Most epicures are aware of Marc Vetri and more and more are learning quickly of his 2010 Beard Award winning protégé Jeff Michaud. With three restaurants currently running under the Vetri lineup I have to admit that part of the impetus to visit Philadelphia in the first place was to sample what many consider to be the best Italian food in the United States. Having already scheduled the Degustazione at Vetri and a lunch at Osteria for later in the week it seemed only logical that I sample the whole lineup during my visit and as such my first lunch of the trip would occur at the newest of the spaces – Amis, on South 13th Street.
Having heard mixed things about prices and portions at Amis I entered the experience with a clear expectation of what was to follow – a sort of Romanesque Tapas experience, if you will. Collecting on my 1:15 reservation I was offered outdoors or indoors and wanting to watch the action I selected a seat at the bar so that I could watch the kitchen at work. Greeted by my pleasant (and exceedingly helpful) server as well as General Manager Ben Fileccia I inquired about portion sizes and how best to experience as many tastes as possible without filling up too quick. With the restaurant less than 1/4 filled both my server and Mr. Fileccia were extremely helpful in assisting me through the highlights of the menu.
Ordering in sections to gauge my appetite I browsed around the heavy wood and brick room room – rustic yet refined, “bar like” but comfortable and bright, and with enough sound insulation to prevent it from being “loud” I have to imagine the space can get quite noisy when filled. Differing from the contemporary feeling of Osteria and the rustic formality of Vetri there were a few commonalities between the three – specifically the flowered and the service which was all at once pleasant, whimsical, professional, and knowledgeable.
Starting things off, my first selection would be the daily House Cured Salumi Platter featuring Fennel Salami with Pickled Onions, Duck and Chicken Liver Terrine with Drunken Cherries, and Coppa with Walnut Honey. Served alongside the meats was a lightly oiled warm Foccacia. Beginning first with the hard salami I found the flavor to be appropriately porky but nicely balanced by the aromatics while the onions added a pungency that helped to meld the flavors together. Moving next to the coppa and honey - a delectable balance of sweet and savory with the crunchy walnuts adding texture. Finally, and most anticipated, was the terrine – not fully whipped I have to admit I truly loved the chunky texture and the overall flavor was more foie gras than chicken. Paired with sour black cherries the pate spread nicely on the bread and most definitely served as the highlight of the platter.
Moving on next to the small plates I opted to order a trio – two per my own selection and the other at the suggestion of Ben. Beginning first with the Almond dusted sweetbreads with fennel marmalade I can’t say I was wowed. While the thymus itself was appropriately crunchy on the outside and creamy within, I personally did not taste much almond or sweetbread as the marmalade overwhelmed some of the subtleties of the dish. Having had a number of sweetbread preparations over the years I will note the quality of the product was excellent, but the flavor pairing just was not to my liking.
The following dishes would prove much more successful than the sweetbreads – particularly the Fried lamb’s tongue with salsa rossa as recommended. Minimally gamey but intensely textural and compelling the lightly fried tongue was exquisitely tender and balanced nicely with the sweetened red pepper reduction. Adding lightly cooked red onions served to add a vegetal texture and the entirety of the course was truly enjoyable – a definite must order.
My final small plate would be the charred prosciutto wrapped figs with ricotta. Another exploration of sweet and savory these small bundles featured creamy figs wrapped with razor thin prosciutto slices that were seared black before my eyes before being plated atop a bed of whipped ricotta. Drizzling the entirety of the dish with a thick acidic balsamic reduction and served piping hot I will admit that the $12 price tag seemed a bit steep for only four servings, but the complexity and intensity of the flavors more than justified the expense – honestly, it is always hard to nitpick prices when top quality ingredients are prepared in a top quality kitchen, especially when the result is so good.
For my main course I was informed that half orders of pasta could not be accommodated and I would be forced to make a tough decision between the bucatini with artichokes and pistachios and the fettuccine with pork ragu and stone fruit. Asking the chef closest to me what he’d recommend I was told “the bucatini is good, the fettuccine will blow you away” and with that my decision was simplified. Watching one cook toss the hand cut pasta into the boiling water for what must have been less than 3 minutes while another tossed a handful of chopped peaches, plums, and apricots into a thick pork stock it would be less than 12 minutes before the completed plate would arrive before me – hot, aromatic, and hearty. With pecorinio shaved over the dish before me I plunged a fork into the thick ragu and was met with a subtle mélange of salty shredded pork and the sweet fructose of the fruits. Melding perfectly with the al dente pasta I will say that this dish was the second best pasta I had during my trip to Philadelphia, falling just short of Vetri’s signature spinach gnocchi in “wow” factor.
Sated but not stuffed my next order was coffee – my first of 5 experiences with the La Colombe lineup during my trip to Philadelphia. Cocoa accented with high notes of caramel the coffee was stunning and a perfect pairing for chocolate based desserts (future tastes at Osteria and Vetri only served to confirm this) – I bought three pounds before returning to Ohio. Accompanying the coffee, this time ignoring my server’s suggested dessert, was the daily dessert special of Tiramisu. With lady fingers made in house and the evening’s batch being prepared before me a large slice was presented on a plate and although not avant-garde in any way, the classical preparation was flawless in execution with cocoa, mascarpone, coffee, and rum each presenting prominently.
After chatting with the chef about my eating agenda (and, humorously about his opinions of the local cheese steak scene) I was presented with the bill – substantial to be sure, but not inappropriately so given the quality of the food, service, and ingredients. Full but not stuffed and knowing I had a big meal upcoming that evening I settled the tab, finished another cup of coffee, and bid the team farewell. Looking back in retrospect at the Vetri family of restaurants I can now say that Amis is certainly the least refined and yet not the least pricey. Tapas in its presentation I feel the ideal way to experience it would be with a group, as is their intent, in order to taste as many different presentations as possible – and if I lived locally I’d be looking for a group right now in order to head back for more.