waterbury, Conn., where he was born and raised. "I automatically fell in love with it," he said. "It wasn't necessarily about the food at first. At first, it was about the camaraderie in the kitchen; it was about the sense of team."
Conant later rose to fame in New York City, at L'Impero, Alto and Scarpetta, before moving on to other destinations. At his current restaurants—Mora Italian in Phoenix, Masso Osteria at Red Rock Casino in Las Vegas and Cellaio Steak at Resorts World Catskills in Monticello, N.Y.—he draws inspiration from that first restaurant job and the many others that followed, combined with his upbringing in a large Italian clan of parents, grandparents, aunts and other relatives. It all "shaped my vision for the best style of restaurants," Conant says.
"You want people to feel warm and welcomed and just [have] an overall feeling of gratitude and graciousness at the table," he adds. "I think that's what people are looking for when [they're] talking about Italian food, and that's what shaped me."
When it comes Easter, or any spring gathering, his grill is what shapes the experience; Conant loves to take advantage of the early spring weather by entertaining and cooking outdoors at his Scottsdale home.
This year, the dish on his home menu is a lamb (or baby goat) that's marinated in garlic, olive oil, crushed red pepper and rosemary for a day or two, butterflied, then thrown directly on the grill with lemons and rosemary sprigs to cook on a low flame. "The lemons burn and the rosemary smokes, and it just really permeates the meat," says Conant. "And I'll just finish it with sea salt—it's really good. I think the simplicity of it really resonates with people as well."
For those spending Easter indoors, he suggests an alternative cooking method that entails searing the meat in a cast-iron pan to start. Once browned, it can finish cooking in the oven. "What I'll do sometimes is put a pan of lemons and rosemary and garlic on the bottom of the oven, so it has that same effect of things that are cooking and smoking," says Conant.
To pair with the meat, Conant goes with the 2016 Collemattoni Adone Rosso Toscana IGT, a Sangiovese blended with a small amount of Merlot. "The bright acidity of the wine cuts through and embraces the gaminess of the [lamb or] goat," he says. "The bright ripe fruit is also the perfect match for the beautiful char from the grill."
Below, Wine Spectator shares recently rated selections of Italian reds.
Family gatherings like Easter bring Conant back to how he first fell in love with food: "Sitting around a big table with a bunch of people that you love, and you're drinking wine and you're clinking glasses, and all the food has this balance of rusticity and full flavor.
"Unfortunately, I just can't eat the way I used to," he adds with a laugh as he suggests serving this dish with roasted potatoes and a small salad. "There's a lot more greens at the table than there used to be."
Grilled Lamb or Baby Goat
- 8 pounds goat or lamb bone-in leg and shoulder
- 3 large rosemary sprigs
- 3 lemons, halved
- 10 garlic cloves, smashed
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons Calabrian chile peppers, chopped
- Sea salt, to taste
1. Place the meat in a large non-reactive dish or pan with the rosemary sprigs and halved lemons. Mix the smashed garlic cloves with the olive oil and chopped chile. Pour mixture over the meat, rubbing to coat evenly. Cover and let marinate overnight in the refrigerator.
2. The next day, heat a gas grill, covered, on a low flame until it reaches 400˚ F.
3. Retaining the marinade on the meat, place lamb (or goat) on the grill along with the rosemary sprigs and lemons. Turn off every other flame on the grill, so as to not spark additional fire, and cover.
4. Grill for 10 to 12 minutes. Turn the meat once and continue to grill for about 25 minutes or until the internal temperature of the flesh reaches 120˚ F, as measured by a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part.
5. Remove from grill and let rest for 20 minutes before slicing into thin pieces. Finish with a sprinkling of sea salt. Serves 4 to 6.
8 Recommended Italian Reds
Note: The following lists are selections of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More options can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.
ROCCA DI FRASSINELLO Maremma Toscana Le Sughere di Frassinello 2016
Wild rosemary, thyme and camphor aromas lead off, with concentrated flavors of blackberry and black currant. An iron edge sinks in as this unfolds to a long, staining finish. Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Best from 2020 through 2032. 11,000 cases made.
CASTELLO DI MONSANTO Toscana Monrosso 2016
Bursts with ripe cherry, blackberry and floral aromas and flavors, driven by lively acidity and an elegant frame. Balanced, yet firmly supported by dense tannins. Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Sangiovese. Best from 2021 through 2033. 8,000 cases made.
TOLAINI Toscana Al Passo 2015
A gorgeous expression of black cherry, plum and spice notes, balanced by bright acidity and firm, integrated tannins. Not for the long term, yet this should develop nicely over the next decade. Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Best from 2020 through 2030. 7,583 cases made.
RUFFINO Toscana Modus 2015
This is saturated with ripe flavors of black cherry, plum, leather and vanilla, all backed by a base of solid tannins. Stays fresh and balanced despite the compact finish, with lingering fruit accents. Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Drink now through 2028. 20,000 cases made.
TOMMASI Toscana Poggio al Tufo Rompicollo 2016
The black cherry and blackberry fruit in this red makes an immediate impact, ushered along by lively acidity. Harmonious and enjoyable for the lush, ripe flavors. Drink now through 2023. 18,000 cases imported.
MAZZEI Toscana Poggio Badiola 2016
A rich red, focused by vibrant acidity that drives the cherry, almond, earth and sanguine flavors. Balanced, offering ample depth, with a lingering finish. Sangiovese and Merlot. Drink now through 2024. 19,167 cases made.
RENZO MASI Toscana Contrappasso 2017
Awash in ripe black currant and blackberry flavors, this settles into notes of licorice, tar and wild scrub. A bit unruly on the finish now, but moderately long. Sangiovese and Syrah. Best from 2020 through 2028. 4,000 cases made.
QUERCIABELLA Toscana Mongrana 2015
Rippling with black cherry and black currant flavors, this red is supported by light-weight tannins and bright acidity. Chewy finish. Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Drink now through 2024. 7,500 cases made.