Sad Good-Bye: Joe Santo
Bryan Miller - January 3rd, 2014
There have been stranger career transitions into the restaurant business, but few have been as colorful, and at times mercurial, as that of Dr. Joseph Santo, oral surgeon, turned Joe Santo, dining impresario.
The son of an Italian immigrant who worked in construction, Santo, a food lover, planted career roots early. His first job, at age 12, was as an apprentice at a bakery in his hometown of Winchester, Massachusetts. There, he toiled from 3 a.m. until school started. Drowsy or not, he excelled in his studies and earned a medical degree. For reasons he could not explain himself, in 1962 he took a long-term lease on the corner of Third Avenue and 65th Street in New York City, with the winsome idea of opening an elegant, Continental-style restaurant. He called it The Sign of the Dove, after a nearby 18th century establishment, Dove Tavern, where, as the tale goes, Nathan Hale uttered his final fateful words (“I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”).
The unabashedly elegant eatery was designed by Santo himself, decked with gas lamps, extravagant greenery, antique grillwork, skylights, Venetian glass, and cushy, well-spaced seats. It soon became a go-to place for romantic assignations and spare-no-expense celebrations. Over the years, its reputation oscillated as service and food lurched up and down, as did his bank account. Some considered The Dove, as he called it, out of touch with the casualization of American restaurants. In the late 1980s, the Zagat Survey called it “the restaurant New Yorkers love to hate.” Santos, however, tenaciously stuck to his formula. He was vindicated in 1991 when, under the kitchen tutelage of chef Andrew D'Amico, his creation garnered three stars from the New York Times.
“Joe saw beauty in pretty much everything,” D'Amico recalled recently. “He took great pleasure in drawing you in and sharing that with him.”
In the ensuing years, Santos opened a number of highly successful places nearby, among them the Southwestern-style Arizona 206, which was a Manhattan pioneer in Southwestern fare, and two casual Italian spots, Contrapunto and Yellowfingers.
Santo often stated that, as a restaurant business outsider, he made decisions from the gut rather than the textbook. And, with a few exceptions, he triumphed.
“The money I’m accumulating doesn’t mean much,” he once told the Washington Post. “It’s more important that I feel happy doing what I’m doing, and I really, really do.”
Joseph Santo died on December 17, at age 84.