(Story by Ashley M. Biggers / Photos by Douglas Merriam)
Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini once proclaimed, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” That quote—along with several others from fellow bon vivants—hangs in Trattoria A Mano’s entryway, setting the stage for a restaurant that seeks to capture the gaiety that arises over shared food and conversation, whether in a small Italian village or just off the Plaza in Santa Fe. Open since late 2017, the restaurant’s name captures its creed: handmade food executed by professionals who pride themselves on their cuisine’s authenticity.
That team includes Chef Charles Dale, executive director of the New Mexico Fine Dining restaurant group whose flagship is his restaurant, Bouche French Bistro. Along with partners Jim and Jennifer Day, the group has since opened two additional restaurants, Maize and Trattoria A Mano; the reopening of Bobcat Bite is slated for the spring of 2019 at the earliest, Chef Charles says.
Jennifer Day, an interior designer, created the restaurant’s ambiance, giving the intimate space (formerly home to Galisteo Bistro) a lived-in feel with wine bottles lassoed in the front window, rolling pins dangling over the open kitchen, and Tuscan-style ironwork—pulled from the Days’ own San Antonio home. Through the ironwork, Jennifer has hung pictures of Italian street scenes and film stars, as though to transport diners to that countryside.
Charles’s upbringing near that landscape inspires the menu. Born in Nice and raised in Monaco, his childhood meals had plenty of Italian influence. The chef’s taste memories lay the groundwork—and his taste buds execute veto power over a dish’s final iteration. The restaurant adheres closely to the canon of Italian recipes, departing only in a few dishes, such as the fettuccine carbonara, where—to Chef Charles’s taste—the traditional milk/egg sauce is deconstructed with a white wine and cream sauce, with a 63-degree egg served on top.
New Mexico Fine Dining’s Andrew MacLauchlan also helped refine the dishes. As NMFD’s culinary director, he shuffles between restaurants, ensuring each executes its vision. Currently, the pastry specialist is preparing the breads and desserts at A Mano. Chef Andrew has been in kitchens since he was 17, washing pots and helping with prep at a farm-to-table restaurant, “before that was a thing,” he says. Early on, he saw that, as pastry was treated as the kitchen’s stepchild, it was also his chance to climb the kitchen ladder if he could succeed in that realm.
He eschewed a classroom culinary education and opted to study on his own and learn from mentors like local-food maven Alice Waters, bread and Italian dessert master Chef Nancy Silverton, and Chicago restaurateur and Chef Charles Trotter, whose kitchen Andrew joined before he was the Charlie Trotter. In that high-pressure environment, Andrew was called upon to show up with passion and drive every day. Although he was the pastry chef, he helped at every station. His ability to switch focus served him as he moved to New Mexico to work with Mark Miller at Coyote Café and later as chef de cuisine for John Sedlar at Eloisa Restaurant.
Andrew’s familiarity with sweet and savory inform his pastry philosophy. “Sugar is not the defining flavor. There should be acidity, sweetness and a little salt. It’s not just about indulgence,” he says. “There should be integrity to what the dish wants to be. You should be able to eat the whole thing and still want another bite.”
Make no mistake though; the desserts at A Mano are indeed indulgent. The chefs called up the all-stars of Italian desserts for the menu, which includes a tiramisu and a ricotta cheesecake. In another dessert, almond panna cotta is stacked upon a bed of chocolate cake and amaretto cookie crumbles. A standard opera cake gets a dash of drama with tableside presentation. The dessert starts with a simple slice of hazelnut/chocolate mousse with a few bits of crunchy hazelnut lending texture. A chocolate dome, reminiscent of the Roman Pantheon, lies over top. At the table, the server pours warm chocolate sauce to slice the dome in half and reveal the rich cake below.
Chef Andrew says, “We’ve had tunnel vision and adhered to solid, classical Italian cooking.” That stands true to for the dinner menu, too.
Chef Steven Haskell is behind the stove every day. Hailing from the East Coast, Steve grew up in a mill town just outside Portland, Maine, and was introduced to the culinary world assisting a chef in preparing lavish meals for a small corporate guesthouse. She soon taught Steve not to hold too tightly to recipes—the availability of ingredients or guests’ tastes might change on a daily basis. Rather, he should feel the food.
Steve carried the lesson with him through his time at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, and Italian and Mediterranean-style restaurant kitchens for the past 30 years. He has a particular knack for handmade pasta, the mastery of which calls for feeling rather than following a prescribed path. Following his girlfriend, a traveling nurse, to New Mexico in 2016, he found himself in the kitchens at Bouche and, with his delicate touch for fresh pasta, at the helm of Trattoria A Mano.
No matter whom you ask, the restaurant’s aim is to have authentic Italian cuisine. “Authentic” is a term that’s bandied about enough it can become deprived of its meaning. Here, though, authenticity is practiced, as—befitting the restaurant’s name—Steve makes the pasta himself, every day. He has an “obsession over the entire process,” he says. While he says some chefs skip soaking the meat for the Bolognese sauce, he ensures it rests in the liquid for a day before its tenderized. The spaghetti Bolognese with beef and veal ragu has become one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, with a thicker-than-usual noodle that holds up to the sauce’s meat-forward flavors. In another pasta dish—the fusilli with artichokes—porcini mushrooms lend the dish earthy flavors that balance the acidic brightness of white truffle oil, leek and the bite of gran cru pecorino. Both are hearty, comfort dishes you could eat every day of the week and never tire of.
Although most dishes are rendered traditionally, the Maine-native couldn’t resist giving the calamari fritti his region’s twist, tossing it in pepperoncini and arugula. He serves it fresh-from-the-fryer with a swirl of spicy lemon aioli around the edge of the plate so diners can drag a crackling bite through the sauce.
While Steve hopes the restaurant is already “respected by anyone who likes good food,” there’s more the chef would like to do, like serving handmade biscotti alongside cappuccinos. As summer heats up, the menu will lighten to feature more preserved meats and fish as they transition from primarily Northern Italian cuisine to that of the southern and coastal regions. The bread basket, which is currently filled with ciabatta and herbaceous bread sticks, will overflow with focaccia instead.
As diners break bread and the wine flows in the Trattoria, the open-kitchen allows Andrew and Steven to be part of the magic of life—and, of course, well-crafted pasta.
Trattoria A Mano is located at 227 Galisteo St. in Santa Fe, 505.982.3700; trattoriaamano.com.