The perpetual hype-makers at Major Food Group have a knack for opening splashy places that have both professional food critics and their voracious readers clamoring for a table. Whether it's their red sauce rejuvenator Carbone with a price point that'll knock the wind out of you or their newcomer Dirty French—also high on the Wallet Emptying Scale—with its arrogant swagger and loud '80s soundtrack, they get people talking. But being the popular kid often comes with a price, namely that "too cool" attitude that can be a turnoff to anyone not in the club.
Luckily, none of that is on display at Santina, the team's effervescent new coastal Italian eatery that opened in the shadow of the High Line in January. We have partner/chef Mario Carbone at whom to tip our hats; beneath the colorful glow of Murano chandeliers emerge dishes inspired by varying regions of Italy, like Tuscan crepes called "cecina" made from chickpeas and served with diced meats, vegetables and seafoods, to a riff on Rome's regional specialty cacio e pepe made with rice. Everything on the menu sounds approachable and fresh, the kind of fare you'd imagine enjoying poolside of some villa on the cliffs of Taormina.
Take the Tuna Cecina, for example, a steal at just $12 for an enormous, griddled pancake served with a deep bowl of luscious, ruby red raw tuna. The simple-looking brown crepe has a rich nuttiness that's the perfect foil to the bright, clean flavors of the Calabrian tuna with its spicy, salty kick. Make good use of the accompanying caddy of fiery, homemade sauces, which they'll let you keep on the table for later experimentations with other dishes. In the spirit of enterprise, don't miss out on the Squash Carpaccio ($9), thinly sliced, amber-toned gourds arranged in a delicate, flower-like pattern and drizzled with pumpkin seeds, fried sage, brown butter, chives and dollops of creme fraiche. I audibly moaned while consuming it.
I'm routinely disappointed by restaurant entrees, where the dishes often tend to be less experimental and interesting as the courses proceeding it. The aforementioned Guanciale e Pepe ($17) was a salt-lovers dream, inspiring exploratory dips of the spoon looking for the little nubs of pork cheek. It's a novel take on risotto, but far more interesting is Carbone's treatment of fish, especially the Bass Agrigento ($24), a startlingly large portion of flaky bass relaxing in an exuberantly-flavored sauce of tomatoes, peppers, orange slices and chive blossoms. When you aren't able to finish the whole thing, it tastes great eaten at room temp out of the carton—or so I'm told.
(Yelp)Where some of the Major Food Dudes's other restaurants—excluding the peppy Parm outposts—are more formal or in-your-face, Santina sits at the nexus of kitschy, serious and sceney, thanks in part to the Lido Deck-styled servers, the quality of the food and the restaurant's three totally transparent walls. On a recent visit, a neighboring table included four grouchy septuagenarians complaining about the noise level—"It's borderline INTOLERABLE," shrieked one—while sunglasses-clad duos air kissed greetings at the bar. Once the tourist set arrives for the summer and the new Whitney debuts in a month, there'll likely be an even more diverse crowd of characters, which is another reason to love this approachable new offering. 820 Washington Street, 212-254-3000; website