Santina Review: Beachy Italian Resort Vibes Under Manhattan’s High Line
The crudite platter at Santina looks like a headdress, custom-made for some hard-bodied Vegas showgirl (who loves radishes). It’s rare for raw vegetables to command so much attention, but this is a gorgeous, feathery, over-the-top structure of purple radicchio leaves, halved Persian cucumbers, dimpled cabbage, and other cool, crunchy bits and pieces standing tall over a glitter of crushed ice. It arrives, shaking to the tune of an Italian folk song, with three obscenely delicious dips, and everyone at my table is moonstruck.
Santina is a glass-encased restaurant tucked under the railway trestle of the High Line, and it’s one of the most vibrant, lively places to eat in New York right now. Though it bills itself as coastal Italian, it can feel more like a Mad Men-era, American-fueled fantasy of the Amalfi Coast. You know the kind, where everything is light and bright and soft around the edges, and everyone is good-looking and friendly and disarmingly earnest.
“I used to get called Dumbo at school, so I feel a special connection with that plate,” a charming waiter said when my companion complimented the elephant design on Santina’s rustic plates (hand-painted at a small factory in Salerno, of course). All the chummy servers at Santina wear polo shirts the color of pistachio gelato and melon sorbet, know everything about the food, and chat somewhat effortlessly. As a result, it can feel as if you’ve fallen into the casual glamour of a vintage Missoni ad. What time of the day is it? Who cares; have another drink (ideally the Amalfi Gold, a ginger-spiked bourbon concoction on crushed ice).
The dream weavers at Santina are Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalaznick of Major Food Group, the same guys behind Carbone, and Dirty French. At Santina, you'll find something those other restaurants sometimes lack: a sense of joy and genuine warmth. And for a place that looks like a tourist trap, the food is subversively good.
Start with cecina, an extremely polished rendition of the simple Ligurian chickpea pancake, served here as a thin, flexible crepe with a lacy edge. It’s nothing fancy, but with a little raw tuna dressed in chili oil, or precisely cooked shrimp with crunchy bread crumbs and ginger, it’s fantastic. No one cares how you eat this—pile on the topping, pinch it up, use your fork and knife—but please, don’t ignore the side of sharp green hot sauce or the more mellow, slow-cooked tomato and onion sofrito under a cap of Calabrian chili oil. They’re both excellent, on everything, and you’ll probably want to take them home (you can’t).
Do order the porgy, grilled whole and served with just what it needs to shine—some bands of raw fennel and fresh herbs. It’s proper, no-fuss seaside fare, what you might indulge in after a nap in the sand and a swim in the sea, but it’s prepared carefully, with real attention to technique and seasoning.
There’s more to Italy’s rice repertoire than risotto, and Santina dedicates a small section of the menu to dressed-up, short-grained rice. The broccoli and pecorino one is particularly lovely, like Italian children’s food: dead simple, comforting, and perfect. (A less delicate, equally delicious version involves drippings of fat from guanciale, cured pork jowls.)
"Me, I like pockets. Pasta with pockets. Dresses with pockets. It's kind of a theme in my life." The waitress is delicately suggesting the Tortellini Sorrentina. What’s that? Like many dishes on Santina’s frustratingly terse menu, you may have to ask. (What’s Salad Pompei? What’s Lobster Catalan? What’s Eggplant Sesamo?) To be fair, though, you’re likely to hit a pretty good dish even if you don’t know what you’re ordering.
Sorrento is up on the cliffs above the Tyrrhenian Sea, and to evoke its name is to suggest the triumvirate of tomato, basil, and cheese. Though Santina takes all sorts of liberties with its theme, it’s true to this. The abovementioned tortellini are not bad at all, full of sheep's milk ricotta, stained green with pesto, and swimming in tomatoes.
Santina’s dining room in the Meatpacking District feels cozy with 86 seats. It looks out to the street and to Warby Parker, Helmut Lang, Zadig & Voltaire. But it’s unexpectedly lovely and bright inside, with blue banquettes and extravagant Murano glass chandeliers. At dinnertime, though, the music is aggressively loud, and the room can feel crowded. The place is more on brand, more seductively on theme, at lunchtime, when it’s slightly quieter and full of sunlight. More importantly, the menu is the same then, and I found the kitchen and service just as deft.
If you have no meeting to rush to, no calls to make, why not ride out those Italian resort vibes for as long as you can? Stretch out a long lunch with a little glass of meloncello, a soft, almost floral melon liqueur made similarly to limoncello. Then walk through the High Line looking for the first things to bud. Winter is very nearly over.
Santina is at 820 Washington Street (Meatpacking); +1 212 254-3000 or santinanyc.com
Rating: 3/4 Stars (Excellent)
What to Order: Cecina with gamberetti, or with tuna ($12); House anchovies ($9); Giardinia crudite ($20); Broccoli-pecorino rice ($15); Whole grilled porgy ($25); Rigatoni norma ($15); Eggplant sesamo ($23)
Who’s Next to You: Men in suits (no ties) with cocktails and glasses of cool Albariño; a thirtysomething couple in leather jackets and ripped jeans, passing their quiet, beautiful baby back and forth as they take turns eating their food; twentysomething dates at the bar
Soundtrack: Not the thumpy boom-hiss of the actual parties around Capri, but the mellow, folksy, romantic southern Italian (and Italian-American) music of the 1960s. At dinnertime, this is played extremely loudly, so it’s mostly hideous; at lunchtime it’s softer and more enjoyable.
Need to Know: Santina’s lunch menu is the same as the dinner menu, so if you go at lunchtime, don’t have any dinnertime FOMO. (Are you wondering about that dark blue painting of the islands and the ocean made from smashed-up plates? It’s by Julian Schnabel, naturally.)