Everybody complains about the dearth of neighborhood Italian restaurants, but nobody does anything about it. Well, nobody but Sharon Risinger, owner of Amici Cafe, and chef Eric Turner, who helms the kitchen.
Amici has always had the vibe, look and aroma of a fun Italian place. The feel is casual, service is warm and friendly, and the setting — red-and-white checked tablecloths, warm light, a mural rendition of the Tuscan landscape, a superb garden-like patio — is as cozy at it gets.
With its gleaming metal ceiling and generous windows looking out on Ormsby Avenue, the rectangular dining room feels like an old-fashioned railroad dining car.
But this railroad car is taking you into a land that smells of tomato sauce and Parmesan, meatballs and mussels, garlic and fresh herbs. Even years ago, when Amici’s kitchen sometimes lapsed into inconsistency, the kitchen was good enough that the great dishes — lush, aromatic meatballs (with provolone in panini, $8.50; or dished up with spaghetti and choice of soup or salad, $14.50) or salmon Milanese (glazed with balsamic vinegar, draped over rosemary-infused cannellini beans, $17) — more than offset the occasional glitch.
These days Turner and company are cooking up some of the best casual Italian in town. The menu won’t bring any surprises: bruschetta with olive tapenade and basil-cream cheese ($7), a handful of panini options (Italian roast beef, chicken saltimbocca and others, all served with garlic Parmesan fries, rosemary sweet potatoes or soup, $7.50-$9.50), a nice group of 10-inch pizzas ($12-$14) and classic entrees including eggplant Parmesan ($15), lasagna ($16.50) and an Italian riff on a Louisville classic: the Tuscan Hot Brown — here featuring pancetta and a mornay flavored up with house-roasted red peppers ($16).
All the details are in order, from the anchovy perched atop the Caesar salad ($6.50) to the hot, crunchy artichoke fritters on the appetizer list ($8.50). A bowl of mussels ($8.50) was startling at first — thanks to a vibrant tomato broth with a hefty dose of basil — but that broth was good enough that once I finished with the sweet, juicy mussels, I fell to dipping with grilled ciabatta. And the “tricolor” salad was a refreshing variation on the classic Caprese: tomato, fresh mozzarella and slices of avocado on fresh greens ($8.50).
That bowl of mussels would make a pretty satisfying meal for some folks — including me if I hadn’t already ordered one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, penne alla Lorenzo ($16.50). Described as an old family recipe, it had all the eccentric and lovable trappings that make a fellow wish his old family had been Italian (not that I’d necessarily be willing to trade in my wife’s matzoh ball soup, you understand ... ).
Anyway, it seems that Grandpa Lorenzo loved gorgonzola cheese, prosciutto, sardines and fried green tomatoes. It hadn’t occurred to me to combine those things, but it turns out I love them too. In this dish the prosciutto and sardines are finely minced and mixed into silky gorgonzola cream sauce. The sauce is draped over the penne, and, like crisp golden crowns, slices of fried green tomato are perched on top (and are just as succulent and tart as the fried green tomatoes you’ll find in Italian street markets).
I’m a fan of Lorenzo’s dish, but an order of blushing Florentine ravioli benefited from a creamy, pleasantly tart tomato sauce, wilted leaves of spinach and gloves of tender ravioli wrapped around melting ricotta and Romano cheeses ($15.50).
There are plenty of housemade desserts on offer. Owner Risinger serves as her own pastry chef, and whips up dishes like tiramisu flavored with house-made limoncello.
Come to think of it, house-made limoncello (and other house-made concoctions) show up in cocktails, like the Tuscan Sunset (limoncello, Campari and basil). And the commendable beverage program includes a selection of wines that are well matched to the menu and a beer selection that includes local, Italian and craft offerings.
The world might be a better place if there were a nice little Italian cafe tucked away in every neighborhood. But if yours doesn’t have one, Amici Cafe offers an excellent reason to head for Old Louisville.
You can email freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.