Before waving a cinnamon stick in front of my face, one of Santina’s (820 Washington Street, 212-254-3000) bartenders — fetchingly clad in the kind of pastel polo shirt usually reserved for resorts and cruise ships — shoved a couple of talon-like leaves into the pineapple-shaped vessel that held my drink, a tequila-fueled “Manganelli Punch.” Brandishing her spice baton, she shaved a flurry of powdered cinnamon over the closed top of the ceramic fruit, “for the aroma.” And as I leaned in for my first sip from the straw that poked through a hole in the pineapple top, inhaling the scent of holiday spices while tasting sweet, tropical fruit juices (banana and pineapple), I had to concede there was no arguing with this brand of aromatherapy. The drink tastes like a Dole fruit cup with legs — serious legs — and it holds up surprisingly well against a starter of gloriously oily, house-cured anchovies.
Santina opened amid the glummest depths of this dastardly winter, and the place seems hell-bent on quelling your Seasonal Affective Disorder with genuine palm and fruit-bearing orange trees and a wall hanging of sailboats, which Julian Schnabel crafted from shards of broken plates. (Schnabel’s son Vito, an art dealer, is a pal of the owners.) Architect Renzo Piano’s progressive design — a glass cube tucked under the southern end of the High Line — lends the airy space an ethereal feeling. But on busy nights Santina moves at a sprinter’s pace, so much so that you may not notice the outside world unless you’re seated next to a window. Piano also designed the new Whitney Museum of American Art, built directly on top of the restaurant; from the street Santina looks almost like an art installation, a littoral diorama depicting the towns along Italy’s coast.
The seaside tableau is the sixth concept in half a decade from the Major Food Group, whose creative force — enterprising chefs Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi and food blogger-turned-mogul Jeff Zalaznick — first rocked NYC with ambitious but affordable prix-fixes at the diminutive Nolita deli Torrisi Italian Specialties. This venture makes good on the promise of its décor, offering a seafood- and vegetable-focused menu overseen by chef Carbone, who named the restaurant after his Sicilian grandmother. While his eponymous restaurant, a clubby and exorbitant red-sauce joint in the Village, caters to high rollers, Santina is gentler on both wallet and belly. Forget mammoth $50 veal chops. And whereas Restaurant Carbone’s rigatoni in vodka sauce costs $30, here $15 buys you a plate of those noodles, simply sauced, beneath a blanket of grated cheese. Splurge an extra $2 for the signature “chitarra Santina,” spaghetti-like egg noodles supporting a mélange of zucchini, tomatoes, mussels, and crumbles of lamb sausage. In place of formally dressed waiters, servers patrol the room in coral or aquamarine polos and white pants, their smiles glinting in the light of splashy Murano glass chandeliers.
The playlist cycles through vintage Italian jazz and swing, with the occasional foreign-language cover of a classic American pop song — all of it blaring at a volume that makes it impossible to hear yourself speak. If intimate conversation is the goal, sardine in at the bar, but prepare for the transportive illusion to fracture as garbage and other trucks park on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling windows, a vestige of Meatpacking grit butting up against the glitz.
Major Food drinksmaster Thomas Waugh orchestrates the shaking within this beachy snow globe. His cheery, refreshing cocktails include the “Aloevation,” an aviation variant smoothed out with that scourge of sunburns, aloe vera. They’re priced far friendlier than the $20 beverages Waugh pours at ZZ’s, Major Food’s clam bar. Somewhat irritatingly, they’re also the only menu items that appear to merit written explanation. Deciphering the food menu requires a lengthy Q&A with your server, all so you can find out that “Tricolore” salad comes with tuna carpaccio and that ordering lobster “Catalan” yields the main ingredient halved, grilled, and served in the shell with a sauce made from lobster coral and sea urchin.
If the food weren’t so flavorful, you might mistake it for spa cuisine. On a recent visit the only substantial red meat available was a fist-size portion of lamb tartare, the ruby pebbles glistening and folded with mint and vivid green Castelvetrano olives. It was offered as a filling for griddled cecina (pronounced cheh-chee-nah), chickpea pancakes served in their cast-iron skillets atop colorful cake stands. An accompanying wooden stand holds creamy and piquant salsa verde and earthy tomato soffritto, both of which add punches of heat and concentrated acidity. In fact, the selection of small plates, priced from $9 to $15, probably best showcases the kitchen’s talents: gussied-up winter squash carpaccio; crisp, greaseless fritto misto; a gently cured branzino crudo; and a bowl of Roman-style fried artichokes tossed in anchovy dressing with toasted hazelnuts, raisins, seedless red grapes, and snappy braised cardoons.
Some main courses, like a vibrant bass “Agrigento” with its messy mop of peperonata brightened by juicy segments of warmed orange, are large enough to share — a boon when large plates hover in the mid- to high $20s. The bass’s pepper-packed sauce slightly overshadows its subtle flavor; a more successful composition finds swordfish starring against white beans.
If you’re committed to a sweet ending, check out Major Food corporate pastry chef Heather Bertinetti’s tricolore cannoli, fried to order, and piped with freshly mixed fillings that are flavored and colored with pistachio, cherries, and coconut. Other options proved inconsistent: a dull chocolate tart flavored with rum and brought down by a brittle crust and gritty chocolate ganache; and a chalky lime meringue with cloying curd. They tug you back to reality, but they don’t stifle Santina’s retro spirit.