No matter where you go in the world, there is Italian food. From the streets of New York to the jungles of Bali, you can always follow your nose and find a sometimes terrible, often halfway decent bowl of pasta to sate you. Italian makes a great first restaurant (implementation is basically simple, the cuisine based on fresh ingredients that are easy to source), and even mediocre spaghetti and meatballs inspires visceral comfort.
But sometimes you want to know what the platonic ideal of these long-familiar dishes are — what they can taste like, really taste like, when given the chance. For that, you head someplace like Santa Fe’s newest Italian date-spot, Trattoria A Mano.
Trattoria A Mano occupies the space on Galisteo Street formerly occupied by Galisteo Bistro, a long, skinny floorplan next to L’Olivier.
“It’s like a railroad car,” says restaurateur Charles Dale. “It’s the largest prep kitchen relative to seats that I’ve ever seen, but we decided to keep it small and intimate.” Trattoria A Mano is the second of Dale’s (who also helms Bouche) new endeavors with newly minted restaurant emperors Jim and Jennifer Day that includes Maize (the Southwestern cuisine jewel located where Georgia used to be) and the soon-to-be revamped Bobcat Bite. Trattoria A Mano has been open roughly two weeks.
The concept of Trattoria a Mano, Dale says, is to “follow the seasons,” which means northern Italian food in the winter, and cuisine of the coastline and southern Italy in the summer. Regardless of the time of year, Trattoria a Mano is dedicated to making eight types of pasta by hand (hence the name) in-house, every day.
“It’s a crazy undertaking,” Dale says. “The only dry pasta we feature is a gluten-free penne for those who want a substitute.”
The dishes are, at least in this initial iteration, not so much dressed-up versions of classics as classics made from scratch in bespoke fashion, like a really nice couture black sweater. Nothing on the menu is imposing: Appetizers include bruschetta with prosciutto, pesto and ricotta; antipasto of cured meat and olives; and calamari fritti. The idea is to do them well, to the nines, with Dale’s particularly haute couture touch, but still speak to the concept of comfort food.
“One of the things that I’m the most proud of is the veal and Swiss chard cannelloni, because it’s hard to find a great cannelloni these days,” Dale says. “The pasta is hand-rolled, with ground veal, Parmesan, ricotta, chopped Swiss chard, a little garlic, baked in a bechamel sauce with a gratin of fontina and Parmesan on top. … It’s actually a comfort food from my childhood. I’m always a sucker for cannelloni and I’m not always impressed.”
The current menu’s other pleasantly familiar handmade pastas include spaghetti Bolognese, with beef and veal ragu; linguine alle vongole, with clams and a white wine sauce; and mushroom-stuffed tortellini in brodo, served in a potato broth.
“In Bologna, it’s made with a beef tortellini in a chicken broth, but we made it vegetarian,” says Dale, “with a mushroom duxelles, and the potato gives it a bit of body that it would miss with just a vegetable stock.”
The pastas are available as full or half-orders, intended to encourage experimentation and sharing. “Ideally, someone comes in, splits a calamari, has a half-order of pasta and splits an entree,” suggests Dale. “That’s the way you would eat in Italy. … People are trying a lot of different things and they’re sharing them.”
The main dishes include veal scaloppine Marsala (possibly better than your grandma used to make, no disrespect to your grandma); roasted monkfish with lentils and pancetta; and grilled Mediterranean branzino (sea bass) with roasted cauliflower and salsa verde.
“You have to have a branzino, and I love that fish anyway,” says Dale. “Most of our entrees don’t feature a starch because we figure somebody might have a pasta before. We don’t want to gild the lily.” You can also go for the Tuscan-style porterhouse steak for two, which comes with chickpea fries, or that high-end restaurant staple, the pork shank, served with cheese polenta.
“It’s a casual feel,” says Dale. “It is white tablecloth, but it’s not austere or haughty white tablecloth. … There’s a certain romance to the space.”
And then of course, there is dessert. Dale’s right-hand man in his multirestaurant endeavor is Andrew McLaughlan, who was pastry chef and right hand to Charlie Trotter for seven years, so the desserts are both delicious and easy on the eyes.
“We have a hazelnut opera cake under a chocolate dome and we pour molten chocolate on top so it caves in at the table,” says Dale. “It’s a nice showpiece.” There are also perfectly-executed versions of the usual suspects, like tiramisu with house-made ladyfingers; panna cotta with amaretto crumbs; and zabaglione, an egg custard made with sherry and served with pears poached in balsamic vinegar.
“People are ordering dessert,” Dale smiles.