Ristorante San Marco
Italian favorites nab the spotlight at this landmark Ambler restaurant
by Leigh Stuart

Oftentimes it is the prerogative of a restaurant reviewer to hold up a restaurant in comparison to a similar establishment in the country from which a type of cuisine originates. (For example: “There is an excellent French restaurant in the city, but it is nothing like my favorite bistro in Toulouse or Lyon.”) This is, however, of little more use than comparing apples to oranges. To jump more directly to the point, I start this review by confessing I cannot say how closely the cuisine of Ambler’s Ristorante San Marco resembles the foods of southern Italy and Sicily, the regions from which owners Leo and Josephine Leone hail. I can, however, say this: They do serve some great food.  

The restaurant greets visitors to its home on Bethlehem Pike with a rather unassuming façade, one that features a nicely manicured lawn skirting a small golden yellow building with burgundy shutters. Patrons’ esteem for this Montgomery County mainstay will only grow as they work their way inside the building.

Each of San Marco’s dining rooms, both main and private—and, of course, the piano bar—offer warmth and intimate ambience. The piano bar welcomes guests to enjoy a cocktail or two to accompany conversation held over a score of live nightly piano music. Meanwhile, in the main dining room, linen tablecloths and chandeliers highlight lively conversation that hums along within the candlelit walls.

The service is, as one might expect from the high-end ambiance that greets guests at the door, quite attentive, to say the least. From filling cocktail orders and water glasses to answering questions and relaying the daily specials to flashing the enviable selection of desserts (more on that later), the team of servers performs with first-rate precision.

Of course, no matter how excellent the service, or how lovely the ambiance, a restaurant bases its reputation on its food. For Ristorante San Marco, this too is a point of pride.

San Marco offers diners an array of salads and antipasti to start meals off in style, with dishes including calamari, tomato and basil crostini, prosciutto and melon, as well as Caprese, Mista and arugula salads that one would expect to see at an upscale Italian restaurant such as this.

One notable starter is San Marco’s lobster bisque. Although this soup is not a fixture on the permanent menu, it does appear often on the restaurant’s usually copious list of special offerings. Built atop a briny stock that brings to mind images of the sea, the creamy soup is tangy and big on lobster flavor, though perhaps a tad lighter on the lobster meat than I had been hoping.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the ravioli di Aragosta, a must-try pasta dish brimming with a fisherman’s envy of frutti di mare. As all San Marco’s pastas are, the lobster ravioli is available as either a main dish or as a luxurious appetizer. Uniquely, this dish features black ravioli pasta stuffed with savory shellfish and served in a pool of rich tomato cream sauce. What truly secures this dish its place on a rather high pedestal, however, are the generous portions of scallops, shrimp and lobster tail that top the pasta and provide a finishing touch of opulence.

Tagliatelle alla Bolognese, a dish featuring housemade eggless pasta accented by a hearty tomato-based meat sauce, achieves a harmonious balance of sweetness and acid in its sauce. For a bolder pasta, customers swear by the housemade potato gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce. On one occasion, a dining companion was engrossed in the dish as if reading the final pages of a prize-winning novel.

While San Marco excels, as one would hope such a ristorante would, with pasta dishes such as these, the kitchen does not exhaust its expertise in their preparation. The whole Dover sole, for example, is presented tableside with appropriate pomp. The dish, served with elegant simplicity dressed in lemon, capers and olive oil, is deboned deftly at tableside by servers who appear as if they could do so blindfolded.

Filetto di Funghi Selvatici presents beef lovers with a sizable filet mignon that is seasoned with simplicity. To heighten one’s enjoyment of the filet, it is accompanied by a Barolo wine sauce, roasted root vegetables and a tart purple cabbage slaw that adds an interesting snap and tang to the plate.

The kitchen makes a last assertion of its competence with the tray of housemade dolci that an attentive server unveils at the meal’s conclusion, practically daring you to say no. Each dish boasts its own merits, but oft-available standouts include the airy, silky and not-too-sweet tiramisu, rich Italian ice creams and coffees, and velvety, crisp-topped crème brulee.  

Overall, San Marco needn’t be measured in terms of its authenticity, its approximation to cuisine of any one region of Italy or any such thing. None of those comparisons really matter, because good food speaks for itself.

Ristorante San Marco
504 Bethlehem Pike, Ambler
215-654-5000, sanmarcopa.com

Photograph by Rob Hall