Restaurant Review: Sarto
A sleek Italian newcomer makes its downtown debut.
Sarto finds itself in an enviable space: Soaring ceilings, industrial walkways overhead, a vertical brick rise and massive parchment chandeliers preside over the Dorrance Street restaurant. It was striking as Garde de la Mer and retains much of the sharp charm that emanates from a steady young bar crowd. The interior is now dotted with Scandinavian-blue leather but life at Sarto still plays out in geographic vignettes: an Italian cafe in the entryway; an expansive bar where drinkers gather by the half dozen to scoff at the workweek; an open kitchen dominated by an obsessive expeditor wielding tweezers and a healthy dose of egotism.
If diners struggle to define the restaurant’s identity — the menu is Italian but nothing in the aesthetic explicitly translates Tuscany or Venice — the staff has no such challenge. It’s an urbane endeavor and, more than once, servers mention that the restaurant runs like a New York City business: assertively. (Making a reservation for a large group ends with: “If you want a table for twelve, you’ll need to secure it with a credit card.”)
Sarto’s concept, a mixture of refined and rustic dishes, favors grazing; the waitstaff suggests, insistently, the family-style option to nearly every table. But dining is a personal affair (or should be) and everyone has the right to craft their own evening. “Snacks” are the clear link between the bar and front dining room. Bowls of olives ($6), ‘Nduja deviled eggs ($7) and roasted pears wrapped in cured ham and drizzled in vinaigrette ($12) all pair up nicely to a bottle of red. (The average bottle runs about $90 and, in a place where appearances matter, decanters are at the ready and a second bottle waits in the wings.) The small bites usually disappear quickly; a shot of salty pork paired with anything is easy to love. But prosciutto-wrapped breadsticks are delivered to the table with a shrug and a declaration that the pickled radicchio was missing from the dish that night.
Pasta, however, is worth making room for a secondi. Portions are not large but they’re interesting enough to create conversation and, because the pastas are made in-house, each bite has a refreshingly bucolic air in a restaurant that can occasionally exude the arrogance of youth. There’s a layered effect — seared exteriors, soft interiors, sauces and braised meat — that builds into a series of worthy bites. Chestnut gnocchi ($16) are pan-seared with crispy sage and, paired with robiola cheese and brown butter, it’s a study in disparate textures and earthy flavors. Even a firm pappardelle goes toe to toe with a delicate braised lamb Bolognese ($16), inverting expectations for what is tender and what is toothsome.
The food is not always easy to digest intellectually. A few things remain pleasingly mysterious — is that a root vegetable in my ravioli? Parsnip or squash? — but it’s a welcome dynamic on the plate. That same enigmatic quality is more disorienting in the staff who can be warm on some days, aloof on others.
The kitchen is consistent though: The approach is always to modernize the classics, both in cooking and plating. There are a dozen containers of infused oils and vinaigrettes on the counter and every entree is ornately decorated on its way to the table, sometimes with such subtlety that it’s as much for passing aroma as something more substantive. Nevertheless, bass remains flaky with a crackling skin, accompanied by an understated fennel caponata ($28); it’s a dish that can go down easily without attention or withstand scrutiny by the excessively analytical. Scallops, too, are artful in their presentation. Served with cauliflower polenta, pistachio vinaigrette and shavings of raw mushrooms, it appears like a winter wonderland of nuanced taste and color. This is the quieter side of the menu and the more unexpected for diners who equate Italian food with gregarious pronouncements and domineering bursts of tomato and cheese.
There are, for the extroverted eaters, more aggressive dishes. Braised pork shank with amaro borlotti beans, guanciale and slabs of roasted apple ($28) doesn’t belong to Italy — its origins are in North America — but it transforms with ease into native fare and tastes, simultaneously, novel and comforting. The same holds true for chicken saltimbocca, which is restrained in portion but intense in flavor, nothing like giant hubcap slabs covered in cheese. Sarto’s version ($28) tastes like the essence of chicken skin, propelled by salty prosciutto but never overwhelmed by it.
The kitchen is the most reliable corner of the restaurant which, now open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, has to be a lot of things to a lot of people and occasionally contradicts itself. Even the bar, thirty feet from the dining area, feels markedly different: less intent on impressing, more amiable. Parties tend to gather there — after meetings, before concerts, in the shadow of a birthday — and, in numbers alone, the celebration succeeds in setting a jovial tone.
The final hour of the evening is usually spent with a punctuating drink and a dessert list that borders on savory. Sunchoke zeppole ($11) are unadorned and served with a fragrant bay leaf gelato, a pleasant dish that refuses to crack a full-sugar smile. Cecchetti ($12) — a ring of crisped fennel pollen meringue — is far brighter, almost vivacious with wedges of red grapefruit, were it not for the slightly salted mound of ricotta in the center. Like the staff, plates tend to resist any signs of exuberance though, in an age of persistent dissonance, that’s the fun of food. Even the well-coiffed and the highly complicated can be entertaining. Everyone in the dining room might leave the meal more animated if they can just get the staff to join in on the fun.
86 Dorrance St., Providence, 270-0790, sartoprovidence.com
Open Mon.–Fri. for breakfast and lunch, Tues.–Sat. for dinner. Wheelchair accessible. Street parking during the day; valet parking during dinner.
Cuisine Quiet Italian.
Vibe Urban loft with urban attitude.
Prices Small plates $6–$14; pasta $15–$24; entrees $28–$32; dessert $9–$12.
Karen’s picks Pasta and meats.
✱ Fair ✱✱Good ✱✱✱Very Good ✱✱✱✱Excellent +Half-star