Way back in 1958 a restaurant with the unappetizing name Saw Pit opened in this Port Chester location (one hour from Manhattan) with the kind of continental menu that epitomized “suburban restaurants” by its bland food, frozen vegetables and rice pudding, and a décor that was no décor at all beyond beige walls and acoustical tile ceiling. Mediocre as it was, Saw Pit had a very faithful local clientele and kept going well into the 1990s. After closing, it became a series of Italian restaurants, each with modern décor and fine cooking, but none succeeded in capturing an audience until this past February, when Sergio Gashi opened his namesake restaurant that retains the Saw Pit name.
Now, every night of the week, the rooms are packed into rooms that seat more than 250 people, and includes a handsome wine room for parties, with plenty of bustle at the well-lighted bar. The success that eluded previous occupants of this space that it now enjoys has largely to do with the enormous emphasis on service that Sergio puts into effect. It’s the simplest of lessons, really: Treat people with cordial respect and attention and they will always come back. Give them real value for their money, and they’ll become regulars.
There is a buoyant gaiety about the place, with an inviting , glittering design that extends to a room where the desserts are made by two of Sergio’s sons, Ardi and Fisler (and, if at all possible, that’s where you should request a table in advance because the main dining room is very noisy at peak capacity.)
Sergio is one of those immigrants—in his case, Croatian—who has lived out and revels in the American dream, now, with his two other sons, owning restaurants in Pelham (Sergio’s) and Scarsdale (Tutta Bella). Aside from the first-rate food at his newest place, under the formidably efficient control of chef Ricky Milici, Sergio has a canny ability to make everyone feel not just at home but quite special. He darts from table to table, oversees a rigorously trained, amiable staff, and, somehow, gets the food and drinks out of the kitchen on weekend nights when they may do 500 covers.
Details mean a great deal here: The moment you sit down to a well-set table with thick linens and thin wineglasses, a full bread basket is presented and drink orders taken; within minutes your cocktails or wines will be delivered. Then, compliments of the house, a platter of Italian cheeses. Your food comes on heated plates, wine is poured whenever your glass empties, leftovers are packed up to go and waiting for you at evening’s end. And everyone takes food home.
One of the delights of the Italian-steakhouse menu is a well-wrought mozzarella in carozza, a sandwich of fresh mozzarella and thin bread slices that is egg-battered and sautéed and served with either anchovy or marinara sauce ($14). So often this item is a greasy, mushy mess, but here it has a crisp exterior so that the cheese melts just enough and is enhanced by the sauce. One dish you won’t find readily anywhere else is the Danish lobster tail sautéed with orange Grand Marnier liqueur and served over baked Brie crusted with almonds ($20), which is unbelievably rich but certainly a good starter for two people.
There are soups and abundant salads, including a much improved Saw Pit salad of Boston and mixed lettuce with pear, blue cheese and Vidalia onion in a walnut vinaigrette dressing ($14). Pastas number a dozen, from housemade potato gnocchi in a light tomato sauce with a dressing of cream ricotta ($24), and a lusty cavatelli with broccoli di rabe, cannellini beans, sausage, olive oil and garlic ($24) to bucatini alla amatriciana with a truly classic Roman dish with a tomato and guanciale sauce ($24). Rigatoni alla bolognese ($24) will satisfy any trencherman with its meaty vegetable sauce. There are also two risottos, one with spinach and lobster ($28) and one with porcini mushrooms and truffle oil ($26).
The outstanding seafood dish is the sea scallops sautéed and lavished with a cream truffle sauce ($18). Pollo rustico ($26 ) is a very good chicken dish with an abundance of sausage, peppers, mushrooms and onions in a sweet-sour balsamic sauce, and if you were in the mood for a perfectly charbroiled shell steak $42, it comes with sautéed mushrooms, roasted potatoes and vegetables. The pork chops are a double cut topped with tender sliced potatoes, onions and hot and sweet peppers ($34). And the baby rack of lamb is just that, a whole rack of six chops, sautéed mushrooms, vegetables and mashed potatoes. I do wish the lamb had been American rather than New Zealand, but the price would be considerably higher.
You could leave without having dessert but you don’t want to miss the Napoleon showered with sliced almonds ($10) or the sumptuous tiramisù ($10).
Sergio’s wine list is strong, especially in Italian bottlings, and the prices are moderate by comparison to some other steakhouses in Westchester and Connecticut.
I am perhaps the least jaded restaurant critic I know, ever eager for an exciting new kind of cuisine but always ready for food that is classic, homey and prepared with integrity. Sergio’s Saw Pit, by whatever name, is just that kind of place, and I can foresee a run as long as the original’s, only with far superior food and service.
One caveat: The valet parking lot fills up fast by seven PM and there may be a wait to get in, but once through the door all is well.
Sergio’s Saw Pit
25 South regent Street
Port Chester, NY
The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner.
Covid rules: Westchester County does not have any mandated rules about vaccinations or masks in restaurants, but Sergio assured me every one of his staff is fully vaccinated.