April 29, 1985 | Vintage Insatiable
   The Real Thing

         At last, Manhattan has a highly original Italian restaurant.  Authentic and inexpensive too -- by comparison.  It’s Sandro’s, across from the 59th Street tennis bubbles and what promises one day to be Bridgemarket…in the tomb of the plundered Palace, once the most expensive eatery in town.  Tony May has put his money where his mouth is.  Rainbow Room impresario and the force behind the Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani-USA, May is shepherd to a sincere, dedicated, generous, and befuddled flock.

          “We must be true,” he tells his confreres.  “We must be bold.” And so he is.  A year ago during the gruppo’s annual soul-searching, Sandro Fioriti, chef-padrone of D’Artagnan, southeast of Rome, decided he wanted to brave New York.  With May’s brokerage and backing, he is here, peddling celestial tripe and sea-kissed ravioli in a palm-studded post revolutionary Palace now stripped down, unbrocaded, with Pavarotti in the air.

         If the tenant were less accomplished than Sandro, this story would be haunted by the ghost of the Palace, that delicious gasp of decadence that surprised us only by how good it truly was.  But Sandro’s, with its gently priced, informal, late-night celebration of la cucina italiana, nuova, and old-faithful, is already so exciting one has time for one brief nostalgic sigh and then…the zampone with smooth fresh polenta and a purée of bean arrives, and the joys of the present triumph.

         Don’t get me wrong.  Sandro’s is far from perfection.  And it’s too early to predict the outcome.  Italy has sent us a handful of bold and talented cooks before -- to Castellano, Altri Tempi, and the DDL Food Show -- but bad marketing, homesickness, ego and fate conspired against them all.  And Sandro Fioriti is still finding his way here.  There are flaws and nuisances to exterminate.  At times the kitchen creeps.  The waiters may swerve and whirl and look up at the ceiling as if they couldn’t remember what town they were in.  The room, transformed by Phil George, seems unfinished. (What was once the King’s table is now, quite cleverly, Sandro’s table, a vast expanse for singles or couples seeking company.)  Draping the maître d’ in black tie to welcome pilgrims in pullovers seems odd.  And of course I feel a bit insecure when the calamaretti I love sautéed naked on my first visit arrives delicately breaded on the second.  Crumbs don’t kill, but the purity is gone.  Similarly, tender tendrils of squid and endive, monochromatic except for bits of avocado, make a startlingly pleasing seafood salad compared with the slightly wan classic version offered one week later. 

         To the kitchen’s credit, however, thing ribbons of sharp onion and a splash of good olive oil elevate a previously dull carpaccio to stardom.  And spaghetti overpowered by lemon on a first tasting is better more subtly citric, with bits of lemon peel.  I’m not sure how many devout sea-urchin worshippers exist -- sometimes the ravioli is fiercely briny, even slightly tinged with iodine, sometimes gently perfumed.  So, we’ll see. 

         Just scanning the menu provokes tickles of hope.  There are only six appetizers, each tagged at $4.75, plus varying soups, all $3.25, rotating by the day of the week: rough and flavorful lentil, a primordial ooze of mushroom, pasta e fagioli with seafood.  Pastas sound exotic -- with melon, lemon, oxtails -- and are only $6.  Entrées cost $11 except for fish, at $14, and the daily specials are typed for intelligent contemplation in a small plastic easel on each table -- a gesture I welcome everywhere but essential here, where some of the waiters have a tough time remembering to bring water.

         No one delivers bread unless it’s requested.  And then it may be crusty country bread, a bit stale, infinitely better as bruschetta al pomidoro, toasted and oiled with tomato and garlic.  Little artichokes with oily snippets of parsley tucked between each tender leaf wear a thin coverlet of prosciutto.  The rabbit galantine is rustic, its tangy bread salad oil-soaked, too, and very good.  One evening’s special combines juicy rabbit with an oddly bland circle of polenta.

         Beside the lemon spaghettini and the ravioli that perhaps only the most serious sea-urchin aficionados will love, there are homemade taglioni with chucks of squab in an intense game-infused broth, and huge oversized macaroni called maccheroncelli with a meat sauce you might not recognize as oxtail if the menu didn’t alert you.  Penne with nuggets of pancetta and pecorino and tagliolini with a tomato-onion sauce are very plain, very Italian, not the luscious excess that makes you swoon.  But the miniature gnocchi -- little spinach-and-potato dumplings in a cheese-and-tomato-tinged cream -- are not to be missed.

         Giant imported shrimp are sometimes on hand -- herb-touched in a sauce fortified with vegetables and the taste of the shell.  Baby octopus is coated with a spicy, powerful sauce.  Butterflied Cornish hen comes crisp and remarkably good.  Lamb chops, pan-sautéed, perfectly rare, and painted with a buttery olive-oil-and-balsamic-vinegar glaze are a dream.  Milk-fed lamb, a spring special is magnificent, too, with crisp spikes of rosemary as addictive as peanuts.  And even as I sit at this typewriter, friends report tonight’s divertissement is suckling pig – juicy, though its skin could be crisper.

         Don’t get distracted by all this and miss the grilled vegetables – bitter globes of radiccio sweetened by the char of the grill and served on a giant platter for just $3 with grilled endive, wild mushrooms, zucchini, and eggplant so lush and seductive it might be mistaken for plantain.  It’s easy, too, to neglect salad.  At least gaze at the rolling salad cart, with its rosy tinted vinegars scented by Sandro himself.  Then try the irresistible curls of Italian chicory in a custom-made dressing dictated by your whim.

         The house wine is a fizzy prosecco, a sparkling white that loses some of its bubbles as it’s poured into the handsome pottery pitcher.  The house red, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is amazingly drinkable for $9, and the wine list is a treasury of labels rarely encountered at quite gentle markup.

         Adventurers will want to explore sweet dessert polenta – silken and creamy, napped with raspberry sauce and sprinkled with coconut.  It tastes like baby food to me but for some, that’s no epithet.  I’ve yet to encounter a zuccotto, the traditional Florentine sponge-cake-with-cream that thrilled me.  But the country apple tart, more accurately a spicy cake with walnuts and ricotta, is pleasant.  And the pear stuffed with Gorgonzola in a puddle of zabaglione is sublime.  Alas, Sandro’s ices are not very good, and the fruit salad is too warm.

         We are sipping the ultimate espresso – a stinging explosion, espresso as it ought to be – and Pietro, the shy, proud man who runs the dining room, is explaining how hard it is to transport the taste of Italy.  “You do everything the same, but it is never the same,” he laments.  “Pasta and espresso never are as good as in Naples.  It is the pollution of Naples’s water.”  At that moment, Sandro is making the rounds.  And we are urged to brave his grappa steeped with garlic and hot peppers.  You drink it like tequila, straight from a shot glass, followed by a pinch of salt, tossed back in the throat, provoking a rude sound…as Sandro demonstrates.  Soon, I guess, Sandro will learn English, and other levels of communication will be possible.

         Are New Yorkers ready for sea-urchin ravioli?  Will Sandro stick to the homey fare he does best?  And if the tables keep turning and the press is good, will the prices hold?  All of us who have been hanging out at Sandro’s unable to resist luscious tripe and silken lamb chops have our fingers crossed.

         Sandro’s.  420 East 59th Street (355-5150).  Open daily 

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