For 20 years, Rick Smith, former president and CEO of the American Liver Foundation, wanted to own a restaurant. But he went about achieving his dream in a decidedly un-Santa Fe way.---
After interviewing more than 100 restaurant owners, he settled on "a really neat Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village." But just when he was about to board a plane to New York, Smith's broker called to tell him to drive back up to Santa Fe and check out Amavi, which was looking for a buyer.
"I walked in, and 10 minutes later, I bought it," Smith says. What happened next, though, is more impressive: In just five weeks, Smith and his team obtained the necessary permits, renovated the restaurant's interior, devised separate bar and restaurant menus and created an atmosphere targeted toward specific demographic groups—all according to what he calls a "very disciplined business plan" for Tanti Luce 221. Smith, who is 58 and energetic, is aware that several Santa Fe restaurants (including Amavi) have closed recently, and he doesn't expect to strike it rich anytime soon.
"Our cash flow will be intriguing for the first six months," he says with a booming laugh, "but we've got the strength to last through it, I think."
In other words, this is a serious endeavor. And it should be: Running a restaurant in a tourist-dependent market is not easy. Smith expects older, wealthier patrons to frequent the restaurant while younger ones hang out in the bar.
"There are single, professional, affluent 25- to 40-year-olds [in Santa Fe] and, for the most part, they don't have very many places to go," Smith says (props for accurately diagnosing the problem). "So we're going to turn this into the go-to place. It'll be their Cheers."
The menus reflect this. A somewhat predictable dinner menu with entrées ranging from $19 for Bolognese to $32 for a petite filet (which was seared to a perfect medium-rare but then unfortunately smothered in redolent gorgonzola; I would have preferred it unadorned) seems perfect for the demographic that wants to spend more money on paella than it does on whiskey (not me). Chef Tom Kerpon says he uses about 10 percent local ingredients, but he plans to expand that.
The bar menu is more casual, with creatively titled drinks (Big Spank Mojito, Three Italians Walk into a Bar, VaGinga), and most of the inventive small-plate options are in the $6-$10 range.
Per Kerpon's recommendation, I tried the buffalo green chile short rib sliders ($10)—served with pickled red onions, shoestring fries and Dijon mustard—which were fantastically flavorful and large enough to be my dinner.
The Manhattan, served in a lowball glass with a single, golf-ball-sized sphere of ice, was strong and deliciously bitter, which is exactly how I like my whiskey, coffee and men (kidding). The Ricktini ($10)—"Tito's vodka martini, bone dry, with a green chile stuffed olive. Dry, salty and kind of a pain in the ass"—is listed with the option to "add a 2006 Corvette" for $35,010.
"I'm the Ricktini," Smith says with requisite sheepishness. "It's $10, but if you want my car, it's $35,000."
Beginning this week, the bar will begin offering discounted tapas during happy hour (4-6 pm).
If the venture works, Smith says, "I think there is going be a little bit of Greenwich Village in Santa Fe." As we part, he adds, "We've just got to get people in here."