Walking into Trattoria a Mano (227 Galisteo St., 982-3700) on its third night open, a Tuesday night in December in Santa Fe, I was pleased to encounter a healthy bustle of activity. The crowd felt pleasantly local despite the restaurant's prime location amidst downtown hotels and tourist attractions, inhabiting the space once occupied by the Galisteo Bistro just blocks from the Plaza.
In the background I could see Charles Dale, the man behind the concept, co-partner of the burgeoning New Mexico Fine Dining group headed by Jim and Jennifer Day, running food from the open kitchen alongside his servers. A man with 35 years in restaurants from Aspen to Santa Fe, he's not above any task on the floor, taking the opportunity to shake hands and greet guests between dropping off plates of pasta. It contributed to the warm, familial ambiance of the place—a trattoria in the style of an old-world eatery with no celebrity and no ego.
This might be related to why Dale's famous Santa Fe restaurant, Bouche, is so successful, taking the concept of a simple French bistro and dressing it up with just enough upscale elegance (Hermitage on the wine list, for example), while retaining winks and nods to more humble old-world culinary traditions. A Mano operates according to a similar formula, with a relaxed but nicer dining atmosphere where the ambiance is warm but not pretentious, the dishes simple but not overwrought, and the service graceful but not stuffy.
This style of high/low Americanized versions of traditional European restaurants is not new, but it does seem to fit remarkably well within a Santa Fe aesthetic. Look out the window here at the mountains and you could almost mistake it for the old country. But the original Italian trattoria is a humble place, probably the equivalent of a diner or dive or even the basement of somebody named Giovanni who won't tell you his last name but will cook you whatever he has in the house for 30 euros. There is no fanfare or trend, and everything is local, seasonal and handmade.
But Trattoria a Mano is no one's basement. The lighting is warm but diffuse. Ornate deco ironwork covers the large windows, offset by twinkling lights on the holiday decor. The tables extended at a right angle in perpendicular directions, giving guests the option of either watching the kitchen work or watching the world go by.
But in terms of food, the ethos of the trattoria is fully on display. The pasta is house-made, as is the bread (although, in a wild divergence from anything traditionally Italian, there are gluten-free options available for all dishes.) There is a seasonality inherent in many of the offerings and, because I was dining out with girlfriends, I had the chance to explore the smaller plates more deeply. We started with the bruschetta with pesto, housemade ricotta, and tomatoes for $7. The bread was dry and crunchy, as it should be, the ricotta providing a creamy counterpoint. We followed it with an insalata tricolore for $12, a salad of bitter winter greens of endive and radicchio offset by sweet, lush tomatoes and a white balsamic dressing. It was a great palate-cleanser, but out of the pastas that we sampled, the favorite was the $15 fusilli with artichokes, porcini mushrooms and leek tossed in white truffle oil and garnished with pecorino cheese. My personal favorite part of the meal was the dessert: a panna cotta for $9, flavored with a hint of amaretto, served on a crunchy graham cracker crust.
As far as wine was concerned, A Mano's list focused primarily on Italian varieties—but not dogmatically so, as they are accompanied by a subset of American classics with many nods to the Italian heritage of the American wine industry. We enjoyed a few by-the-glass selections, but the average bottle price was around $55—only a few dollars less than the most expensive entree, the Tuscan-style porterhouse for two ($59).
I had the Enrico Serafino Gavi di Gavi, a lovely dry cortese with Mediterranean overtures for $13, while my friend enjoyed a $14 chardonnay by Castello della Sala called "Bramìto," from Umbria, a half-stainless steel and half-oaked iteration that was the favorite wine at the table. In fact, I came back the next night to take a second look at the wine list and got invited over to a table with friends enjoying the 2012 Il Chioso "Faro" Gattinara for $45 (a price-friendly alternative to other nebbiolo-based wines from the north of their nexus in Piedmont), while I sipped on a $15 glass of a dry red refosco by Marco Felluga.
There are a few bottles on the list left over from the original owners, offered at discounted prices, but I was more interested in the newer ones being brought in and what kind of clarity the list will achieve once the older inventory is sold through. Further, I'm interested to see what Trattoria a Mano achieves for downtown Santa Fe in terms of building its local clientele in the style of the old-world restaurants it so lovingly homages.