San Marco: Upscale Italian, In Ingredients, Plating, And Setting

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San Marco Ristorante
2082 Kensington Ave., Amherst, NY 14226
Web: San Marco Ristorante
Phone: 716.839.5876
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"To say that the Ravioli was great would be an understatement; it only took one bite and a dose of rich truffle cream sauce for us to start a 'I'd prefer not to share this' discussion."

Massively positive reputations precede only a handful of Western New York restaurants, and San Marco Ristorante is certainly among them. Considered one of the area's best for the better part of its quarter-century existence, San Marco brought upscale Northern Italian cuisine to Buffalo for its first 11 years, then relocated to Amherst for the last 14, during which it has been credited with helping to raise Italian dining standards in a town that was previously known more for its pizza, pasta, and parmigiana than its proscuitto, portobello, and pecorino. Want wild boar, venison, veal, or rabbit? If you're willing to pay a little extra for such meats, you'll find them here, alongside more conventional Italian staples. This reputation is what brought us here this past week, and we came away from the experience generally but not completely impressed; we've opted to hold off on a rating pending a follow-up.

From moment one, it was clear that numerous little touches elevated San Marco over not only typical local Italian restaurants, but also many of the area's more recently hyped fine dining venues - the aggregate dining experience nearly matched the end-to-end white glove treatment offered by competitors such as Tempo. There were the requisite dark wood, dark leather chairs, white tablecloths, and attentive, sharp servers, plus a backdrop of numerous, conspicuous wine racks and modern, attractively earthy wall decor. Then, there were the thoroughly Roman indicia: there was nearly as much Italian being spoken by patrons and staff as there was food on the tables, but there was nothing faux, garish, or old in the atmosphere or presentation; San Marco is modern, with traditional elements. Apart from the relatively small, 60-person seating capacity, which is appropriate to a place of its caliber and price grade in this area, it could as easily operate in a high-end venue in California as here, an impressive standard of quality that we too rarely see around here.

The highlight of our meal came early: the Ravioli Della Nonna ($8) was one of two appetizer-sized ravioli options offered that evening. Unlike the special version, which was made with lobster, we picked a vegetarian take that was stuffed solely with spinach and cheese, cooked to just the right level of fork-slicable tenderness, then ladled with a light brown cream sauce made from white truffles, and garnished with parsley. To say that this particular item was great would be an understatement; though there were only five ravioli on the plate, it only took one bite with a dose of the rich, mushroom-heavy sauce to start the "I'd prefer not to share this, but..." discussion. We took turns - one decidedly more than the other - cutting the little noodle pockets into two, making sure a little extra sauce was inside the otherwise fresh and tasty mix of spinach and cheese, then eating them. We loved the sauce enough to clean it off the plate with pieces of a fresh, complementary Italian bread that had been brought beforehand, and served in a handsome wicker basket.

Another appetizer, the Capesante al Vesuvio ($11), was as close to a masterpiece as its seemingly simple ingredients would permit. Though the menu described the dish merely as possessing sea scallops in a lemon sage butter sauce, what arrived was a plate with those items - perfectly grilled with bars of slight char and just a little browning on the edges - plus some unexpectedly delicious, similarly grilled red pepper slices, and a pile of wonderful risotto, everything topped with light crumbles of cheese and parsley. To the extent that properly cooked scallops are predictable in flavor, these certainly were, only modestly pierced by the lightly applied lemon and butter sauce, but they contrasted wonderfully with the soft, slightly sour red peppers and the nearly al dente, creamy rice; this could have been a perfectly balanced entree with more substantial portions. At this stage, we were believers: San Marco hadn't done anything wrong, and it was doing a lot right.

Our next items were a little less exciting. The better of the two was the Insalada Arugula ($8), a plate of arugula and field greens, tossed with balsamic vinegar, gorgonzola cheese and some roasted pine nuts, plus a small red pepper slice as garnish. Generously portioned and unimpeachably fresh - the arugula in particular was less bitter than what's often served in similar salads elsewhere - the salad was light, tart thanks to the excellent balsamic vinegar, and well-accessorized with the soft cheese and fragrant, crunchy pine nuts. That said, it was too sparing with both of the latter items; a little more of each, or slices of either mandarin oranges or strawberry, would have made the salad heavenly. As one of only three salad options, however, it's certainly very good.

Less appealing was the Pasta E Fagioli ($6.50), one of two soups, which was recommended by our otherwise very good server as phenomenal. It wasn't even close. San Marco describes it as a mix of pasta and cannellini beans in a "brothish" tomato sauce, which is accurate but not descriptive enough: a bowl is filled to near capacity with simple-looking, interestingly textured tubetti pasta - think long, straight tubes, like slightly less yielding elbow noodles - plus white kidney beans, set in a stock that tasted like thin tomato soup mixed with a little butter and chicken broth. Different chefs prepare this soup in wildly different ways, some with big tomato and meat chunks, others with onions and garlic, and still others with prosciutto and different types of pasta. All we can say about this one is that apart from the pasta, which we found fun to eat thanks to the shape, the flavors never really amounted to much, and any ingredients that might have made the bowl more interesting were just absent.

Our entrees were also somewhat up and down. We were genuinely pleased by the Capriolo alle Brache ($34), the evening's venison special. This was an oil, herb and berry-marinated filet of deer meat cooked rare or medium rare - we went with the rare - then sliced attractively into six pieces, splashed with a cognac gravy, and served with a thin roasted portobello mushroom slice alongside a line of house vegetables. From the preparation to the moderate sauce, which was topped with sweet sliced cherries, the Venison possessed a delicacy and freshness that rivaled the finest cuts of beef. Though it's too expensive given the portion size, it's delicious while it lasts, and the mushroom serves as a smoky, chewier counterpoint to the surprisingly non-gamey, tender meat. Unfortunately, San Marco's other vegetables weren't just off; they were way off. Twin potatoes and a large slice of carrot were nearly hard and undercooked, while a piece of squash was squishy and overcooked, and only a piece of grilled zucchini tasted right.

The vegetable issues and some new ones carried over to the other entree, the Saltimbocca alla Romana ($24), which had been said to be one of San Marco's top dishes. From a technical standpoint, there was nothing wrong with the preparation of its key ingredient, thin scaloppini slices of veal that were gently cooked in a white wine sauce to a grey finish, then topped with parma prosciutto and mozzarella cheese. We've had veal saltimbocca before and since - we deliberately ordered it a couple of days later at Trattoria Aroma just as a check on our recollections - but neither of us was pleased by the plate that arrived at San Marco. The light cheese so muddled the prosciutto that neither added to the wine-soaked veal, any hint of ham obscured by a slightly goopy topping that was less cheese-like than creamy. These issues were compounded by the plate's only slightly higher than lukewarm temperature - an issue we attributed to an unusually long delay with the entrees emerging from the kitchen - and the vegetables, which were as bland here as with the Venison. Warmth alone would have been enough to make Trattoria Aroma's version superior, but a stronger flavor helped, too.

That brought us to the desserts, which we selected from a very short tart and cake menu, nearly bypassing a list of interesting-sounding sorbets and gelatos. Collectively, the sheer number of gelato options were a clue to what our server later confirmed: San Marco gets its desserts from Dolci. That partnership has obviously worked out well, as Dolci's wide-ranging gelato assortment and ample dessert case are represented here by four fruit desserts and one chocolate pick, all sold for $7.50 per slice. The Chocolate Zuccato was too small of a piece for that price - so thinly cut that the traditional "dome" shape of the cake was in no way obvious - but it was otherwise magnificent, quite possibly the best Zuccato we've ever had. Obviously completely fresh, the fluffy, moist cake would have been good on its own, but its dense, sweet ganache frosting, chocolate custard and cappuccino cream fillings were interesting to look at and delicious to mix with the cake. There's nothing quite like a slice of something sweet that presents you with the ability to fork your way to bites filled with whatever different textures, densities, and flavors you might want to sample, and this one did that perfectly. It was better than anything we've tried at Dolci's own storefront, and Dolci does a good job.

The other dessert, the Apple Crostata, sounded a lot better than it tasted. We tend to think of crostatas as crusty, semi-messy Italian pies, but this version was surprisingly plain. What drew us in were the menu's references to a streusel topping and cinnamon gelato, but these enticing ingredients each turned out to be just a step better than forgettable. The Crostata had far too little of the streusel crumbs atop a plain pie crust layer, with deli meat-thin, modestly spiced apples underneath, and a gentle, inoffensive ball of the gelato alongside. Nothing here made an impact, and we felt as if we'd made a mistake ordering it; the delicious cup of coffee that we ordered with it was more worthwhile.

Although we've found more than a few Western New York fine dining establishments to be somewhat or heavily overhyped relative to their actual performance on our visits, San Marco is one that we're not ready to include in that group: as with The Left Bank, there are certain signs of true greatness in this place, most evident in the appetizers and overall plating, as well as some components that didn't seem to be up to the otherwise high standards. Rather than issuing a rating that would be subject to modification, we'll update this article with additional details and a final rating based on additional sampling.

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