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Innovative Italian fare at Scarpetta

It's been awhile since a restaurant such as Scarpetta has arrived on the Ashland scene to really shake things up. It's no doubt there are plenty of fine eateries to choose from, but Scarpetta's cuisine is distinct and exclusive.

Fresh, locally sourced and organic ingredients from Rogue Valley farms are what's simmering in the kitchen. Driven by accessibility of produce and meats, the menu changes frequently, while reviews maintain a five-star level of quality for this trendy, high-end bistro.

Riding the rumors of starters such as fried pigs' ears, main dishes of duck-egg tortellini and mushrooms in a silky cream sauce, a salad of peach and beets and cheesecake made with blue cheese, a girlfriend and I visited Scarpetta with anticipation and mild trepidation. The cuisine sounded so "au courant."

It was a slow Thursday night last week, and a less extensive, albeit splendid, Italian-style menu was presented, narrowing our choices.

We waffled between the vegetarian, egg yolk agnolotti ($26) and the chinook salmon ($29). The half-moon shaped agnolotti is a pasta typical to the Piedmont region of Italy. This pasta was to be served with nutty lobster mushrooms — in season through September — along with mushroom cream and Parmesan.

The salmon won top choice when our server informed us the agnolotti is always available. The dish is apparently so popular with customers that owners Petra Jung and Tony Travanty and chef Josh Dorcak cannot remove it from the menu.

The salmon is oil-boiled to temperature and may appear red and raw, our server warned us. If we were uncomfortable with the cooking method, she could order it grilled. We opted for the seared version, and thought she was considerate for inquiring.

Some interesting salads were available the night of our visit. One touted ground cherry tomatoes, red onion, pickled watermelon rind, basil and mozzarella cream ($13), the other cantaloupe, chili, compressed watermelon, heart of palm, basil, flowering cilantro and thyme oil ($14). Each evoked an image of late summer.

After fussing over the wine list — our first choice was a bottle of Italian Chianti for $48 — we settled on glasses of red Deltetto Barbera. Wines by the glass range from $8 to $12. Scarpetta has an extensive list of fine wines from Italy, Oregon and California, and a reserve list is available by request. Beer, cider and cocktails also are available.

We enjoyed our wine, chatted and looked about the room. Scarpetta's open kitchen, high ceilings and large windows give the back dining area an airy, open feeling, but the room is a bit angular and stark — almost too open. The atmosphere is softened by wood floors, bar, tables and chairs. The brick-walled front area is equally simple. The setting may be quite voguish. I don't get out that much.

The salmon arrived piping hot at our table, exactly the way I like my food. An interesting mix of colorful vegetables — blistered Padron peppers, pickled eggplant, cherry tomatoes and some leafy herbs — were tossed on top of the perfectly seared fish sitting in red bell pepper jus with a splash of basil oil. The broth held a flavor second to none. The commingling of Italian ingredients tasted deep, savory and light all at the same time. 

We asked for focaccia — seasoned with rosemary, Jacobsen salt and black pepper on this particular evening — and sponged up the elixir with large spoons.

Then we shared a slice of tiramisu cake, stacked high with decadent layers of ladyfingers, espresso cream and chocolate ganache.

I admit I was a little surprised when I saw the size of the salmon entree. The serving seemed small, but it was substantial enough for one person. Those with heartier appetites will be sure to order starters and salads with their main courses.

Scarpetta is at 145 E. Main St. Hours are 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. The restaurant is closed Tuesday. Call 541-708-6360 for reservations.

Oil-boiled Chinook salmon with blistered Padron peppers, pickled egg plant, cherry-sized tomatoes and red bell pepper jus. Mail Tribune / Laurie Heuston