Italian “Small Plates” Inspired by the Regional Cuisine of Rome, Italy
While Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has no shortage of great Italian restaurants, Marc Vetri’s latest offering, Amis, offers an experience like none other in the city. Inspired by the food of Roman trattorias, Amis concentrates on a style of cooking not often seen in America, where Southern and Northern Italian cuisines have been considerably more popular. With Amis, Vetri has introduced a restaurant which truly captures the experience of dining in Italy, where multiple courses of bruschetta, antipasti, pasta and meats are sampled and enjoyed. Amis has quickly become one of my favorite restaurants in Philadelphia, and is a great place to enjoy with a group of friends or family.
The decor at Amis does not necessarily remind one of a typical Roman trattoria, however, but is more big city industrial “chic.” A long bar faces the front wall, with an elevated section of tables on one side, and an open kitchen with a series of desirable “chef’s table” seats along it. Curiously, the soundtrack is all classic rock, and the sound level can get high when the room is full. Therefore it might not be the best choice for a quiet, romantic evening meal out, unless one can claim one of the outdoor seats on an attractive stretch of 13th Street.
Amis offers a short but excellently chosen wine list, at prices quite reasonable for the quality of the selection. The predominantly-Italian list of reds, whites, and sparkling wine ranges in price from $36 to $63 a bottle, with all available by the glass. Italian sodas, beers and cocktails are available as well. On a hot June evening, a bottle of Vernaccia di San Gimignano ($38) hit the spot like nothing else could have, while on a winter evening a Puglian Primitivo ($37) was excellent for warming the stomach and preparing the palette for the meal ahead.
The menu at Amis is divided into two halves, one offering smaller plates and the other offering larger plates. As such there are numerous options for dining, depending on your appetite, interests, and the number of people in your party. The best way to enjoy the food at Amis is to sample as many dishes as possible. My recommendation for a couple dining together would be to try 3 or 4 small plates, two pastas, and one “secondi” (meat or fish entree) to share. This allows for a wide sampling of the Amis menu, and a fairly traditional Roman-style meal. Saving room for at least one shared dessert would be advisable as well.
Among the small plate options, Amis offers five styles of brushetta for $6-10 each and at least one should be ordered by every table. Thick cut, grilled toast is served with a bowl of delicious toppings, such as tuna and white bean or eggplant caponata. Housemade salumi and interesting cheese plates are offered, $8-16, and on a recent visit included mouth-watering grilled smoked mozzarella served with picked vegetables. Seafood antipasti include marinated sardines with pickled vegetables ($10), the flavor of which immediately transported me back to Rome. Also exceptional is the generous Seafood Fritto Misto with Zucchini “Waffle Chips” ($10). The fish changes daily and on one visit included sardines and whole shrimp–heads, tails and shells intact, the best way to enjoy their full flavor.
Meat antipasti include a pair of outstanding arancini (fried rice balls) with a meat ragu ($6) and “Sal’s Old School Meatballs” ($8), a flavorful if mild preparation with a tomato-rich potato sauce. Adventurous diners can sample one of the “Fifth Quarter” meat antipasti, such as Fried Lambs Tongue ($7) or traditional Roman Tripe Stew ($7). Organ meats are very popular in Roman cuisine and also a notable part of Marc Vetri’s cuisine, so they definitely should be sampled if one is not squeamish.
Vegetable antipasti include the only dish at Amis I have been disappointed with to date, and that is their take on “Carciofi alla Guida” ($10). This traditional dish from the Jewish Ghetto of Rome should highly the freshest, most perfectly fried tender artichokes, and I found Amis’ version a little greasy and lackluster.
Marc Vetri is known for his skill with pasta, and this is clearly the case with his pasta selections at Amis. Highly recommended are the Bufala Ricotta Ravioli with Spring Asparagus ($14), perhaps the lightest and most exquisite ravioli I have ever tasted. Veal Cannelloni with Porcini Bechamel ($14) is a small dish, but incredibly rich with the flavor of fresh porcini mushrooms. For a more generous bowl of pasta, try the delightful Strozzaprete Alla Vongole (with clams) for $18.
“Secondi” consists of a number of meat, poultry and fish selections. The Mixed Seafood Grill ($22) will feature whatever is fresh for the day, simply grilled in oil and light herbs. The Pork and Fennel Pollen Sausage with Peperonata ($16) features a large, housemade sausage, nicely accented by peppers and onions. Secondi portion sizes are not large (neither are they in Italy), so they are definitely meant to finish off a meal instead of being the main focus of one.
Hopefully one has room to try dessert at Amis, which includes such decadent treats as a Belgian-Style Waffle with Nutella, Vanilla Semifreddo and Toasted Hazelnuts ($10). Also excellent is the Chocolate and Hazelnut Semifredo with Amarena Cherries ($10). Savoring dessert with an espresso, or perhaps even a grappa or other digestif, is an excellent way to finish the evening right.
Service at Amis is exceptionally professional, polite and alert. One can rely on the staff to be helpful in selecting an appropriate wine, how many courses to order depending on the size of one’s party, and to make sure orders are properly executed and served quickly. The experience can be an expensive one, depending on what one orders. Typically I have spent around $150, before tip, for a very filling dinner for two with a bottle of wine. At this price, Amis is not an everyday restaurant for dinner, however one can stop in the bar and enjoy a small plate or two quite reasonably. I strongly recommend Amis to anyone looking for an upscale, authentic Italian dining experience in Philadelphia.