Sandro’s is the sort of trattoria you stumble upon in Rome or Naples, having run the gauntlet of Vespas and gotten lost several times. It has a jovial, outsize chef and waiters who hectically weave their way among the tables, wielding Parmesan and pepper mills and setting down free glasses of grappa after dinner. I was recently in both cities, in time for new artichokes, wild strawberries, the first squash blossoms of the season (stuffed with anchovies and mozzarella) and salads made with bitter, spiky leaves of puntarelle (a variety of chicory). I ate very well, but I had eaten equally well at Sandro’s, an Italian restaurant that opened a few months ago in Chelsea.
On my way there after a concert on a recent evening, I called from the cab to tell them we were running late.
“Is this Sandro’s?” I asked over the bad connection.
“No,” replied a man. “This is Adolfo.”
A few minutes later, we pulled up next to a jaunty yellow awning outside a small storefront that used to be Siena. An old black car was parked in front; instead of numbers, its license plate boasted the name “Sandro.” The maître d’ (Adolfo, presumably) suavely led us to a table in an alcove by the window, which was quieter than the cramped, noisy dining room. The pale yellow walls are devoid of decoration but for the frosted pale-blue sconces (each one shaped like a fez), and the tables are set with white cloths and votive candles. It’s boisterous and jolly, and it feels just like Italy.
The restaurant is named after its chef, Sandro Fioriti, who told me over the telephone that his father wanted him to be a priest, but that after a brief stab at the profession, he decided he’d rather be a dishwasher (as Peter Cook famously said, he could have been a judge, but he didn’t have the Latin). He worked his way up through the ranks of the kitchen at Cacciani, a restaurant in Frascati just outside Rome, to become the chef. Eight years later, he was brought to New York by Tony May to open the original Sandro’s on the Upper East Side, right by the 59th Street bridge. It closed after seven years in ’92, and Mr. Fioriti went on to cook at Nello, Coco Pazzo and Sapore di Mare in East Hampton before opening his own place last fall, which has attracted a following among his former uptown customers.
The waiter brought us a bottle of wine and then, drawing himself up like a tenor about to give a demonstration at a master class, began to recite the list of specials. I hadn’t heard a performance like this since the days before the management at Da Silvano, a Tuscan restaurant in the Village, was finally persuaded to print out the day’s specials. Sandro’s list goes on forever, and you can hear it repeated ad nauseam around the room to groups of glazed customers. It infuriated my companion so much that he lay awake that night thinking about it, and called me the following day to say that he’d finally figured out the problem: “They don’t print the specials because no one knows how to spell them in English.”
Sandro’s is one of a handful of Italian restaurants in New York to serve the Roman specialty carciofi alla giudia, deep-fried artichokes that are served in trattorie in the Trastevere, the old ghetto. They look like bronzed sunflowers, a veritable dish of the Renaissance; Mr. Fioriti places them on a bed of shredded, oiled radicchio. For a special of the day, he slivers baby artichokes and sautés them with sliced seppie (cuttlefish)–one of those simple, perfect Italian dishes that needs no further embellishment.
At every restaurant I went to in Rome, they were serving puntarelle, which I saw piled high in the open markets. But it’s uncommon in New York. Mr. Fioriti serves it with a light, lemony dressing that acts as a pleasant foil to the bitter leaves.
I hadn’t expected to find black truffles–not only with such pronounced taste, but in such profusion–in a restaurant like Sandro’s, where the most expensive dish costs 20 bucks. But a shower of slivered truffles comes, unexpectedly, over a plate of soft,
glistening red peppers marinated in olive oil with salted anchovies. The truffles are insistent, their pungent aroma defying the anchovies to drown them out. A flurry of truffles also falls upon the roast organic lamb, which is accompanied by crisp, floury roast potatoes. This is food cooked by someone who loves to eat, not by a chef who’s trying to shock or show off.
There are many interesting pasta dishes on the menu, including one of my favorites, spaghettini al limone, which Mr. Fioriti says he invented. I’ve had it elsewhere and make it myself, but I’ve never had spaghetti tossed with pepperoncino (red pepper), chunks of scallops and sea urchin. Surprisingly, the spiciness of the red pepper doesn’t overpower the delicate sea urchin. It’s wonderful. Mr. Fioriti also adds a shot of pepperoncino to the sauce served on bucatini (a long, thin, hollow pasta), which is cooked very much al dente and topped with pancetta, fava beans and mussels. The faint hint of red pepper pervades the dish, bringing all the ingredients into focus.
Roast suckling pig (another Roman dish) is a little dry, the crackling a bit thick and chewy, but it’s delicious nevertheless, the skin scented from a thick crust of toasted fennel seed. On the side, we had a nice, garlicky dish of broccoli rabe. The Milanese, an enormous breaded veal chop pounded with the long bone still on, covers the plate, topped with arugula and baby-tomato salad. It’s enough for two. The breading is crisp, the meat pink and juicy.
For dessert, the chocolate tart is rather dry. “It should have chocolate sauce, but it’s too late for the kitchen now,” said our waiter. (Well, it was after 11 o’clock.) There was a chocolate cake, too, which I would have preferred without the liqueur in it, but this is how they serve it in Rome and Naples. Both the “country style” apple cake–more of a pie à la mode–and very fresh pineapple “carpaccio” cut in paper-thin slices get high marks. Mr. Fioriti’s best dessert is the polenta, a creamy yellow pool drizzled with a red sauce that looks like ketchup but is made with berries. It’s on a par with his fried artichokes.
I once made Elizabeth David’s recipe for carciofi alla giudia. Following her instructions, I heated a large pan of olive oil and added the artichokes, which began to hiss and crackle alarmingly. To make them crisper, she said, stand back and toss in a little water. I did. The flames shot to the ceiling, almost setting the kitchen on fire, leaving a trail of soot over the cupboards and walls, too. It’s a dish better left to chefs like Mr. Fioriti. So if you can’t get to Trastevere this spring, head to Chelsea.
200 Ninth Avenue at 22nd Street
Noise level: Fairly boisterous
Wine list: Excellent, with many bargains in Italian wines
Credit cards: American Express only
Price range: Main courses $10 to $20
Lunch: 12:30 to 2:30 p.m., Beginning April 9
Dinner: Sunday to Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday to 11:30 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor