Second Helpings

Happy Meal

Show me a plate of bad food, and I'll show you an unhappy chef.

A chef who thinks his mood doesn't have any bearing on a diner's experience should think again: Anger makes a lousy sauce. Miserable chefs cook uptight, cranky food, which is delivered by servers who always look like they wish they were somewhere, anywhere, else.

At the new Santino's on Downing, perhaps.

Chef/owner Santino "Sonny" Rando knows what it's like to cook angry, but he's now in a better space -- both literally and figuratively.

The Sicilian chef who put Carmine's on Penn on the culinary map and later opened the first Santino's in LoDo -- a restaurant with too many investors and too much space to fill ("Red Alert," November 19, 1998) -- has had more than his fair share of ups and downs over the past seven years. So when Rando finally closed Santino's, he decided to step back and think about what he really wanted to accomplish. "I love my family," he explains. "I needed to not be crazy anymore. But I still needed to cook."

Rando's back in the kitchen at his new Santino's, which occupies the cozy space that once housed Canino's Trattoria. At the LoDo location, cooking was a luxury he could rarely afford. "There was just too much other stuff to take care of down in LoDo," he says. "And, yeah, I was pretty angry a lot because it was just too much some days. But now that I'm back doing what I love most, it's made a difference."

It's made a difference in the food, too. At Santino's on Downing, Rando could be doing the best cooking of his career -- and he's doing it in a warm, intimate setting that provides the perfect complement for his deeply flavored takes on Italian classics.

We got our first taste of the happy Rando with an order of calamari fritti. Squid pieces had been lightly coated in batter, then deep-fried until the flesh was as soft as butter; they came with a spicy, tomato-tart cocktail-style concoction, the first of several creations that proved Rando's prowess with sauces. The dressing on the Caesar was the second, a garlic-packed mixture that was addictively salty and creamy, and poured on thick enough to coat every bite of super-chilled romaine. Salad or soup comes with the entrees, and the zuppa of the day was another notable liquid: a minestrone chock-full of tender, slow-cooked vegetables in Rando's already vegetable-enriched, tomato-flavored broth.

We could have licked the plate that held our entree of stuffed shells: big, fat specimens overstuffed with ricotta cheese, blanketed with mozzarella and smothered with Rando's sweet, concentrated marinara, one of the top red sauces in town. The manicotti, also stuffed with ricotta, were awash in an unbelievably rich portabello cream sauce that was enough to make a fungi freak weep. But the surprise hit of the meal was the B.B.S. shrimp -- and those initials must stand for Breathtakingly Brilliant and Superb. The crustaceans had been tossed with well-cooked linguine and fresh, fresh spinach in an inspired combination of olive oil, pine nuts, basil, a ton of garlic and just enough Chablis to finish it off and prevent the dish from being too oily.

Just two dishes at Santino's fell short of our very high expectations. A holdover from the LoDo location, the G-Man's farfalle featured blackened pheasant thighs lost in Rando's only disappointing sauce, a too-spicy sun-dried tomato that was all about the pepper. (Apparently the dish didn't thrill Rando, either, because he's since taken it off the menu.) And while the pasta alforno's sauce was just fine, there wasn't enough of it, and the pasta dried out quickly.

If you hold yourself to ordering individual entree portions rather than the family-style sizes that feed two or three from one platter, you just might have enough room to stuff in a dessert or two. The tiramisu featured a perfect balance of sweet and bittersweet, with a delicious overload of mascarpone; the cannoli was filled with a chocolate-chip-studded homemade cream that also stayed this side of too sweet. The to-die-for finale, though, was the heavy, toothsome cookies & cream cheesecake.

We left full and satisfied. When Rando's happy, we're happy.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner