New Kid on the Block: Sant Ambroeus

Before indoor dining shut down, I actually took a seat — with friends! — indoors at Sant Ambroeus, the most recent addition to Brookfield and to the line of Milanese coffee and pastry shops that first landed on these shores in the early eighties. (Our nearest cousin is on Lafayette and Prince, but there are three others in the city along with Southampton and Palm Beach.)

The décor is without a doubt beautiful and luxe in every regard. In fact, when indoor dining does resume, that window seat for eight will be prime. It’s not a cozy spot, but given the soaring ceilings and two-story Murano glass chandelier, I don’t think that was the design goal. Instead it feels like a lush treat, an indulgence, and obviously a direct descendant of its Upper East Side forebear.

We ate through the breakfast menu with ease, since for now just the coffee bar is open. The almond cornetto is worth crossing the highway for, even in winter winds. Eventually they will offer a full menu for lunch and dinner as well; The Cut has already predicted that when life resumes, this will be the power lunch hangout for the fashion set at Condé Nast across the street in One World Trade. But like all New York City restaurants that have survived here for decades, this one comes with a saga. And I just love a rabbit hole like this.

The mother ship first opened in 1936 (not what I would call an auspicious year in retrospect, but at the time maybe things seemed innocent enough in Italy?), founded by two pastry chefs who named it after the patron saint of Milan, Saint Ambrogio. In time it was acquired by Hans Pauli, a German national, and his wife, Francesca, who was from Milan, and the two operated a string of other noteworthy restaurants there as well.

The Paulis brought Sant Ambroeus to 1000 Madison (at 78th) in 1983, where it became the go-to for the art dealers and the denizens of the Upper East Side. The New York location created its own buzz but also its own heartbreak, complete with buyouts, celebrities and skirmishes — in the way that family restaurants in New York always seem to do if they stick around long enough (think Patsy’s or The Palm). When the Paulis decided to sell in 2001 to the Parisian luxury food company Fauchon, The New York Times called the transaction a “tempest in a cappuccino cup.”

From Penelope Green’s story in The Times: “One went there for the privacy and the silence, too,” said Robert Pincus-Witten, the director of exhibitions at C&M Arts, “and part of the silence came from the fact that seated at the next table was another art dealer. From this arose the challenge of being witty without being revealing. Down-drift — sound drift — was an issue.”

If you had dinner with Leo Castelli, he would invariably take you to Sant Ambroeus, which is pronounced by enunciating the sound of each vowel, in the Italian way. “It was so dreary there, even though Leo did his best to turn it into his private dining room,” said Dodie Kazanjian, who writes about art for Vogue magazine. “I was always worried that years of dust from the canopy ceiling would drift into my soup.”

But by 2004, Fauchon was closing that location and the Pauli’s son, Dimitri, swooped in to reopen Sant Ambroeus in the same spot. By then the family lived in Southampton where they had opened an outlet in 1992, along with Via Quadronno Paninoteca on East 73rd Street in 1997. (Hans died in 2017 at the age of 76.) In 2003 Dimitri and a partner, Gherardo Guarducci, founded SA Hospitality Group and expanded the chain.

It’s a gracious part of their operation that they list their chefs, manager and culinary director on the website so you could say hello. And the attention to detail does not stop with the decor. The service was lovely, and I can’t wait to deliver that Principessa cake (lemon sponge layered between vanilla pastry cream and whipped cream, topped with almond marzipan) to the next party — that is when there are parties. Their fame over the decades revolved partly — some might say fully — around the coffee, and since I’ve never had a cup, I will leave it to you experts out there to report back.

Sant Ambroeus
Brookfield Place, 200 Vesey St.
Monday to Sunday, 9a to 5p
Delivery Hours: 11a to 9p

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  1. I’d never heard of them but a friend sent us an enormous pannetone for the holiday from their Harlem location. It was divine I will definitely check them out when safe dining returns, post vaccine!.