In Southampton, Sant Ambroeus is brightening up this winter by adding a prix fixe menu for Thursday dinner and Friday lunch menu for the first time in its history. Sant Ambroeus is (and has always been) my go-to place for lunch over the twenty-five years I’ve lived in Southampton. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s good. When life’s difficult, having a leisurely lunch at Sant Ambroeus is better than therapy (and considerably less work), especially when you’re accompanied by somebody you love. I usually go with my daughter.
Sant Ambroeus’s owners, il signore Han, and la signora Francesca Pauli, whom I knew as “Madame”, retired at the end of last summer. She ran the show. If “Madame” wasn’t shouting at him, she was admonishing somebody, but she was always gracious to her clientele — in Southampton, mostly Europeans ordering apricot croissants and espresso every summer morning, beginning at 10:00 a.m., and the best shaved artichoke salad, milk-fed veal, and plum tart on Long Island, and other alla Milanese fare for lunch and dinner. The last time I saw “Madame” she was walking, more like flying, up Southampton Main Street, in her sturdy, black shoes, summer dress billowing to catch up with her gait, led headlong by her blonde hair, always done in a bun. She must’ve been racing back to the restaurant having completed a related chore. The woman worked, and hard. People respected her. I did.
Their son, Dimitri, has taken over the business, including its now five restaurants, and three coffee bars. The first thing he did was hire a general manager: Mr. Andrea Nani, who created the prix fixe menu to brighten up this winter, which “Madame” would not approve of, but I appreciate it. The wine pairing is worth it because, if you’re lucky, the waiter will choose your pairings for you, not charge you more, and you’ll dine like royalty. It is still expensive, but the experience can be levitating, especially when you’re feeling at your worst.
There are two or three restaurants on the South Fork where the clientele is guaranteed to be served consistently with excellent table service, and fresh food, prepared from scratch. Sant Ambroeus is one of these three places. They are all expensive, but now — when thick, linen table cloths and silverware are in short supply, and cafeteria-style food with none of the aforementioned are commonplace — Sant Ambroeus is one of the exceptions.
The food is the draw, but the room and the table service are friendly and weightless. It can securely insulate you from what appears to be an already-insulated community. For the year-round community citizens, it is a real treat — like driving on a well paved road, having your children attend a decent school, and having access to good hospitals. When I go there it’s usually out of a need to break into the castle. To experience a remedy for working for a living almost every day. My wife doesn’t complain about the cost when I go if I bring along one of our children so they can experience a positive, fine dining experience, too. My daughter usually orders one of the salads, which is served on a cold plate, lightly dressed with good emulsion of olive oil and lemon, and lightly seasoned so the organic lettuce, avocado, cheeses, fruits and olives can be savored without tasting too much salt, pepper, or dressing. Her favorite pasta dish is the Tagliatelle alla Bolognese, which I have tried, but cannot recreate at home. For dessert, she prefers an I Nostri Gelate, draped with fresh fruit. I prefer Carpaccio de Manzo, which is thin enough to love and thick enough to melt in your mouth, with clean, aged, sharp, shaved Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, which is never too salty, peppery, crisp, arugula, with a light, Dijon mustard sauce buried like a delicious sediment under the meat, so that every forkful of food is touched with just the right amount of creamy acid. It’s also served on a cold plate. You know when you start eating it that that beef was just cut from the center of something good and pounded minutes before it’s served.
For my second course I prefer the Trio de Milanesine: always perfectly cooked, pounded, lightly breaded, cut-from-the-bone, milk-fed veal. It is never oily, just crisped on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside. The first cutlet is topped with melted, buffalo mozzarella, as fresh as I’ve ever tasted. The second cutlet is topped with tangy, tomato sauce and melted Parmigiano Reggiano grated cheese, melted into the sauce. The third cutlet is sprinkled with cubed, fresh, tomato, and baby arugula. The plate is hot and greaseless, and the food is steaming when it’s served. For dessert, I always order the Plum Tart. I image it’s made from plums, which come from William Carlos Williams’s icebox in his poem, “This Is Just To Say.” Only they are washed, halved, littered with their own pools of baked juice, and baked in a cloud of crisp, buttery, tart dough, never burned or overcooked, so, even the plum skin slithers in your mouth. It eats like it’s stollen.