“There are two laws of the universe — gravity, and everyone likes Italian food.”
Neil Simon, American playwright and screenwriter
A 2007 Harris Poll declared Italian food the most popular ethnic food in America, revealing that when Americans eat out, the cuisine of choice for nearly a quarter of them is Italian food. Among the youngest group of respondents, those aged 18-30, the percentage is even higher. Famous oenophile and food writer Dino Romano believes Italian food is so popular because humans are genetically predisposed to eat as many things that are good for us as possible. Romano believes Italian cuisine lends itself to an anthropological need to eat a large variety of foods in many ways.
Perhaps the operative word here should be “large.” When it comes to Italian food, most of us believe the only thing wrong with Italian food is described in the adage, “the problem with Italian food is two days later you’re hungry again.” We like our pasta in profuse portions (lotsa pasta), our pizzas to be prolific, our cannoli to be colossal, our antipasti to be ample. You get the picture. When it comes to dieting, there are many other things we’d rather give up.
Compared to Italians, Americans are veritable lightweights in the consumption of pasta, eating about twenty pounds per person per year compared to a whopping sixty pounds of pasta per person per year among Italians. It’s no wonder the number of Italian restaurants opening up across the fruited plain outstrips the number of new start-ups among any other ethnic cuisine.
The launch of a new Italian restaurant is a cause celebre, a time to break out a nice bottle of Chianti. In late December, 2009, Duke City Diners in the know had good cause to celebrate with the launch of Amici in Granada Square off Montgomery Boulevard. Situated at the former site of short-lived Iron Skillet and before that Gruet Grille, it sits in an area heavily populated by professional offices and apartment complexes. There is some semblance to previous restaurant tenants, but a $25,000 make-over imbued the 3,800 square-foot restaurant with a more colorful and buoyant, clearly Italian personality.
As if the launch of a new Italian restaurant isn’t reason enough to celebrate, Amici returned, for a short while at least, to the Albuquerque dining scene one of the most genial people to grace a Duke City restaurant. That would be Rosetta Richietti Stewart who ran the Pantry Cafe and McGilvray’s for nearly two decades in the burgeoning downtown area before selling them both in 2005. Her partners at Amici were former State Representative Dan Silva and his wife Angie who bought out Rosetta and assumed sole ownership of the restaurant.
Rosetta and the Silvas named their new restaurant venture Amici because it means “friends” in Italian. The restaurant staff will indeed make you feel welcome at this bright and open restaurant. Amici lives up to its name, which by-the-way is subtitled “Pizza * Pasta * Salad,” the three mainstays on a rather abbreviated menu that tries not to be a compendium of all things Italian, but a select number of dishes prepared well. In February, 2010, Amici obtained a beer and wine license.
Amici is an advocate of Dino Romano’s approach to healthy Italian food, even employing olive oil (one of the key components of the Mediterranean diet) on the pizza dough and placing a decanter of it on each table. It is also a proponent of fresh ingredients and uncompromising quality. In this case, quality does not translate to expensive. Prices and portion sizes are reasonable.
The first item on the menu is pizza which is available in three sizes: small (12-inches), medium (14-inches) and large (16-inches). Six designer gourmet pizzas, all named for Italian locations as they would be spelled on an Italian map (Napoli, Roma, Firenze, Venice, Sicily and Milano), are offered or you can have a cheese pizza topped with any of sixteen toppings.
Oven-fresh baked breads are the canvas on which Amici’s panini sandwiches are served. Eight panini sandwiches, all with Italian names, are available. They are served with a side salad. Larger appetites will gravitate toward one of the seven calzones on the menu.
The pasta menu lists only six entrees–Lasagna Bolognese (with ground beef), Lasagna Bolognese (meatless), Fettuccini Alfredo with green chile, Penne Pasta topped with marinara sauce, hand-made Cheese Ravioli Alfredo, hand-made Cheese Ravioli topped with marinara sauce. Also on the menu are chicken wings served twelve per order with the restaurant’s in-house Ranch dressing. Five salads and a Zuppe del Giorno (soup of the day) complete the menu, again not a large menu, but one in which quality is emphasized over sheer numbers. Spaghetti with meatballs, by the way, is a featured special of the day every day though it’s not on the menu.
Shortly after you’re seated, a plate of sliced bread is delivered to your table. It’s Italian bread baked in-house and as crusty and airy delicious as any Italian bread in town. Though olive oil is to be found on each table, you’ll have to ask for butter if you want it. Don’t bother asking for Balsamic vinegar because you’ll get the restaurant’s Balsamic based salad dressing, a far cry from restaurant quality Balsamic vinegar.
The Zuppe del Giorno is not limited to a perfunctory minestrone or pasta fagioli. Our inaugural visit was on a bleak and dreary gray day in which the only soup which would have hit the spot was exactly what Amici was offering, a creamy green chile and potato soup. This elixir for cold weather blues is of medium thickness with tiny slices of perfectly boiled potatoes and a green chile piquant enough to get your attention. This is comfort food soup that would be good on any day.
Garfield, the famous persnickety cartoon cat once said, “when the lasagna content in my blood gets low, I get mean.” There are times I can empathize with him, times when only the sweet succor of luscious lasagna can quell my cravings. When you lust for lasagna, Amici is a good option, offering not one, but two different Lasagna Bolognese options, a meatless option and one with ground beef.
The meatless option is layered pasta with bell peppers, onions, mushroom, spinach and a triumvirate of cheeses (ricotta, parmesan and mozzarella) blanketed with marinara sauce. The meaty option is composed of layered pasta, ground beef, onions, mushrooms and two terrific cheeses, ricotta and mozzarella covered in marinara sauce.
Amici’s lasagna reminds me very much of the lasagna of my youth in Massachusetts when I practically lived in mom and pop restaurants specializing in “red sauce.” At first glance, it resembles a pasta loaf swimming in an island of marinara sauce. It’s a thick slab of deliciousness, a concordant marriage of perfectly prepared pasta layered with well-seasoned ground beef, rich mozzarella and a marinara sauce emphasizing the sweetness of the tomato. The sauce has a slightly chunky texture, but it’s the sweetness of the tomato foundation which we liked best.
A large segment of the popularity of Italian cuisine can be attributed to pizza which Americans eat at the rate of approximately 100 acres daily, or about 350 slices per second. By itself, pizza is a $30 billion dollar per year industry with more than 69,000 pizzerias churning out about three-billion pizzas each year in the UnitedStates. Representing 17 percent of all restaurants, pizza accounts for more than ten percent of all food service sales.
Amici’s six gourmet pizzas are fashioned with ingredient combinations designed to complement each another. The amenable wait staff will even swap one or two of the ingredients if you so desire. On the Roma, a pulchritudinous pie constructed with eggplant, fresh tomato, mozzarella cheese, roasted garlic and mozzarella sauce, we asked for smoked ham instead of eggplant and got it.
If the Roma is any indication, Amici’s pies are thin-crusted–not the waifishly thin crust you can nearly see through, but stout enough to hold up against the volume of generous ingredient toppings. It has just a hint of char, not the pinto pony speckled char that sometimes denotes burnt, and its outside edges are heavily populated with the airy holes that seem to define good pizza. The crust is soft, but perfectly baked through and through and as with the restaurant’s other bread-based products, it has a fresh baked bread flavor which means biting into it will welcome you with the wafting steam unique to the staff of life.
Our modified Roma was delicious, a sixteen-inch, hand-crafted beauty resplendent with premium ingredients. The smoked ham is discernibly different from the Canadian bacon offered at many pizzerias. Real tomatoes with their slightly acidic bite complement the sweetness of the marinara sauce, a two-punch tomato combination that helps make this a special pizza.
It’s possible Italians from the old country wouldn’t recognize the large pressed sandwiches Americans call panini. In Italy, panini is a small bread roll, not some super-sized ciabatta or Italian country bread behemoth. By any name, Americans have been embracing those toasted, pressed sandwiches for years. Amici’s rendition of the trendy panini is just a bit different in that the sandwich isn’t pressed. In fact, the sandwich is at least twice as thick as most pressed paninis. The Danielo is engorged with hard salami, smoked ham, pepperoni, mozzarella cheese, red onion, tomato, romaine lettuce with a house vinaigrette dressing. It’s a nice sandwich though the salami lacked personality and other than with its saltiness, didn’t distinguish itself.
About the only thing that isn’t made in-house are desserts. The tiramisu is nonetheless a very good dessert with a strong espresso flavor and a melt-in-your-mouth texture. As with the rest of the menu, the number of available desserts is rather limited with chocolate cannoli available on occasion.
Amici exemplifies many of the things Americans love about Italian food and with the Silvas at the helm, a promising future seems imminent.
4243 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 April 2011
1st VISIT: 14 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Lasagna Bolognese, The Roma (Pizza), Tiramisu, Green Chile Potato Soup