Tied to Tradition 

It's formula vs. makeover at an Amici Ristorante.

click to enlarge food02_amici_200.jpg

One of Richmond's perennial favorites, Amici Ristorante, continues to be a partnership of longtime friends Antonio Capece and Carlo Gaione, who started their culinary careers in the shadow of the Matterhorn. For almost 20 years they've served traditional northern Italian dishes to appreciative Richmond diners.

A renovation closed Amici for several months, and the results are mixed. Soft yellow walls are decorated with small photos of Italian landmarks, demanding closer scrutiny. Larger photos would have had a greater visual impact. Light wood accents and contemporary light fixtures create a space that's brighter and less claustrophobic, but I question the decision to enclose one of Richmond's nicer al fresco dining spots.

I wish that the menu had undergone a similar makeover. The new Amici serves the same traditional and somewhat conservative dishes that it has for years. 

On a recent weekday night the restaurant is filled with two large holiday parties, but room is found for our group of four in the renovated front room. Our server is deferential at best and does nothing to ingratiate himself. Service is slow all evening. Our wait is punctuated by a basket of dry bread and a handful of breadsticks with hummus that seems odd in an Italian restaurant.

The menu follows a typical Italian formula, with antipasto, salad, pasta and second courses. Our starters are the hits of the evening. A seasonal mushroom soup is the perfectly earthy antidote to a chilly evening. It channels pure mushroom, made richer by just a touch of cream. Lightly breaded calamari are paired with fried zucchini strips ($10.95) and served with a tomato aioli. I'm surprised to see one of my favorite summer dishes on the menu, vitello tonnato, and can't resist its lure. Amici's version is very good: Thin, tender slices of veal fan the plate, slathered with a mayonnaise sauce flavored with tuna, anchovies and capers. A beet salad with goat cheese is pretty, if predictable, with beets sliced thin, Carpaccio style. The baked mozzarella and red pepper dish with bagna cauda misses the mark completely, a muddle of flavors.

Our pasta and meat courses are uneven. With the exception of the Piedmont specialty, agnolotti ($17.95) — crescent-shaped spinach and ricotta ravioli swimming in a luscious light cream sauce — our meals are unexceptional. The linguini ai gamberi ($22.95) lacks much flavor and the shrimp are tough. The sausage-stuffed quail is a bit dry as well, finished with a red wine sauce so astringent that it makes my mouth pucker.  While the veal scalopine ($22.95), topped with spinach and melted cheese is tender and flavorful, I question the choice of spinach as the side vegetable on a plate already smothered with spinach. Spinach is also available as a side dish for $9.95.

Desserts are traditional as well. Tartufo is originally a late-18th-century creation meant to mimic the shape of the delicate truffle mushroom. Amici's version features ice cream covered with a chocolate shell, with hints of hazelnut. Tiramisu, literally meaning pick-me-up, is one of my favorite desserts, yet Amici's version is dry and without any coffee or liqueur zing.

On a second visit after Christmas, my experience for lunch is much more pleasant. Service is warm, as is the fresh focaccia. Fried oysters are dusted with polenta and deliver a simple taste of the sea. Grilled salmon ($25.95) is a bit overcooked but served with a slightly sweet balsamic reduction with pink peppercorn that makes up for any shortcomings. A gorgonzola and walnut rigatoni ($13.95) is creamy, and the walnuts impart a nice balance to the sweet creaminess of the dish.

It's difficult not to compare Amici with other Italian restaurants in town. Capece's other restaurant, La Grotta, has more soul, atmosphere and invention, and Ed Vasaio's Edo's Squid and Mamma 'Zu offer more variety and risk-tasking, and dishes that consistently deliver fresh and robust flavors. I like Amici, because it does some things well, but I expect more from a team that's been around for so long. Instead of taking the opportunity to recharge the menu when it renovated the space, it took the reliable road, albeit a successful one, that it's traveled for almost two decades.

Amici Ristorante ($$$)
3343 W. Cary St.
Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m.
Sunday supper: 5-9 p.m.

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