A friendly spot to savor unforgettably vivid food
These guys had either given new meaning to "cooking the lights out," or Philly's power grid had simply popped a fuse out of joy for the chance to embrace a new Marc Vetri restaurant. But Amis was unexpectedly dark when we arrived for Official Review Dinner No. 1.
Uh-oh, Peco - Now where was I going to get my pecorino froth of "cacio e pepe" and my fill of mortadella mousse?!
Inside, the trattoria, thankfully, was still a hive of activity. And once the hastily lit candles swelled to illuminate the room - an open industrial space framed by concrete pillars, broad windows, and wooden pews - it was clear that Amis still had a full house, hungry and waiting.
Co-owner Jeff Benjamin's pinstripe suit never ruffled as he dispatched cold drinks to tables around the room (for us a spot-on Negroni and an exotic Terlano gewurz from Alto Adige). Grilled toasts with creamy buffalo's-milk ricotta and pools of olive oil landed next. Then rich, livery slices of house-made pork terrine with artichoke mostarda. As meals in dark caves go, it wasn't a bad start.
But then suddenly the lights blinked on - and the room erupted in cheers as a grinning Marc Vetri, on cue, emerged from the open kitchen in his chef whites, screwdriver and pliers in hand. The grill fires kicked up behind him, and one of the best meals I've eaten all year was on.
A parade of little white dishes filled our multicolored butcher-block table with a mosaic of simple but vivid flavors: tender snails minced like exotic mushrooms into garlicky tomato gravy; crisp arancini rice balls filled with meat ragu; sheer slices of house-cured fennel coppa; and a silky pink pouf of mortadella mousse that should, once and for all, give baloney a good name.
The meatballs inspired by Vetri's South Philly-bred dad, Sal, were petite but crisply seared and succulent, rolling around an unusual potato mash tinted orange and tangy with tomatoes. The fritto misto was a still life of head-on shrimp in translucent batter alongside zucchini waffle chips. Those addictively fried long-stemmed artichokes "alla giudia," leaves fanned out like a salt-speckled brown flower, shattered between my teeth with an irresistible nutty savor. A dish of favas and peas, tossed with mint and snowflake shavings of ricotta salata, was like eating a sweet snap of spring.
I wasn't so convinced at a much earlier scouting visit that I would come to love Amis as much as I do. In the opening weeks, the servers talked too much (and mine had enough pens on his apron to work at Buca di Beppo). The small-plate portions seemed, well, startlingly small for the price. And the hard-surfaced room generated such a boisterous din that I was convinced the name, which supposedly means "friends," is actually Bergamascan dialect for "crazy noisy restaurant."
What a difference a couple of months makes. Our servers managed to tend the meal seamlessly without being intrusive, and were well-informed without know-it-all pretense. The raucous noise level remained Amis' biggest flaw, but it's also perhaps a measure of a clientele cutting loose in Vetri's most casual space to date, an 80-seat room where the soundtrack bops with the Ramones and Jeff Beck, and the most coveted seats are stools at the zinc bar and wooden chef's counter.
"Casual," of course, doesn't necessarily mean "cheap" - even if the average $45-per-person check is significantly less than Osteria ($65) and Vetri ($120). And while I still think some portions are skimpy (such as the salumi platter) my overall perception of the food value here quickly evolved as I grew accustomed to the small-plate sharing format, reveled in the smartly chosen list of affordable Italian wines (all available by the glass and virtually all less than $50 a bottle), and, more important, let some of these profound flavors sink in.
Inspired largely by the cooking of rustic Rome, Vetri and his chef here, former Vetri chef Brad Spence, have managed a difficult feat in drawing real impact from deceptively simple combinations of just two or three vivid flavors per plate.
The "cacio e pepe" lavishes square-cut threads of tonnarelli pasta in a piquant flow of pecorino cheese and black pepper. The bitter crunch of radicchio accents the velvety softness of beef tenderloin pounded into carpaccio. Shaved raw fennel in citrus vinaigrette lends a thin but deftly grilled tuna steak an addictively juicy summer savor. Crispy eggplant "fries," meanwhile, are the surprise that make the unusual rigatoni with swordfish in red sauce work. A mushy veal cannelloni, one of my few disappointments here, was a ponderous Northern-style dish drenched in heavy porcini cream that seemed out of place amid the menu's sunnier, lighter flavors.
For the daring diner, there's still enough esoterica on this menu for adventure: melt-away sweetbread nuggets fried in an almond flour; frilly-edged ribbons of tripe broiled with white beans in bright red sauce beneath a Parmesan crust; a decadently funky crock of creamy baccala; and fried lamb's tongue that, with its orange pepper puree and pickled red onions, evoked deep-fried corned beef in a pleasantly gamy, deconstructed reuben.
Most memorable for me, though, was this kitchen's knack for transforming the mundane classic into the sublime with a key ingredient or technique upgrade - the use of tangy buffalo's-milk ricotta inside the delicate ravioli, for example; or the house sausage redolent with a zesty punch of fennel pollen; or the pounded leg of sage-infused guinea hen that made for an extraordinary saltimbocca beneath a mushroom confetti of royal trumpets shaved into earthy noodles.
The lamb scattered with cubed potatoes was the height of minimalism on a plate, but the meat - brined for three days, roasted, then crisped on the plancha - is profoundly good. The mixed seafood grill receives far less preparation, but that's the point: Pristine seafood grilled to delicate perfection needs little more than good olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, and parsley to be complete.
Desserts followed the same mantra with equal success, updating familiar combinations with a smart twist and perfect recipes, be it pistachio Chantilly for the luscious chocolate tart, or crispy hot Belgian waffles topped with vanilla semifreddo and a drizzle of Nutella, or a cloud of tiramisu ribboned with ladyfingers so intensely soaked in coffee, each forkful tasted like a shot of espresso and cream. My favorite, though, was the strawberry-rhubarb tart, so jeweled with deep red fruit, it looked like a magic slice of ruby slippers - as gorgeous to behold as it was to eat. Oh Peco - thanks for turning the lights back on.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Sycamore in Lansdowne. Contact him at email@example.com.