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Fine Italian dining returns to perfect location

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Saltimbocca, veal scallopini, coppa ham, sage, garlic mash potatoes and garnishings at Sassella. (T.M. Collins/For The Journal)

One of the most memorable lunches I’ve had in Santa Fe, or anywhere else for that matter, was some time in the latter ’90s, al fresco at the O’Keeffe Cafe in the charming Territorial former residence next to the O’Keeffe Museum on Johnson Street. I’m not sure what we ate, but I do recall a bottle or two of Sauvignon Blanc and a long conversation about the excellent Alfred Stieglitz gang exhibition viewed next door. Memorable.

Since then, the old Territorial structure has hosted a couple of different ventures, been empty, sputtered to life again. Yet, why hasn’t a restaurant thrived in this prime spot? Is it that awful, looming rear end of the hideous El Dorado Hotel? Is it a hex from the artist herself? It’s always seemed to me a no-brainer, and it was gestured at in the first incarnation.

The latest enterprise, and open only one month, is Sassella, fine Italian dining under the ownership of Fernando Olea of Sazón (Note: unfortunately now closed due to a fire, but possibly re-open by early October), and featuring multi-award winning chef Cristian Pontiggia, who hails from the region of the tiny village, Sassella, in Lombardy’s Valtelline valley.

A recent dinner with a companion, a quite experienced visitor to the finest restaurants in the Italian lake district, reveals that the historic red-brick Territorial building may have, at last, found a long-time resident.

From the outdoor patio and furnishings (canines are welcome and invited to accompany owners at lunch – molto Italiano), to the cool, elegantly redecorated and appointed interior (think early ’60s Antonioni), everything about Sassella is exceptional, and this after only one month. (Very minor exception for the decibel level – those wood floors … and the great bar remains the same, exposed brick, etc., and lively this evening).

After a wine selection from the remarkable, comprehensive list, we were generously offered a delicious and delicate amuse bouche of lobster and risotto in a small puff pastry on a dollop of lemon aïoli. Wow. (And a basket of assorted breads, grill-warmed.)

I had next a primi piatti of Ravioli ($19), a quartet of sizeable ravioli, filled with veal, and topped with a rustic tomato sauce with porcini mushrooms and chunks of pecorino cheese, a slash of pesto sauce alongside. I could have had another order and called it a night, but did not. (The plating is tres artsy and fun, without being either silly and/or stuffy; a feat in itself.) Madame’s opening antipasti, Burrata Caprese ($18), is a classic and a hit with house-made burrata, local heirloom tomatoes, aged balsamic reduction and Hawaiian basil, and is pronounced as good as any she had along the shores of Lake Como. And the split green grapes arranged along the rim of the graceful, gray saucer are a nice touch and taste great.

Madame next enjoyed the Mar Nero ($26), a trio of Tiger shrimp, wild arugula, baby tomatoes, and roasted garlic on squid ink spaghetti in a white wine sauce, and proclaimed it a subtle and smashing success, perhaps summoning memories of Venice.

I could not resist the Saltimbocca ($36), four medallions of veal scaloppini, flat, not rolled, wrapped in coppa ham and local sage, grilled in butter and white wine. They do “jump into the mouth” and were served with garlic mashed potatoes. A robust meal for a robust appetite, and simply, superbly prepared and presented. Encora.

There was no room for dessert, so we had two: the not-to-be missed La Catalana ($13), fire-carmelized crème brûlée-like custard with vanilla cream and flavored with … see if you can guess before you look. We couldn’t. Superb. And, go ahead, risk being up half the night and do not fail to order for someone at the table, even if they don’t want it, and even if they don’t have it on the menu, the Affogato ($15), vanilla gelato, whip cream, chocolate sauce and amaretto cookies served in a goblet and doused in an espresso.

A dramatic finale to an elegant, gracefully operatic setting, presentation and truly fine Italian dining experience in the venerable residence and patio.

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