I have a love-hate relationship with the month of January.
For one thing, it starts with a bang. After the big buildup of the holiday season and all the work it entails, you still have to have something special planned to mark its arrival. My New Year’s Eve celebrations have tended towards the anticlimactic. You also come into the month most likely having slacked off your exercise program in December due to the holiday obligations and there’s a good chance you’re carrying a few more pounds around then you did before Thanksgiving.
January also has the good fortune of coming smack in the middle of winter, my least favorite part of the year and it’s one of the coldest months if you live in New York. It’s also the month in which everyone vows to be better, fitter versions of themselves as evidenced by the crowds at the gym and the long lines at the organic food markets.
The truth is, when January begins I just want to hibernate, put on layers of my warmest, oldest clothing, eat big, hearty meals and drink really good red wine and not worry about bathing suit season. It’s January and spring is just a memory.
When I think of comfort food, I think Italian. Westchester County is blessed with more Italian restaurants than most other kinds of food. On tripadvisor.com there are 1,176 restaurants reviewed in Westchester County. American food has the most listings with 161, but Italian follows closely on its heels with 121. With 24, Asian follows far behind in third.
So, choosing where to eat Italian food can sometimes be challenging and I often find I revisit the same places over and over again. But this past weekend I looked for a place I’d never been and, on the recommendation of an Italian friend, Maria, I booked a large table for my family at Rosa’s La Scarbitta in Mamaroneck across from the train station.
La Scarbitta is a spinoff of the very popular Spadaro’s, where Rosa Merenda was a partner with her sister. In her new restaurant, she continues to keep it in the family with her husband, Angelo, as her partner. We arrived at 6:30 p.m. for our reservation and found the restaurant about half full. I did see County Executive Rob Astorino and his wife at a small table in the corner, giving me a little clue that I had come to the right place. If the county executive was eating there, it had to be good.
I introduced myself to Rosa, explaining I was a friend of Maria’s, but it was pretty obvious that no introductions were necessary. It didn’t matter how we ended up at her restaurant, she was just happy that we were there. Within minutes, a large platter of bruschetta arrived at the table—the real kind; thick and crusty with dark grill marks, extra virgin olive oil, salt and fresh cloves of garlic pierced with a toothpick for rubbing on the bread. This platter was quickly demolished by my crew and was followed up with another. The bread kept my group busy while Rosa made her recommendations.
“Tonight we have two types of eggplant, male and female. I recommend you try them both,” she said. I had to stop her right there. Eggplants are male and female?
She explained that the female eggplant has more seeds, which makes them bitter. The male, less seeds, less bitter. We ordered both but, to be honest, I couldn’t tell which was which, though they were both delicious. We also ordered burrata and one of Rosa’s staples, gnocchi with ricotta in marinara sauce. We shared the appetizers family style.
After the bread and the first course, I was stuffed but, of course, we were there to eat the hearty, warm meal, so I ordered another glass of wine and hoped I would have room for the main course.
I chose the signature dish, Chicken La Scarbitta, which Rosa said was a derivation of a recipe she used to cook for her daughters after they ran around town with after-school sports programs. Chicken cutlets poun-ded thin, lightly-breaded and sautéed in lemon and white wine, accompanied by perfectly roasted potatoes. It was exactly what I was looking for on a cold winter’s night. The portion size was large and served as my lunch the next day.
The restaurant is warm and cozy, with a long bar that runs alongside one wall. The ceiling tiles are camouflaged with branches from Rosa’s backyard covered in Christmas lights.
“Where I grew up, we didn’t have many restaurants, but there were agricultural farms that would cook meals for you. They would serve them outside under their pergola.
“I wanted to create the same feeling year round in my restaurant,” Merenda said.
Rosa didn’t start her career cooking. In fact, she came to it quite late in life.
“I’ve always cooked for my family and I learned from my parents as a small child. I used to devour cooking magazines when I was young. Every dish, I put love into it so I don’t feel like I work a day in my life. Cooking isn’t work, it’s love,” Rosa said.
By the time we were ready to leave, every table was taken and there was a nice buzz in the room. Over the course of our meal, Rosa made sure to stop by each table, put her hand on a shoulder, tell a funny story and just make sure that everyone was happy and had what they needed.
Rosa grew up in Bari in the Puglia region of southern Italy, a place that boasts sunny and warm weather most of the year but, somehow, she knows exactly how to cook the perfect antidote for a long, cold January night.
Rosa’s La Scarbitta
215 Halstead Ave., Mamaroneck
noon to 3 p.m.
5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Sun 2 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
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