by Daniel Cappello
Aurelius Ambrosius, otherwise known as Sant’Ambrogio (or Saint Ambrose in English), was memorialized as the “reluctant bishop” due to the fact that, in 374 A.D., he ascended to the bishopric of Milan by popular demand rather than by personal inclination. He was also proclaimed the “model bishop” by one of his most famous converts, St. Augustine.
Today, the Milanese should hardly be reluctant to take pride in yet another “model” Sant Ambroeus—the denomination of beloved New York–based Italian restaurants bearing their patron saint’s name. First opened in Milan in 1936, the original Sant Ambroeus quickly became the meeting ground for northern Italy’s cosmopolitan intelligentsia. Some five decades later, that moody magic was transplanted across the Atlantic with the first American opening here on Madison Avenue. Ever since, the restaurateurs Gherardo Guarducci and Dimitri Pauli have been serving as Italian ambassadors of sorts, translating and recreating that singular Milanese aura around town: on the Upper East Side, in the West Village, and now, with the latest addition that opened just last month, in SoHo.
The new SoHo restaurant lives up to the Sant Ambroeus standard of chic without fail, beginning with the signature salmon-colored awning that not only signals to diners they’ve arrived, but also stirs feelings of associative familiarity, much like the cheerful stripes on the chairs and umbrellas of a country club. As with its counterparts, a distinctive Milanese manner is wrought through Robert McKinley’s soigné décor, which evokes a late-1960s Italian feel via nero marquina geometric flooring, slatted wall paneling, slung leather banquettes the color of burnt Tuscan terracotta, and sleek dark-wood chairs finished in a swank olive-green velvet. Soft overhead lighting in the form of exposed light bulbs complements the faint flickering from orange-amber votives on the tabletops. A large Cubist-like painting by David Guinn, meant to evoke the Milanese skyline, dominates the main dining room, while white half-curtains line the windowed frontage along Lafayette Street, creating an air of let-us-be-somewhat-seen exclusivity.
Chef Marco Barbisotti builds upon the Sant Ambroeus tradition of contemporary takes on traditional Milanese cuisine. For SoHo, he explains, “I have also put my own special twist on some of our classic dishes… We have really tailored the menu to suit the needs of our downtown guests.” For instance, the spaghetti neri alla carbonara is topped with braised leeks, a poached egg, and pancetta. “You won’t find that at any of the other restaurants,” boasts Barbisotti. And boast he should—this dish alone is worth the visit. Of equal draw is the trofie al ragù di agnello, a pleasantly fork-friendly pasta served in lamb ragù with fresh mint, pistachio, a hint of harissa, and aged ricotta. Ample secondi options round out the many delectable per iniziare and per la tavola offerings (the crostino con prosciutto with fig spread on toasted white bread is meant to be shared, but be warned that it’s every man for himself once this savory-meets-sweet medley hits the table). The chef admits to favoring the short ribs brasato—braised short ribs with parsnip purée, Jerusalem artichokes, and aged balsamic reduction—but it’s admittedly impossible to resist the cotoletta alla Milanese, Sant Ambroeus’ take on the traditional Milanese-style veal chop garnished with rucola and tomato. It may not be as adventurous as the short ribs or as evocative of the Mediterranean as the branzino seared in limoncello-caper sauce, but hey, when in Milan…