Story and photos by Bob Rozycki
As a child growing up in Pittsburgh, Michael Jannetta used to follow his grandmother around – and eat. No fool, he knew what side his bread was buttered on and it was on the side of the grandmother in the restaurant business.
“She’d slip me a little something I wasn’t supposed to have,” Jannetta said, fondly remembering her treats.
People say you never forget your first love – or in this case, loves. Jannetta cooked his way through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Then when it was time for him to go abroad during his junior year – an opportunity his five siblings had as well – Jannetta chose Spain, specifically Segovia.
“A small, medieval, walled city,” Jannetta recalled. “I fell in love. It changed my life.”
That was the seed of a career devoted to Spanish cuisine. Jannetta opened a restaurant called Sala in the Bowery in Manhattan a dozen years ago. It no longer exists, but Sala One Nine has been going strong in the Flat Iron District since 2004, so much so that Jannetta also has a place called RyeHouse – “it’s glorified bar food” – nearby at Fifth Avenue and 17th Street.
Now comes the new Sala-on-Hudson in Croton-on-Hudson, a touch of Segovia in the misty highlands of Rip Van Winkle. You can see that touch in the blue tiles and yellow distressed walls of the arched space. The décor is by film set designer John Nyomarkay, who “did such a great job with the original Sala that we kept him on.” You can hear Spain in the moody café music. But most of all you can taste it in the sweet-savory tapas and hearty dishes prepared by executive chef Greg Johnson that came pouring from the kitchen on a splendid summer Sunday, served with a perfect Spanish accent by Elyana Kadish, who spent her gap year in Ecuador.
We began with sangria, a Spanish red wine and three irresistible offerings – almendras marcona (fried almonds), datil (dates wrapped in bacon and almonds) and queso de cabra (fried goat cheese in white truffle honey). We also enjoyed the remolachas asadas (roasted baby beets in sheep’s milk cream cheese with fresh horseradish). The horseradish isn’t Spanish. But it is an example of what Jannetta likes, a Sala signature.
“We try to stick to classic cuisine, then throw in a few modern twists.”
The hits kept on coming – gambas al ajillo (baby shrimp in garlic, olive oil and red chiles, perfect for dunking bread); a particularly tender pulpo a la gallega (octopus, potatoes, paprika); a nicely grilled lamb chop. And what Spanish meal wouldn’t be complete without some chorizo, that spicy, paprika-ed sausage with just a hint of fat?
Though we barely had room, still we managed to enjoy a creamy almond cake for dessert, washed down with cinnamon pear slices, a bit of vanilla and chocolate ice cream and some strong latte and cappuccino. We saved the chocolate cake for later.
Does it get any better than this? For Jannetta, it does not. Though he lives in Garrison with his wife and two children – a boy aged 4 and a girl who’s 1 – he has returned to Spain every year for 27 years.
And a good reason for that is the lure of a cuisine that is simply about quality ingredients.
“When I find a great piece of monkfish, sprinkle on some sea salt and drizzle on some olive oil, I get that moment of gastronomic heaven,” he said, “and I’m in a good spot.”
Sala-on-Hudson is at 44 Maple St. in Croton-on-Hudson. For reservations or more information, call (914) 862-4100 or visit salaonhudson.com.