The food-loving Santucci family of Sicily settles in Palm Beach County, having nurtured chefs and hospitality devotees. They open a sleekly set ristorante on the sixth block of Clematis Street and work quietly, baking fresh, rustic flaxseed-studded bread, making pasta by hand, creating dishes worthy of an art gallery.
What a delightful thing it is for locals – for those who know about it, that is.
The family members behind Ristorante Santucci – primarily patriarch Emilio (owner/chef), son Eugenio (head chef) and daughter Selena (restaurant manager) – just celebrated their second year in business as discreetly as they’ve operated their fine dining restaurant. Nicely removed from the more bustling blocks of Clematis Street, the eatery is tucked into the ground floor of the 610 building, where it’s too easily bypassed by pedestrians and downtown diners.
It seems to exist in a city apart, one that finds serenity in polished, white-on-white décor, warmth in service and sheer pleasure in Old World dishes that have been mastered and modernized. This lustrous city is not exactly social-media obsessed, which is why you may not have heard about Ristorante Santucci.
If you haven’t been, here’s what you’re missing:
• A fragrant minestra primavera (veggie soup, $12) that’s based in a clear yet richly flavored stock, swimming with plump, handmade cheese tortelloni and diced carrots and zucchini. It will cure all ills, this soup.
• A razor-thin, lemony oil-dressed octopus carpaccio (carpaccio di polpo, $18) presented as a kind of kaleidoscope vision that’s scattered with tiny, impeccably diced tomato and scallion bits and crowned with a cherry tomato cut like an opening flower bud and seasoned with coarse salt flakes.
• A warm scampi starter (scampi al liquore di Sambuca $17) that combines shrimp and calamari ringlets in a sauté deglazed in Sambuca.
• A zabaglione al Marsala dessert ($10) that’s hand-whipped to order and served warm with berries. Sit at a table near the open kitchen and just before dessert time you can hear the rapid whisk strokes frothing up eggs, white wine and sweet Marsala wine into a majestic, creamy foam.
• A setting that’s hip and haute without excess or pretense. The cordial, accommodating service culture here disarms any attempts at pretentiousness.
Dining at such a place can be a pricey experience, as evidenced by a $49 Chilean sea bass nightly special I sampled on a recent visit. But certainly the place is worthy of a special-occasion dinner or a less formal shared plates meal.
That thick-cut sea bass fillet was served partially draped in a dreamy green peppercorn cream sauce that pooled away from the delicate fish – you could dip into it as desired. Served alongside were two substantial triangular wedges of peppery polenta and a small, neat drum of gorgeously steamed spinach.
Another stellar special: a beef carpaccio appetizer ($18) sprinkled with finely chopped red onion, parsley and peppery arugula. The thin veil of carpaccio was crowned with an orb of creamy, rich burrata mozzarella and presented with a bundle of meaty porcini mushrooms that had been fried (without crust or batter) and well drained to an almost roasted-nut finish. Delizioso!
The menu here is relatively varied, and accommodates most dietary preferences and restrictions. Meat lovers will find at least three preparations of veal and at least three types of steaks (in the $30-plus range).
Pasta lovers will find a good range of fresh, homemade pasta, including a deliciously al dente bucatini all’amatriciana ($23), thick, long noodles tossed with sautéed pancetta and caramelized onions in tomato-Parmesan sauce. This pasta offers well-balanced notes of smoky, slightly sweet and mildly acidic flavors.
Those who love an oozy, creamy risotto may not fix a craving so exact here, but will find a noteworthy rendition, as I did on a recent evening. The risotto of the day ($26) popped with interesting flavor notes: smoky pancetta, bitter endive and artichoke. It was presented in two large mounds (so satisfying, I saved one for lunch the next day) and adorned with the chef’s signature touch: a bright, razor-thin slice of beet and a demure tangle of sprouts.
My two visits yielded just a couple of quibbles: I found the Milanese-style osso buco ($34) to be slightly overdone. I also found the restaurant’s modernized take on tiramisu ($9) to be lopsided in flavors. Instead of ladyfingers, Santucci opts for a speculoos-style Belgian short-crust cookie, which is yummy in theory. In practice, the caramelized flavor of the cookies competes with the more delicate mascarpone and other tiramisu notes.
But why even order tiramisu when one can have that warm, frothy, boozy zabaglione and its hypnotic, whisking prelude?
Such are the hypotheticals to be pondered at leisure in a soothing white space, after a grand meal.
R E V I E W
ADDRESS: 610 Clematis St., West Palm Beach
TELEPHONE: 561- 337-2532
PRICE RANGE: Expensive
FULL BAR: Yes, with a small, separate bar area.
NOISE LEVEL: Quiet, ideal for conversation.
HOURS: Open Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10:30 p.m.
CREDIT CARDS: Major cards accepted
RESERVATIONS: Suggested, walk-ins welcome; valet parking available for $5.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
WHAT THE GRADES MEAN:
A — Excellent
B — Good
C — Average
D — Poor
F — Don’t bother