On the second day of the new year, the latest outpost of Sant Ambroeus opened its doors in New York's SoHo neighborhood. The sun was setting on a crucial day, but holding court in one of the restaurant's red leather banquettes was chef Marco Barbisotti, sipping from a cup of espresso, the very image of Italian sprezzatura. He has been through many of these openings before.
"To me, it's normal. I grew up in the kitchen of the restaurant, in the bar, in the cafÃ©," he said.
The original Sant Ambroeus opened in Milan in 1936, followed nearly five decades later by a New York City branch in the Upper East Side. West Village and Southampton, N.Y., locations soon came online, and the name quickly became synonymous with the power lunch and dinner crowd -- Sarah Jessica Parker, Bono, Larry Gagosian, Alexander Wang and Michael Kors are all fans.
Co-owners Dimitri Pauli and Gherardo Guarducci have cut the ribbon on a new Sant Ambroeus outpost per decade for what is now formally the Sant Ambroeus Group. At the SoHo location, the restaurant's signature salmon-colored signage opens to reveal a rustic but elegant room, Italian fine dining by way of Keith McNally. A David Guinn painting and distressed mirror set the mood to a soundtrack of, incongruously, English rock -- The Cure, The Kinks and The Stone Roses.
The dinner menu features some of those Sant Ambroeus signatures, like cotoletta alla Milanese and tagliatelle alla Bolognese. But Barbisotti tends to favor the menu's more unusual items -- for instance, the steak tartare with quail egg.
"I know it sounds more French, but it's different than what you think. It's made with truffles, something you may not find at other restaurants," he said.
Barbisotti, 30, was still in his chef's uniform as he went down the menu in the restaurant's foyer. "The lamb ragu with fresh mint and pistachio has a very interesting description, a different taste," he continued. "And the short ribs..." Here he paused, savoring the words. "I love short ribs. I'm from Italy."
Then there is the truffled egg sandwich and the salads -- all six of them, in kale, quinoa and lentil iterations -- that are sure to please the SoHo shoppers and off-duty models seeking lighter fare. "The salads are more American," said Barbisotti, and were created specifically with the calorie-obsessed palates of New Yorkers in mind. "In Italy, they are a different concept."
Downtown, Sant Ambroeus joins a host of other red sauce joints like Torrisi Italian Specialties, Osteria Morini and the critically acclaimed Carbone, but Barbisotti is unfazed by his neighbors. "We're all Italian. We do our Italian tradition. They do theirs. We're revisiting, upgrading classics," he said. He's not reinventing the wheel, he acknowledged.
"I'm not inventing nothing," he laughed. "The best thing for us is when a customer comes in and tells us, 'Yesterday I ate this same meal in Milan, and today [at Sant Ambroeus] it was better.' That's what we expect." With that, he went back to the kitchen. He had another steak tartare to prepare.
Sant Ambroeus SoHo
265 Lafayette Street
Mon. to Fri., 7:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sat. to Sun., 8:30 a.m.-11 p.m.