Positano meets Palm Beach in this playful, coastal Italian reverie under the High Line.
When you complain that your girlfriend can’t ever pick a place to eat, give her a little break. There are over 16,000 full-service restaurants in New York City, which means it would take her over 43 years were she to try to eat at a different restaurant every night. But of course, she’s not just blindly picking a restaurant out of a hat, she’s considering a plethora of factors in order to make her decision just a little bit easier.
She is looking at the pricetag, discerning between the spots better for a casual or more special occasion; she is often looking at the menu, searching for a cuisine that she’s been particularly craving; she tends to look at the neighborhood, perhaps yearning for something within walking distance; and she sometimes looks at blogs and newspapers,lusting over the newest, trendiest restaurant du jour. In a city like New York, consider yourself lucky if your girlfriend can narrow it down to less than five options.
She dines out like all of us do, to socialize, to treat herself, to experience something new. Yet with all of these choices, we often forget that one of the most fundamental reasons we dine out is to be transported, to be removed from our ordinary lives and subconscious stresses through food and all of the senses it can touch.
And if there is one restaurant in the city today that can remind us that dining out is an opportunity to be enchanted and carried away by the flavors of some far away land, it is Santina.
Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalaznick of Major Food Group have become the de facto experts of the art of smart, immersive dining, applying culinary themes in broad, heavy-handed strokes to their various enterprises. The team has already welcomed us to the theatrical Moulin Rouge with Dirty French and fulfilled our Italian mafia, Godfather fantasies with Carbone, and Santina is no different. Only this time, the story is about a summer spent on the Amalfi Coast as told through light, vibrant, coastal Italian food that is heavy with citrus and fish.
Bright blue and orange umbrellas that recall images of beautiful people tanning on beautiful beaches surround a glass box under the High Line, filled with Murano glass chandeliers straight from the Venetian island that seem to float over palms and orange trees lining the 86-seat space. Light, vibrant, Mediterranean hues color everything from the floral plates to the polo shirts of the effortlessly charming staff, whose ease and casual demeanor suggest that they, too, feel as if they are on vacation on the Italian Riviera.
Major Food Group excels at crafting restaurants that are thematic without being kitsch, pairing high-quality ingredients and perfect cooking with more ostentatious displays of a particular motif for a fantastical, fun experience. Indeed, cocktails at Santina like the Manganelli Punch may come served in cute glasses shaped like little pineapples, but beneath the delightful and flashy exterior lies an elegantly composed drink that balances flavors of banana, pineapple, and cinnamon.
The rest of the overly succinct menu features a surprising dearth of description and requires a great deal of explanation by the servers, who sometimes speak a little too colloquially, once letting my table know that the entire tomato section of the menu "sucks anyway." Fortunately, the staff is still quite knowledgable about everything the restaurant has to offer, and after deciphering that the Cecina portion of the menu refers to a torta di ceci, a deliciously spongy and lacy crepe made with chickpea flour, served alongisde a choice of tuna, shrimp, mushrooms, lamb, or avocado, the pancake seems to appear on every table to start. The shrimp in particular brighten up the flexible crepe with fresh herbs and crispy crumbs of potato for a simultaneously succulent and refreshing bite.
Because the atmosphere is so forcibly casual, and sometimes so laissez-faire, a few items on the menu fall short, leaving you with the feeling that perhaps you could have just thrown this on the barbecue yourself. The Octopus Spiedini is one of these safe, timid dishes, effectively an octopus kebab with chiles and peppers topped with a slaw of shredded carrots, mint, and cucumber. No boundaries are being pushed in this plate, and in fact, the flavor of the tender octopus is almost entirely overpowered by the vinegar of the slaw.
The mains are much more successful, particularly the crispy Guajillo Chicken, whose tender, spicy meat is grilled and served alongside cabbage and frisee for much needed lightness. Less unique but just as delightfully successful is the Swordfish Dogana, buoyed with a verdant, citrusy dressing of herbs, green olives, and white beans. It is a dish whose cool, earthy, peppery, and vegetal notes perfectly highlight the unique flavor of the fish, while evoking those summer days when it is simply too hot outside to cook.
As it sits on a street that used to be the edge of the Manhattan coastline before a century of fill shaped and hardened the edges of the city, Santina reminds us that it is a part of the duty of a restaurant today to transport us to a simpler, imaginative time and place, to provide respite from the rest of our lives and the rest of the city, and to captivate and hypnotize us with a certain, momentary wonder. So when it’s time for your girlfriend to decide where to eat next, perhaps remind her that the place she’s really looking to be taken is Santina.