The legendary Sandro, all of 6-foot-4, makes his stately passage through the dining room in a white T-shirt and outsize pants that look like pajamas. Tonight they are patterned with blue, pink and yellow dots (last week it was green and turquoise peacock feathers). The genial chef and host, who has close-cropped hair, a beard and the girth of Falstaff, pauses at each table to greet his guests. They jump up and shake him by the hand.
Sandro Fioriti’s following has remained devoted, even cult-like, ever since he introduced his ebullient version of Roman cooking to New York 22 years ago (his crisp fried artichokes and his spaghetti al limone are still talked about). And yet fans have had a hard time keeping track of him.
Sandro, who is originally from Umbria, opened his first eponymous restaurant under the 59th Street bridge with restaurateur Tony May, the owner of San Domenico. The premises were out of the way and too big. Eight years later, Sandro disappeared to the Hamptons and then to St. Martin. He resurfaced in the city in the mid-90’s, since when he has cooked at more restaurants than I have room to list here, among them Noodle Pudding in Brooklyn, Il Buco in the Village, a second Sandro’s in Chelsea five years ago, and several Upper East Side establishments. (When Mayor Bloomberg banned smoking in restaurants, Sandro, a cigar aficionado, was at Serafina, where he defiantly put tobacco in his gnocchi, steak sauce and even in the panna cotta.) I last saw him two years ago, at Table XII in the Lombardy Hotel, cooking in a baroque setting that didn’t match the friendly informality of his food. So he moved on.
Now he’s opened a third Sandro’s, with Tony May once more as his partner. The restaurant is in a long, narrow storefront space on 81st Street, just off Second Avenue. There is a small wooden bar in the front, next to a large free-standing red-meat slicer that holds the pride of Bologna: a mortadella sausage. The dining room, lit by frosted glass sconces, is completely white but for a blown-up color photograph of market fruits and vegetables on the wall by the kitchen.
Because the room is all hard surfaces, apart from the white tablecloths, it’s loud. So the customers talk louder. Some, built like football players, are almost as large as Sandro himself; others look the prototypical well-heeled Upper East Siders, nattily dressed in pinstriped suits. The atmosphere is congenial and neighborly.
“Have a good dinner!” says a large blonde woman, sheathed in plum-colored taffeta, as she gets up to leave the table next to me. “You’re going to love it!”
There is a lot to love at Sandro’s. The generosity is established from the start, with the tall sticks of herb-flecked grissini set down on the table, along with freshly cut slices of wonderful mortadella and chunks of Parmesan.
But the service from the staff of mostly Italian waiters, albeit affable, is uneven. One Saturday night, it took over 20 minutes to get a drink. The fourth time I asked the waiter he replied, “What kind of water would you like? Still, sparkling or tap?”
“I’d like my drink.”
“I’ll go and get it.”
“Where from?” inquired one of my companions archly.
At long last our drinks arrived and we looked at the menu. Sandro’s repertoire has stayed pretty much the same over the years. It always includes certain favorites such as fried artichokes, spaghetti with lemon or melon sauce, and chicken livers balsamico.
Like the service, however, the cooking here is uneven. You can begin with a fine Caesar salad, or a red- and green-leaf salad, mainly baby arugula, in a nicely tart Chianti vinegar dressing. A simple plate of first-rate prosciutto is served with exquisite, ripe peeled figs. But the shower of crunchy julienne vegetables on the carpaccio malatesta overwhelms the beef. There were no fried artichokes available on the nights I went, alas; instead they were served alla romana, stewed in white wine, and sadly lackluster.
I get the impression that more attention is devoted to some dishes than others. When the food is good, it is stellar, and that’s why Sandro has his fans. But there were times when it seemed to be coming from two different kitchens.
The spaghetti al limone was great, seriously al dente in a subtle, creamy sauce with Parmesan. I also liked the fettuccine tossed in a rich, meaty Bolognese. But another Sandro signature, ravioli with sea urchin roe, was a disaster. The ravioli, served in a light tomato sauce laced with slivered scallops, were tough, and the filling had an unpleasant fishy taste.
“It reminds me of linseed oil,” commented one of my friends. Our waiter never inquired why I had barely touched my plate.
I had no complaints about the broiled branzino with roast potatoes, which was very fresh and cooked just right. It was a better choice than the flat-tasting salt cod with tomatoes. The veal milanaise, a special, was terrific: juicy meat under a light crust. The straccetti di bue—thin, tender slices of lightly grilled beef with olive oil, garlic and lemon—was also good, served on a bed of broccoli rabe sautéed with spinach.
The dessert list is short: “grandmother’s” apple cake, tiramisu, granita and ice cream. At the end of dinner, the waiter set down a plate of butter cookies hot from the oven, another freebie. Just the thing to go with a glass of any of Sandro’s seven flavored grappas, one of which is made with tobacco.
If you come here after midnight and order a drink at the bar, you can get free pasta (cacio e pepe, made with cheese and pepper), and later, free warm cornetti with Nutella. Sandro has a big heart; you can’t not be won over. Judging by the packed tables, maybe this Sandro’s, third time lucky, will be here to stay.
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