A Late Lunch at Sant Ambroeus
by gary walther
The sculpture-esque seafood risotto
No matter the phase of the moon, on summer Saturdays and Sundays at Sant Ambroeus Southampton, the tide starts coming in at 3 pm. That’s when the clock strikes après beach in the heads of the habitués of this old-money (and old-money-ish) enclave. Over the next two hours, they and their sand dollars will flow down Dune Road and Meadow and Gin Lanes to this brick-fronted café on Main Street. And they come as they are, “in beach towels and flip-flops,” says Dimitri Pauli, co-owner, with Gherardo Guarducci, of the Sant Ambroeus Group.
Crossing the threshold takes these aperitivistos from the collegiate ambience of Main Street to the polished stone and mirrored gloss of a traditional Milanese or Ligurian pasticceria. There are tiers of confections in the sloped glass cases just inside the entrance; farther down is the dog-leg, black-marble café counter, and plenty of space for the whirlpools of socializing that form here as the afternoon draws down
That you don’t feel you are in Southampton anymore is intentional. The founders of the Sant Ambroeus restaurants, Dimitri’s parents, Hans and Francesca Pauli, are from Milan, have a house in Southampton, and established this outpost almost 20 years ago because there was no place on Main Street to have a proper coffee and conversation. Sant Ambroeus is the dialect name of Milan’s patron saint, Sant’ Ambrogio (340–97 ad), and the air of authenticity inside the Southampton spot is both material—the bar counter and gelato cases were made by artisanal Italian companies that no longer exist—and spiritual. Francesca, who is behind the counter nearly every day, is the café’s arbitrice of style. Her sensibility, along with the vintage furnishings, are why the café “feels like a throwback,” says Guarducci.
In the interval between 5 and 7 PM, Sant Ambroeus sloughs off its Forte dei Marmi persona and assumes a more urbane demeanor. The 72-seat dining room at the back poises itself for the next swell, a dinner crowd that is more power social than celebrity whirligig. Henry Kravis and George Soros are regulars, as is Gayle Perkins Atkins, a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Jean Shafiroff, known for her work as chair of the Southampton Hospital party. The media is seasoned (Barbara Walters, Susan Lucci), the models iconic (Christie Brinkley), and the rock stars classic (Billy Joel). There is also a cadre of European class and clout, among them Mick Flick, heir to the Mercedes-Benz fortune; Jurgen Friedrich, a major investor in Esprit; and Princess Maja von Hohenzollern, a one-woman imperium on the international charity circuit.
As at Casa Lever in Manhattan, also owned by Pauli and Guarducci, the menu is actually a tip-of-the-hat to classic regional Italian cooking. It’s about execution, not ego; tradition, not invention. And like Casa Lever, the veal Milanese is the restaurant’s calling card. The squid-ink risotto is also a big seller, and I can vouch for the seafood risotto. If the pappardelle with lobster and a light tomato-sauce glaze is on the menu, a special when I dined, order it. The appetizers are an Italian top 10: prosciutto San Daniele and buffala mozzarella, artichoke salad, Caprese salad, tuna tartare.
The dining room is as sharp as it is simple: button-tufted ivory leather banquettes; bentwood café chairs with rattan backs; white linen half-curtains; and starched tablecloths. The room was redesigned last year by Robert McKinley, who also refurbished Sant Ambroeus West Village and who took his inspiration from 1960s and ’70s Italian style. The Milanese ambience is buffed by black-and-white photos of Milan and the Hamptons, including photos from Clifford Ross’s Hurricane series of mountainous waves breaking on Georgica Beach.
The dining room is divided in two by a wall, a legacy of the days when this space was Bailey’s Buttery and the back room served as the kitchen. The divide creates an instant pecking order. As in an airliner, the first section is where you want to be, and the top rungs here are booths one and two. They’re high enough so that those waiting to be seated can’t see in over the top, and of course, those ensconced within enjoy the dividend that often comes with the catbird seat: seeing all while being nearly invisible. 30 Main St., Southampton, 283-1233
photogaphy by evan sung