By Ron Bechtol
It wasn't necessarily an encouraging sign. When a restaurant's executive chef in spiffy, spotless whites greets you at the door, then shows you to your table, it suggests that more attention is being paid to schmoozing than cooking. And if San Remo redux needed anything in its star-crossed location, it wasn't the token interior remodeling the restaurant received after the departure of short-lived Zucchero.
As it happens, chef Robert Riddle's time is probably well-spent working the front of the house at dinner; we assume he is in the kitchen at all other times, for the crew doing the work really has its act together. Expecting little, we got a lot - including admirably professional service from a young but smartly turned-out waitstaff.
San Remo's menu is long and not necessarily catholic in its dedication to things Italian: Witness the appearance of a snapper á la Veracruzana, for example. It was up to us to play the purist's part, and we did so by ordering marinated asparagus with shaved parmesan and prosciutto, and mussels with Pernod (OK, not precisely Italian) as starters. Curiosity - and a conjured image of several simple spears draped with prosciutto and shingled with parmesan planed from a wheel - had dictated the asparagus choice. What actually arrived was more like a huge salad in which the asparagus played a supporting role - and the parmesan was AWOL. Nevertheless, it worked: The asparagus were reasonably crisp and lightly vinegared (especially in contrast to some puckery cucumbers); the prosciutto was paper-thin and plentiful.
We knew right off the bat that there were no mussels that night, but the suggested clam substitute worked just fine, despite a paucity of Pernod. In fact, we really liked the sauce, and it completely disappeared with the aid of San Remo's suspiciously institutional (but nonetheless freshly baked) bread.
If the Pernod and parmesan had been scarce earlier, the crisply fried pancetta that accented the San Remo salad was more than adequately represented, as were unexpected hearts of palm, copious croutons, and an elegantly sufficient amount of goat cheese. At $3.95, this is the bargain of the menu - and perhaps the city. It also turns out to be superfluous given the large dinner salads that accompany the entrées; by this time you may be greened-out.
Gnocchi are an Italian bellwether in my book - especially since my own efforts to make them have resulted in less-than-levitatingly-light results. I'm determined to try again, though - especially in light of the delicate and pillowy paragons served at San Remo. Spangled with asparagus, fresh peas, and mushrooms, the brightly acidic tomato sauce bathing the gnocchi was a winner, making for a total package well worth ordering.
Don't get entirely distracted by the main event, however; the marrow awaits within the bone. Use your knife to pry it out, ask for more bread if necessary (toasted bread would be even better), and make a fettunto by spreading the marrow on the bread. A little pepper wouldn't hurt at this point, either. Share if you must; this is nectar of the gods.
The liquid nectar we had been imbibing to this point was suggested by Riddle, and although he isn't altogether up to speed on the origin and composition of all his wines, this wine was right on target. Though the unexpectedly small wine list contains some very luxurious wines such as the Super-Tuscan Sassicaia, it is generally very fairly priced, and at $40, the chef's recommended 2000 Tomassi Ripasso Valpolicella was perfect for the price. Full of bright cherry flavors, the wine also has underlying hints of mature fruit (due in part to the "ripasso" practice of adding either dried or amarone skins to the classic grape blend in order to boost body), making it an especially amiable companion to the preceding entrées. Surprisingly, it also worked with dentice alla vodka, an immaculately fresh and lightly crusted snapper served in a delicate cream sauce with peeled cherry tomatoes. (Gotta love the effort expended to peel cherry tomatoes.) Superb sautéed spinach sat atop linguini on the side, making for a plate that was both handsome and hard to share.
We resisted the suggested chocolate crème brulée in favor of a lemon tart and the flourless chocolate cake at dessert time. Though all desserts are made in-house and both were competent, they aren't irresistable. The Italians aren't all that big on elaborate desserts, anyway; consider skipping them as one more blow for authenticity. •