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Still Sandro’s After All These Years

The Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is like an escape hatch to Rome, a family-owned business that offers consistency and charm decade after decade.

spaghetti with white truffles

Cacio e pepe with shaved truffles. Photo: Courtesy of Sandro’s Restaurant.

Note: Sandro’s Restaurant is a featured partner of Bona Furtuna, the Sicilian company known for award-winning extra virgin olive oil, passata, spice blends, dried pasta, and more, available in the U.S. individually or through subscriptions. Bona Furtuna has also partnered with Appetito to offer our annual subscribers gift packages, which you can read more about here.

Seated at the bar on a sunny day at Sandro’s in New York City, Sandro and Anna Fioriti and their son, Sandro Fioriti Jr., share the story of how their standalone restaurant continues to thrive. There’s no mention of the tough margins of the restaurant industry, or plans for a second location and a third to keep up with the Major Food Groups of the world, nor is there a line of Sandro’s-branded jarred sauces for sale. 

To hear the tight-knit family tell it, Sandro’s is content to serve a loyal clientele and any newcomers from their modestly appointed restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, following the lead of Chef Sandro Sr., who continues to run his kitchen and his namesake establishment the way he has for decades. The focus is not on double-digit growth or finding new ways to “put butts in seats,” as the saying goes, but to deliver house-made grissini (thin Italian breadsticks) and soul-warming plates of pasta, grilled branzino, and galleto alla diavola—”butterflied Cornish hen, crisply fried, and served with mixed salad.”

Sandro Sr. says that some customers come back again and again, always ordering that Cornish hen dish. Sandro Jr. adds, “There are some customers, that’s all they come here for. There are others who come only for the bucatini Amatriciana—”

“Or spaghetti al limone,” Sandro Sr. interjects, adding that he lays claim to inventing the dish 55 years ago. “It’s my invention,” he says confidently, adding that he also created pepper gelato. 

Many guests over the years have looked to Sandro’s as a sort of escape hatch to Rome, with its family-run approach and a menu where you can find the Italian capital’s famed pasta dishes — cacio e pepe, Amatriciana, pomodoro — prepared simply yet expertly. The family vibe also gives Sandro’s its New York City sensibility; guests will often encounter Anna, a native of Frascati, at the host stand while Sandro Jr. is behind the bar, pouring thoughtfully selected Italian wines, mixing cocktails, and engaging customers with his infectious laugh.

Sandro, Anna, and Sandro Fioriti
Sandro, Anna, and Sandro Fioriti in front of Sandro's at 322 E. 86th St. in NYC. Photo: Richard Martin

“Certainly the base of it is Roman: suppli, porchetta, cacio e pepe,” Sandro Jr. says of the menu. “But [my father]’s from Umbria originally, then he moved to Frascati. So especially during winter, you do start seeing more of a northern influence, like wild boar ragu, porcini mushrooms, venison.”

The menu does indeed region-hop, adding favorite dishes from areas beyond Rome and Umbria, though it stays true to Sandro Fioriti’s roots. Sandro Jr. points out that the restaurant remains ardently Italian, without ever crossing over into Italian-American territory. 

Fioriti may have come to America 40 years ago, but he never left Italy completely behind. To this day, he shops at the market for the restaurant, he says, and goes out of his way to procure Italian ingredients when nothing else will do. When it’s artichoke season in Rome, he flies the vegetable in to make true carciofi alla giudia—the beloved Roman appetizer of fried artichoke. In another instance, his memory of a certain herbal flavor led to a search for Mentuccia, and then for the similar Nepitella, a savory Mediterranean herb. Through his relationship with the Sicily-based Bona Furtuna, whose olive oils, Balsamic vinegar, and passata is used extensively in the restaurant, he was able to locate some of the latter.

“At the time we did not harvest the Nepitella, though I was familiar with the herb,” says Brian Ralph, President and COO of Bona Furtuna. “Somewhat luckily, I had encountered tons of it on the farm on a recent visit [to Sicily]. In the spring, it was growing wild everywhere!” Ralph asked the Bona Furtuna farmers to harvest the Nepitella for Sandro’s, and it’s now available for purchase in the seasonings section of the company’s website (and at select retailers). 

Suppli
Suppli, one of the many Roman specialties available at Sandro's. Photo: Courtesy of Sandro's

Fioriti started his gastronomical journey 66 years ago, he says. He worked his way up to his first sous-chef position at just 17, and opened his first restaurant in Italy, named D’Artagnan after the Musketeer. Then, in 1984, Fioriti was at a conference in Parma when he met Tony May, the influential Italian-born New York restaurateur who many food critics have credited with putting Italian cuisine in the same fine dining sphere as French cuisine in this country. (May passed away last year at age 84.) May offered Fioriti an opportunity to develop an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, and the original location of Sandro’s opened a year later, in 1985. 

In its first seven years, Sandro’s became a critical darling, attracting celebrities—from soccer legend Pélé to Italian stars like Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida—and establishing Fioriti as one of New York City’s most exciting chefs. Still, the first Sandro’s closed, and he moved on to consult on major new Italian projects such as Nello in New York City, Coco Pazzo in Chicago, and Sapore di Mare in the Hamptons. His own next restaurant would appear not in Manhattan but on the Caribbean island of St. Martin; he moved the family there, and opened a new, tropical-set version of Sandro’s. 

pasta dishes at Sandro's
Pasta dishes and more from Sandro's. Photo: Courtesy of Sandro's

Although the family took to island life and the restaurant was a success,  a hurricane destroyed the business. The next Sandro’s appeared back where it belongs, in Manhattan. It has moved twice and landed in its current home, at 322 E. 86th St., where Sandro and Anna, as well as Sandro Jr., seem intent on staying. Besides the warm, welcoming dining room, the space features a bi-level kitchen with plenty of prep and pasta-making space, and storage, in the basement—including Sandro Jr.’s wine cellar. 

“This is a three-generation restaurant,” Sandro Jr. says, leaning over to tell his mother of a family that had called the previous day to book a special event. Grandparents who had eaten at the original Sandro’s had brought their kids, who are now bringing their kids. 

In money-making Manhattan, with its fast pace and ever-upward real estate expenses, such loyalty and longevity is rare. And yet, somehow, Sandro Fioriti continues executing his singular vision, to make incredible Italian food in a warm, welcoming setting for his restaurant’s guests. It’s as though he has carved out a slice of the Old World and planted it in a Manhattan storefront, creating a place to experience a couple of hours of Rome without having to cross the Atlantic.


 Sandro's, 322 E. 86th St., New York, NY 11028, 212-288-7374, @sandrosrestaurant, sandrosrestaurant.com

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