Good restaurants often have distinctive themes, be it the old world clubbiness of Minetta Tavern, or the worn down pub feel of The Breslin, but you wouldn’t call them theme restaurants, which is what happens when an over-the-top environment never really fades into the background like it should. (Please see the hokey warriors of Ninja and the bacchanalian Buddhas of Tao.) Theme restaurants, typically, are not very good places to eat. And so that brings us to the curious case of Santina in Manhattan's Meatpacking District, a hangout that hawks grilled fish, raw vegetables, one of the world's finest minestrone soups, and a Hollywood studio's worth of set design. Every square inch of the space feels as if it’s devoted to convincing patrons they’re dining in a fictional seaside province of Italy circa 1962. And against all odds, it works. Mostly.
Santina, thanks to the efforts of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, sits in a bespoke glass box underneath the High Line. The transparent structure helps create the illusion that, after a few cocktails at least, you might be dining outdoors. A delicate (air conditioner-induced) breeze wafts through the warm room, causing palm fronds to gently sway. A real orange tree stands by the restaurant's north wall, tempting patrons to steal its fruit. A bartender pours rose-hued cocktails that taste of strawberry, black pepper, and gin. And a waiter approaches your table wearing a pink polo, white pants, and Adidas sneakers. He looks like a cabana boy and says his name is Fortune.
Then the guy next to you orders Ketel One on the rocks. Sometimes, alas, the illusion is broken, if only briefly. Minutes later you’re eating a rice pilaf that speaks with a single flavor — the fatty musk of guanciale. The grains pack such a fragrant, sticky chew you’re tempted to sneak them into the movies and eat them by hand as you would popcorn.
Italy, so often traditional and familiar, now feels foreign and exotic.
Such is the nightly theater that takes place at Santina. "We’re a storytelling company," chef Mario Carbone told me last year. Major Food Group, which he runs with Jeff Zalaznick and Rich Torrisi, has developed a reputation for its immersive (and expensive) restaurants with carefully-curated playlists. Mario’s namesake Carbone in Greenwich Village is a throwback Italian-American joint with red tuxedoed waiters and Goodfellas-inspired pop music. Or consider Parm, an affordable sandwich and ziti shop whose design channels a Long Island diner and where Billy Joel pipes through the sound system.
At Santina, speakers fill the room with the traditional Southern Italian Tarantella, "Mambo Italiano," and a non-English version of "Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." It's not so much a playlist as it is a soundtrack, a Dolby Surround psycho-gastronomic experience. It allows you to escape to a tropical fantasyland where Italy, so often traditional and familiar, now feels foreign and exotic.
Blue cake stands dot every other table; instead of dessert, they hold airy chickpea pancakes that smell of coconut and earth. Cynics will deem this a gluten free, $12 bread service. More open-minded guests will call them kick-ass, do-it-yourself Italian tacos. Patrons garnish the crepes with spoonfuls of gently funky lamb, almond-studded avocado cubes (with more flavor than most guacamoles), and spicy tuna and tomato that’s so crimson and gelatinous it’s hard to tell where the fish ends and the fruit begins.
Then you encounter a kale and sunchoke salad as average as any other, and octopus skewers that taste as complex as anything at a street fair. Still, they’re tasty enough, and not too spendy either, at $15.
In fact not much is terribly pricey here at all, as Santina is the least expensive of The Major Food Group’s non-Parm restaurants, with most dishes at $28 or less. The result is a somewhat humbler approach to the Mediterranean than one might expect from, say Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, or even Milos in Midtown, where this critic once got conned into dropping $80 on a stone crab starter.
So for now, there's no regal rouget at Santina. Instead, chef de cuisine Dan Haar sends out porgy, its flesh torched just a bit too long by the grill. No carabinero prawns either. Instead, we get delicate rock shrimp over oregano-perfumed rice. And in place of bottarga, the ultra-briny roe of the red mullet, Santina sends out, well, there’s really no substitute for bottarga is there? At least we get white anchovies, with their assertive oils begging for a glass of prosecco.
But here's the thing: None of those dishes bear the envelope-pushing trademark of the Major Food Group. The one disappointing aspect of Santina is that it doesn't always provide the same head-turning, "Let's talk about this at a cocktail party" take on coastal Italian cuisine that sister spot Dirty French does for global Gallic fare, or that Carbone does for old-school red sauce fare.
None of the dishes bear the envelope-pushing trademark of the Major Food Group.
Swordfish, at its best, assaults the palate with rich, tuna-like oils; here, it’s more of a neutral conduit for verdant olive oil. It’s still a good dish, but these guys can do better. And they often do; the bass tartare, a smoky mix of Calabrian chile oil, poblano chile, and cucumber water, can send even the most jaded crudo consumer into culinary fugue state. The minestrone, in turn, shows off the power of meat-free cookery; the lush soup is a study in what happens when a good chef softens the sting of green herbs and sweetens them, with the broth acting as a springboard for the mouth-salivating, MSG-like qualities of grated parmesan. Righteous.
And squash carpaccio is a perfect example of how to transition a root vegetable from winter to spring, with thin slices of beurre-noisette drenched delicata and butternut exhibiting such restrained sugars you could almost convince yourself this was under-ripe mango.
Carbone once worked under Mark Ladner at Del Posto, a restaurant whose epic crab pasta is a product of jalapenos and scallions balancing out the sugars of the shellfish. Santina’s fine version boasts a world of sweet crab flavor too, but it lacks the spicy complexity and pungency of Ladner's dish. Better is the rigatoni norma, a smokier, sultrier version of the tomato and eggplant classic. And Chitarra Santina is the game changer: the egg yolk noodles are so yellow and soft, and the lamb sauce with mussels are so rich that one could market this as a Japanese-American mazemen and sell it at Ivan Ramen.
Lobster Catalan ($40) is your go-to splurge entree. The kitchen amps up the very adult, very not-sweet flavors of this wintry crustacean with sea urchin and lobster coral emulsion — the maritime version of dry-aged beef fat.
Finish off with a trio of cannoli, whose shells are as luscious as freshly-fried funnel cake, and whose fillings — coconut, cherry, and pistachio — reek of the Mediterranean’s edible perfumes. Sure, Santina's cooking needs to better match the sense of escapism that the brilliant environs and cocktails exhibit, but the young venue still serves as a fine example as to why Major Food remains one of the city’s most entertaining restaurant groups.
Cost: Most dishes at $28 or less; lobster Catalan is $40.
Sample dishes: Chickpea crepes, squash carpaccio, blue crab spaghetti, swordfish dogana, cannoli.
Bonus tip: Expect outdoor seating when the weather turns warm. Also look for a filet-o-fish sandwich at lunch.