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A Packed Italian in Manhattan's Meatpacking District
February 23, 2017 -- As an adult, I've never been a habitué of the Meatpacking District, the now-trendy neighborhood along the innovative High Line on Manhattan's Far West Side.

Teeming with au fait restaurants, pricey condos and plush independent hotels, until a generation ago the neighborhood really was known for meatpacking. As a teenager, I was sometimes recruited to take the A Train down to what was then the decidedly unhip location around West 14th Street. A distant cousin was a partner in one of the area's processing facilities and I would pick meat from the frigid lockers for family meals.

Coincidentally, I was in the Meatpacking District again recently, this time to sample the coastal Italian cuisine at Santina. Opened two years ago at 820 Washington Street, a few steps from the oh-so-hip Standard Hotel, Santina has won critical raves and acquired a sizable following of New York foodies.

When we arrived for dinner early our party of three was comfortably seated indoors although seasonal outdoor seating is available. Despite its reputation, the place was literally empty and I experienced a foreboding: If the customer is always right, where the hell were the customers? My concern was unfounded, however. In less than an hour, the 170-seat dining room was packed with a jovial crowd.

For starters, three of us shared several orders of thin Tuscan chickpea pancakes filled with a choice of lamb, spicy tuna, mushrooms, green olives and aioli, rock shrimp or tomatoes with almond pesto ($15 to $21 each). I'd never heard of the dish, called cecina in Tuscany, but it's a marvelous revelation and, if nothing else, well worth the trek to this part of town. I had a cecina with Calabrian tuna and one with the mushrooms. They were both delightful.

Among the other appetizers we sampled were artichokes and grapes ($18) and plancha calamari salad with white rice and tomato ($21). Also on offer were a fritto misto ($24), house anchovies ($15) and a branzino crudo ($18).

By then, the drinks arrived for my companions and they also provided quite a taste experience. One of them enjoyed his generously sized, $17 View From Positano (gin, black pepper and strawberry), while the other chose a Cosmo. Other specialty cocktails (Amalfi Gold, Basil Bellini and Manganelli Punch among them) are also priced at $17. The selection of wines by the glass, which included a wide range of choices from various Italian provinces, ranged from $13 to $20.

We shared three main courses: rigatoni alla norma with eggplant and ricotta salata ($23); guajillo chicken with eggplant and yogurt ($29); and a whole grilled orata (sea bream) for ($36). All the entrees we tried were more than satisfying.

For our sides, we opted for spicy potatoes ($10) and the radish and salmon ($18). The potatoes were exquisitely crisp, but a bit too hot for my taste. An odd side note: We weren't served any bread. What kind of Italian restaurant doesn't serve bread? Was this an oversight? Did we fail to request it and thus weren't served any? Were they out of bread? Is it possible Santina doesn't offer bread? Unable to reach anyone by phone, we couldn't solve this nagging question.

Having consumed too much of the other dishes, we bypassed desserts this time around. However, I noticed the absence of perennial Italian favorites such as gelato, sorbets, tartufo or just plain ice cream. (There was the grapefruit Italian ice that friends had tried--and found wanting--during a prior visit.) No one at the table had ever run into an Italian restaurant without one or more of these sweets.

Service was genuinely Italian, in that all the waiters we had were endowed with that country's accent--genuine or acquired, I wonder--and offered friendly assistance without being overly familiar or pushy. They really knew the menu, too. The service was well-paced and our waiter knew when to come by and when to leave us alone. Despite a line of waiting diners, we were never rushed to finish, either. Perhaps we were especially fortunate to have a waiter named (really!) Fortune.

As noted, the entire place, including the bar, was filled, but Santina didn't feel crowded, a rare thing in popular New York venues. The contemporary steel and glass-encased space, designed by famed architect Renzo Piano, is known for its upbeat, warm environment. Palm trees and candy-colored Murano glass chandeliers, evocative of what you might expect to see at a seaside Italian eatery, are everywhere. The semi-tropical vibe was enhanced by the pastel-colored shirts worn by the wait staff.

By the way, Santina is the name of chef and co-owner Mario Carbone's Sicilian grandmother. But I'll return just for another round of those Tuscan cecina!

Santina is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch. Reservations are strongly suggested but only taken online and not by telephone.

This column is Copyright © 2017 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.