Flavor: Traditional, upscale Italian
Ambiance: Spacious, casual yet elegant
According to surveys by the National Restaurant Association, Italian food is the number one ethnic cuisine in the United States, and authentic Italian is becoming more and more popular. Just as some diners have run away from Taco Bell’s border toward a fresher Californian/Mexican style (think Limones on Asheville’s higher end, Mamacita’s and Urban Burrito on the more casual side), we’ve seen Americans’ Italian tastes progress beyond Progresso. Risotto is no longer a stranger, extra-virgin olive oil in lieu of butter is an acceptable condiment for bread, and Italian restaurants are taking their wine lists seriously.
Italian fare has the staying power to maintain a sure footing in the shifting winds of food fads – fondue it ain’t. In a world of chefs-cum-laboratory scientists printing edible menus and wielding blow torches for much more than the crème brûlée, the more accessible, unadorned foods remain the most successful, and Italian has that market cornered. Generally, good Italian food focuses on fresh ingredients and age-old technique. It doesn’t make huge demands or perform acrobatics to get your attention; it’s not overwrought or frilly. It often borders on comfort food – and that’s just what a lot of people want.
Clearly the authentic Italian formula works well in Asheville. La Caterina Trattoria, for example, with its house-cured meats and homemade pastas, has been a local favorite for years. Though Savoy dropped the “Cucina” from its title when it expanded its menu to encompass more global flavors, the restaurant retained some classic Italian dishes and counts them among the more popular items. Sorrento’s does a brisk business, and now there’s Amici Trattoria, former Boathouse chef Heath Miles’ latest venture. Amici already has a stable of loyal customers, though it’s been open less than a year.
On a recent evening, I dined at Amici, my Picky Companion in tow. It was a Wednesday, which is typically not the strongest night for a restaurant, but the dining room was well-occupied and swiftly filling. We were informed – very politely – that meeting our request for a fairly quiet, secluded table would be a near impossibility: There were several large parties, which generally portends excessive noise (though I must say that the large tables in question were well-behaved).
We chose to sit at the edge of the dining room, where we could surreptitiously peer into the kitchen now and again and observe the goings-on back there. Curiously, our server turned out also to be the bartender; she was “going back and forth,” she explained. She kept up well and hardly seemed hurried, though it was readily apparent that she had plenty on her plate, between her drink orders, bar customers and our table.
The menu at Amici sticks fairly closely to traditional Italian fare. Diners can sample various incarnations of pasta, like pappardelle Bolognese or mussel linguine, in full or half portions. There’s chicken piccata, and several ways to have your veal, whether as meatballs or osso bucco – slow braised shank served over risotto Milanese with rapini. There’s also apparently saltimbocca, just not on the night we dined there. Nor were there any specials, our waitress explained, since the kitchen was focusing their attention on the larger parties.
For appetizers, we selected a dish of scallops served over truffled polenta with a tomato/onion compote. The scallops were flavorful and appropriately cooked, and the polenta was moist and redolent with the pungent scent of truffle. But the compote was, as my companion put it, “tragic.” The white onions were still crunchy and sharp in flavor, the tomatoes barely cooked, and there was nearly no flavor or seasoning to it.
Appetizer blunders continued with a beef carpaccio stuck so thoroughly to the plate that it had to be scraped off. Otherwise, the flavors were good and fresh, but an olive salad of a few sun-dried tomato strips, three whole olives, and three leaves of spring mix was disappointing.
An entree of herb-crusted tuna with wafer-thin new potato slices, crunchy green beans and a tomato olive salad was simple, well-executed and spot-on. An order of ricotta sage ravioli did not fare as well – it swam in a cream sauce that was more lukewarm butter than anything else, and was covered in a veritable flurry of parsley, with no sage flavor to be detected.
For our dessert, we chose a delicious house-made strawberry/black peppercorn ice cream drizzled with a sweet balsamic syrup. The result was excellent, though a bit more pepper would have given it even more depth.
At Amici, our dining experience, despite the culinary-execution issues, was still enjoyable. The wine list was good, the service warm, the atmosphere lovely. Most likely, kitchen mistakes are not the norm, as I’ve heard of great experiences at Amici. Perhaps that’s part of the genius of the Italian restaurant – comfort, and the enjoyment of it, often finds a way to prevail over mistakes. Authentic Italian will continue to pack dining rooms, as Amici seems to, stuck carpaccio be damned.