On a chilly Thursday night, more than a dozen customers squeeze into Amici’s wood-paneled vestibule, waiting to be seated. Arriving on time for our reservation, we are surprised when we are swept past the crowd, some of whom give us the evil eye, and are led to a table on the enclosed patio, an overflow space usable most of the year with the help of heat lamps.
The hostess soon realizes she has given us a table slated for another group and moves us to another overflow room upstairs, where we are seated beside two large, boisterous parties—so boisterous that a man from the one other small party asks the largest group to lower the volume.
“We’re here to have a good time,” says the head of the big group. “If you don’t like it, ask the waitress to seat you somewhere else.”
Unfortunately, that is not an option, since all 150 seats in Amici’s main dining room and patio are occupied on this busy evening. When we return a month later and are lucky enough to snag a table in the attractive main dining room, the place is again filled to capacity.
So it has been at Amici since last September, when owner and executive chef Alex Daku moved the popular Mediterranean restaurant a few hundred feet down the road to its current location, an 1859 farmhouse that has been home to a few other restaurants, including the South Jersey landmark La Campagne.
After building a solid clientele in the space they had occupied for nine years, the relocated Amici has been a runaway success, with its more upscale décor, vast menu of mostly traditional, generously sized and affordable Italian dishes, and a chef eager to please.
“For ten years, we’ve been giving top quality at the right prices,” says Daku, 41. “We’ve been very consistent with our food and service. And now, having a better location makes people feel they are having a nicer experience.”
Leaving its strip mall location behind, diners are more spread out at the two-story farmhouse that Daku purchased in December 2019 and spent nearly two years and more than $1 million renovating. Those renovations included increasing the kitchen from 300 to 1,700 square feet and opening several small dining rooms into one large space. Wood ceiling beams nod to the building’s past, while white Venetian-plaster walls, which Daku had to import craftsmen from Italy to do construct, give a modern touch.
The son of Albanian and Italian parents, Daku was born in Albania, where his father owned a restaurant, and spent many years in Italy, where he trained as a chef. He moved to the United States in 2001, and worked at the Plaza Hotel in New York, the Brownstone in Paterson, and Le Jardin in Edgewater, before opening Amici in 2012. His concept, he says, has been to serve the most popular dishes from each region of Italy, though he’s added salads, meat and fish dishes that might better be described as Mediterranean.
“We try to improve day by day. But we have to be very careful with changes, taking baby steps,” he says. “We don’t want people saying, ‘It’s all different.’”
Among the antipasti, stuffed long hot peppers are delicious. Gaining heat as you near the stem, the three slightly blackened peppers come filled with a toothsome mix of prosciutto, mascarpone and provolone, drizzled with balsamic reduction. Another tasty starter is the mushroom salad, an earthy mix of shitakes, portobellos and porcinis sautéed in cognac and black truffle oil with a sprightly white wine vinaigrette. Another classic, broccoli rabe with white beans and sausage, delivers a pleasant kick with the addition of chopped hot cherry peppers.
The baked rolled eggplant and the stuffed mushroom caps rely on the same spinach, ricotta, mascarpone and Parmesan filling. It works better in the mushrooms, which are served in a pool of blush tomato sauce and sprinkled with Gorgonzola for a nice flavor counterpunch. The eggplant is a bit drowned by its bath of marinara.
I’m a sucker for a beet salad, but this massive bowl of bland beet cubes could not be saved by orange segments, spinach, walnuts, goat cheese or the tangy sherry vinaigrette.
For the pasta course, our favorites were two made in house: lobster ravioli, properly al dente, with velvety lobster filling; and the spinach-ricotta gnocchi, firm pillows in a divine sage butter. Penne á la vodka was unremarkable.
The winning meat dish for taste and appearance was the enormous pork chop Milanese butterflied in seasoned bread crumbs, panfried, and piled with arugula, cherry tomatoes, red onions and fresh mozzarella. Classic veal saltimbocca was chewy and flavorless, but saved by a garlic-Chablis sauce and a heavy layer of sage leaves. Rainbow trout and chicken piccata each bore a similar lemon, caper and white wine sauce, which overwhelmed the protein. Asian-style yellowfin tuna in sesame seeds showcased the appropriately rare-cooked fish, but could have used a marinade or dipping sauce.
Cakes, like the overly sweet chocolate and vanilla layer cake, are supplied by Bindi, an Italian company with U.S. headquarters in Kearny. The best desserts are made in house: tiramisu, with layers of soft sponge cake and cocoa-dusted whipped cream, and tartufo, a ball of creamy vanilla ice cream in a crunchy chocolate shell piled high with whipped cream.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:Italian - Mediterranean
- Price Range:Moderate
- Price Details:Appetizers, $7–$15; pastas and entrées, $20–$45; desserts, $7
- Ambience:Lively, celebratory
- Service:Efficient, attentive
- Wine list:BYO