You might say the Major Food Group is on, well, a major roll. It all started with Torrisi Italian Specialties, a deli by day, ambitious tasting menu destination by night, which redefined Italian-American cooking and then some. It was here that Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalaznick single-handedly made red sauce joints cool again. Who would have thought two pedigreed, young gun chefs would want to rejuvenate what was a tired Italian-American dining tradition?
Tuna Tartare Cecina
The talented trio set out to build a veritable empire around their passion for red sauce, and in the process, turned the very notion on its head. They followed Torrisi up with Parm, a funky sandwich shop of sorts, then with Carbone, a clubby and exclusive Italian with 72 seats and one of the hottest reservation books in town. Over the past few years, they have opened a dizzying number of spots — though not all of them are red sauce-bent — right here in Manhattan, including ZZ’s Clam Bar, Dirty French, and now Santina. (There’s even a Carbone in Hong Kong.)
As Jeff Zalaznick describes it, “Santina is the ying to Carbone’s yang. It’s the lighter, younger sister.” And unlike Carbone, Santina isn’t a modern spin on an old school red sauce joint. What they’re serving at their newest venture is vibrant coastal Italian cooking that’s decidedly different than anything they’ve done before. And that includes the decor, which is refreshingly kitschy and fun. The room is luminous with gorgeous, Murano glass flower chandeliers hanging from a slat wooden ceiling, blue banquettes, and white marble tables. There’s an ocean-inspired Tuscan plate mural from Julian Schnabel at the rear and palm fronds everywhere you look. It’s the kind of spot you notice from the street and instantly get table envy.
Shrimp Zingarra Rice
Tucked underneath the High Line, the restaurant itself is a gorgeous jewel box with three glass walls dreamed up by Architect Renzo Piano. The music blasts, the servers all wear colored polo shirts, white pants, and sneakers; it’s a Miami meets Cuba effect that’s entirely entertaining. When warm weather finally arrives (it can’t come soon enough!), the walls will disappear and tables will magically become al fresco.
Named after Mario’s grandmother who migrated from Italy to New York, Santina and its menu pivot around coastal dishes of Italy, the likes of Venice and Sicily. But don’t get the wrong idea: Grandma Cucina this isn’t. If you’re looking for that same Veal Parm high you get at Carbone, look elsewhere. The focus here is on fresh fish and vegetables that’s light on its feet.
I never thought I’d see the day when the Major Food Group would offer up a delicate Crudite (albeit a whopper of one), or Squash Carpaccio, for that matter. But out from the kitchen comes Butternut and delicata squash fanned out on a plate, dressed with pumpkin seeds, sage, chives, pink peppercorns, and a spiced honey agrodolce. It’s a complex little dish that’s immensely pleasurable. So is a bowl of Flash Fried Artichokes, tossed with braised cardoons, grapes, & hazelnuts, anointed with a zippy anchovy emulsion that renders the dish downright addictive.
It isn’t often you come across a new dish or cooking style these days, so when you find something different or unusual, it’s a pretty exciting discovery. That’s how I felt anyway, when I stumbled upon the “Cecina” section of the menu. This deliciously thin, chickpea-flour pancake, also known as the torta de ceci, hails from the streets of the Etruscan coast and arrives at your table in a round and very hot cast iron pan. Crispy on top, creamy in the middle, these nutty cakes come with your choice of toppings, including Lamb Tartare & Shaved Funghi with rosemary, and a side of spicy tomato sufredo and green chile sauce for an extra punch of flavor. There’s Gamberetti, itty bitty shrimp consorting with lush potatoes and fresh herbs, and a terrifically spicy spin on Tuna Tartare, dosed with capers, Calabrian chile, and celery leaves.
Even more novel are the rice dishes. Yes, I said rice. Let me explain: Instead of your garden variety, creamy, rich risotto, Santina treats rice like pasta. That means forsaking the heavy hand of butter and cheese, and instead, tossing this short-grain, Japanese-style rice with Guanciale and Pepper, Shrimp, or my favorite, a tangy combination of Broccoli and Pecorino.
Not even the pastas on the menu cross into “roll me home” territory. In fact, the Tortellini Sorrentina, stuffed with sheep’s milk cheese, and mopped with plenty of pesto, is smartly served over a raw marinara sauce, creating a spirited, almost vegetal contrast of hot & cold on the plate. And whatever you do, try the Chitarra Santina, a briny tangle of homemade noodles, mingled with mussels, herbs and very good olive oil.
If you’re looking for something more traditionally red sauce, you could always throw in an order of Meatballs with roasted peppers and flash fried basil. Want something with more of a kick? The Octopus Spiedini, code for skewered octopus, is flat out feisty with chiles, tempered by an Asian-inspired slaw of pickled and shredded carrots, mint and cucumber. Really, the only misstep on the menu was the Sea Bass Agrigento, but only because it was slathered in a tad too much red sauce, the way you might find it in Little Italy.
Tricolore Cannoli, Chocolate & Diplomatico & Frutta Fresca
Desserts are all excellent, which isn’t a surprise when you learn that the talented Heather Bertinetti is overseeing the pastry department. She dreams up an intense Chocolate Diplomatico, dense with Chocolate Cremeaux and a shortbread base, and an even better Hazelnut Orange Cake with Rum Preserves. If you’re a lady who lunches or wants to eat like one here, try the Frutta Fresca, or better yet, the refreshing Grapefruit Italian Ice, served in the skin, and seasoned with mint and blood orange, which manages to wipe winter from your mind, if only for a few, brief moments. But my hands down favorite is the Lime Meringa (meringue), topped with a zingy lemon-lime custard, scattered with pine nuts and herbs.
I’m already looking forward to spring al fresco at Santina under the High Line.