Article: Michael Barbieri ~
Pride. Pride in traditional recipes. In imported, authentic ingredients. In precise preparation and elegant presentation. This is what you’ll find at Sant Andrea Cafe. That, and absolutely fabulous food!
Located at 40 Central Park South, Sant Andrea Cafe is the brainchild of renowned pastry chef Andrea Zanin. With his menu at Sant Andrea, Chef Zanin brings the balance and precision required of a great pastry chef, to his savory dishes. This hybrid of techniques has elevated his traditional family recipes to the level of fine dining.
My friend Danny joined me for dinner, and once inside, Lana, our hostess, escorted us through the restaurant. Sant Andrea seemed to be two eateries in one – the front resembled a European style cafe, with tile floors, a bar, display cases for the pastries, and large glass doors which opened out onto the sidewalk, where a few tables awaited alfresco diners. The back was more of a traditional restaurant – tables with linen tablecloths, soft lighting, an immaculately clean open kitchen, and a minimalist retro-‘70s moderne feel. On the way to our table, Lana introduced us to Chef Zanin, who assured us we’d have a wonderful meal.
They have a full bar, but no signature cocktails yet, so Danny began with a Chardonnay, and I had a well-made Cosmopolitan. As we studied our menus, the owner stopped by to introduce himself. He explained that the regional specialties on the menu were prepared almost entirely with imported ingredients, including regional Italian olive oils, to more accurately recreate the local flavors represented.
We started by splitting several appetizers from the Antipasti section. First, the Insalata di Gamberi Salmone e Pomelo – mixed greens topped with a quickly sautéed Carabineros shrimp, tossed with house smoked salmon, pomelo pulp, and dressed in a light vinaigrette. The sweet shrimp simply melted in our mouths, while the salmon’s smokiness was hearty and familiar, and the pomelo – similar to grapefruit, but with a sweeter taste, added a lovely citrus pop.
We sampled the Carpaccio Sant Andrea – thinly sliced filet mignon, drizzled with a garlicky aioli, and topped with crispy almonds and micro herbs. The filet was whisper-thin, but still beefy and delicious, and the almonds provided a satisfying crunch. The Polpo Capri – tender, braised Portuguese octopus with Taggiashe olives, cherry tomatoes, and roasted diced potatoes in butter, was the Mediterranean on a plate! The slightly briny flavor of the octopus, combined with the fruitiness of the olives and the rich, buttery potatoes made for a dish that was at once comforting and exotic. The chef sent out a little bonus: the Vitello Tonnato — one of their signature dishes — thinly sliced veal topped with a tuna sauce, capers, and cilantro. While it seemed an odd combination, the subtle flavor of the fork-tender veal was complemented beautifully by the creamy tuna sauce with a hint of anchovy. The capers added saltiness and a touch of acid, making for an unexpectedly delicious, well-balanced dish.
Next came the Primi, or first course – the pastas! While there were many tempting selections, including a traditional green Lasagna Verde, I went with the Risotto ai Porcini eCapesante, a lusciously buttery risotto with tender, perfectly seared Nantucket Bay scallops, and porcini mushrooms, which gave the dish an earthy, meaty quality. Interestingly, Danny ordered the Risotto alNero di Seppia – the same aged Aquarello rice, but here flavored with squid ink! The mildly salty seafood flavor of the ink was balanced out by creaming the rice with a slightly acidic butter, which gave it a surprisingly lemony taste. And with crispy fried garlic chips on top, this was one of the biggest hits of the evening! Our one true pasta choice was the Spaghetti alla Bottarga e Ricci di Mare – al dente spaghetti mixed with sea urchin and bottarga, which is salted, cured fish roe. I had never tried bottarga, and found that, along with the urchin, it imparted an intense oceanic flavor to the pasta which I found irresistible!
The Secondi, or the meat dishes, were no less wonderful. We both chose signature dishes: for Danny, the Staccetti di Manzo – tender, thinly sliced “rags” of beef with tomato, capers, and Taggiashe olives, served on a puree of eggplant, and topped with fried mixed vegetable sticks. The combination of the olives, capers, and tomato, along with the intensely fruity Campania olive oil used in the preparation, gave the beef a piquant flavor that lingered pleasantly on the palate, and made for a remarkable dish I wished I had ordered myself! My choice was the Astice Sant Andrea – fresh Maine lobster, sautéed with lime, tomato, thyme, and cilantro, sitting atop a savory crabmeat bisque, and accompanied by lime mashed potatoes: a delicate new taste treat for me.
Finally, though we were fairly full and had leftover food packed up to take home, we wanted to sample some of Sant Andrea’s desserts. I had the simple but tasty White Chocolate Mousse with Raspberry – sitting on a base of chocolate cake, the mousse had a silky, cheesecake-like texture, and the raspberry filling was just sweet enough. Danny chose the Tiramisu di Venezia. Served in a glass, the well-known dessert was more like a pudding, with layers of Mascarpone, eggs, cocoa, and espresso- soaked sponge cake, rather than the usual ladyfingers. The owner assured us that it was prepared according to the original Venetian recipe, and it was smooth, creamy, and indulgent. Yum!
If I have any negative criticism, it would be that I found the decor a bit sterile and lacking in warmth. To that end, the servers could be a bit more personable and knowledgeable about the food; taking their cue from Chef Zanin and Alex, the owner, both of whom were friendly and engaging.
Still, there’s no denying that the food was wonderful! Many of the dishes at Sant Andrea were surprising, and not the standard fare found at most Italian restaurants. Its proximity to Lincoln Center would make it an excellent choice for a pre-show meal, and its location along Central Park South would make it ideal for an outdoor bite, with great people-watching. I plan on returning to Sant Andrea Cafe with some of my foodie friends in tow. I think they’ll love it. I think you might, too!