Mixologist Alberto Battaglini hadn’t seen Chef Luca Crestanelli in nearly a decade, since back when they attended the same culinary school in Verona, Italy, where they both are from. “It was my second night in Los Angeles, and I walked in to a new job at Bar Toscana, and there was Luca,” Battaglini recalls. “We were like, ‘Whoa!’ Somehow we both ended up there at the same time.”
How they got to Santa Ynez is much clearer – restaurateurs Kathie and Mike Gordon, two-decade owners of Toscana and Bar Toscana in Brentwood, wanted to open a place in Santa Barbara County, where they had long lived. Hence the new S.Y. Kitchen – a shot of cool city elegance in the country – born this April. Not surprisingly, they talked Crestanelli and Battaglini into coming along, and now the duo are teaming up to make direct and delightful food paired with adventurous, pleasing cocktails.
“We balance each other well,” Crestanelli claims. “My food, it is very understandable; it’s not black magic. Cooking is not difficult – you just have to understand what’s in front of you. What Alberto does is slightly more complicated. His drinks have a twist, and I like that.” Crestanelli’s being a bit too modest about his own talents – while he prizes what’s “fresh and clean,” he takes those ingredients and makes the most of them. For instance, there’s a globe artichoke appetizer the size of a softball, supposedly baked, but it certainly has some great grilled flavor, especially crusted with fresh thyme and serious parmigiano. You get to dip that in a super thick Mediterranean-style mayo, a very garlicky delight (which means share it with others).
Crestanelli says he eschews farmers’ markets and goes straight to the farm. “It’s very hard in California to cook seasonally, because everything grows year-round pretty much,” he says. “I need to really walk out and see what’s available, but it takes only two minutes to get out into the field here. I taste, I talk [to the farmer], and then cook.”
And while everything in the kitchen is made from scratch, from pastas to pastries, Battaglini follows the same program behind the bar – he even obsesses about ice. “Especially for drinks, especially with fruits and herbs, you need seasonal fruit or it doesn’t taste good,” he insists. “I use no syrups or mixers – I believe in homemade the better.” For Repeal Day on December 5, Battaglini truly featured local ingredients, starting with Cutler’s 33 Bourbon in a Sazerac 33. As a shift, he took out the usual absinthe from this very New Orleans drink but made up for it first in presentation, as it comes with a single golf-ball-sized ice; a torn grapefruit peel and a single star anise (lovely aromatics); and then in taste, with a homemade star anise, grapefruit bitters, and Amaro Zucca. He admits, “I’m Italian; I like amari, and I try to use it as much as I can.”
Overall, the S.Y. Kitchen effect is to please. “The menu touches bases with what people like,” Crestanelli says. “I could make tripe, I could make baccalà (dried cod), but if people don’t like it there’s no point in making it. So we have vegetarian options, we have pasta with fish, pasta with meat, pasta with vegetables.” And fine pastas they are, especially one loaded with wild mushrooms, plus just enough butter, cream, and Parmesan to make it flavorful but not decadent. Or there’s a special pasta with wild boar ragù, terrifically tender even with that touch of gaminess you want from boar.
“Our strengths are the specials,” he says, “Most of the time, the ingredients are extra seasonal. Every night there are eight, nine, 10 specials, and the waiters get mad at me, having to recite them all. You can see tables when they hear the specials; they look like, ‘Holy mother! So many specials.’”
Savor the simple cuisine and creative cocktails at S.Y. Kitchen, located at 1110 Faraday Street, Santa Ynez. For more info, call (805) 691-9794 or visit sykitchen.com.