August 29, 2006

LEO’s Eat ’n’ Blog w/ Louisville HotBytes: Italian dining in our city’s Bermuda Triangle

Wits in the restaurant business often evoke the mysterious waters off of Eastern North America as a mean metaphor for a restaurant property that can’t seem to hold an eatery in business very long.Amici: aims to break the jinx associated with the property at 316 W. Ormsby in Old Louisville. The restaurant has a cool neighborhood vibe and a large menu that leans toward Italy. Photo by Robin GarrIn Louisville, the classic “Bermuda Triangle” location has to be the big brick house at Bardstown and Bonnycastle that began as Parisian Pantry and has housed a succession of at least a dozen short-lived successors (although the funky and downscale Cafe 360 seems to be beating the curse). After the Fountain Room of yore closed in the ’60s, the old Mayflower Hotel went through a similar series of restaurant shipwrecks before Buck’s came to stay; and a small house on Bardstown near Longest boasted a similarly eerie restaurant-killing reputation before Kashmir broke the spell. Now comes the amiable Amici in what may be the strongest effort yet to banish the Bermuda Triangle moniker from the fine, historic Old Louisville building that had briefly been home to Central Park Cafe and 316 Ormsby, both of which sputtered out within a year of opening their doors.Amici is operated by Scott and Sharon Risinger, who had nurtured the nearby Third Avenue Cafe to four-star status in my rating system (they’ve since sold it and moved on) and who are also earning good reviews at their BBC on Fourth. Now they seem to be making the right moves at Amici, which means “friends” in Italian and boasts a cool neighborhood vibe that seems, well, friendly.The room isn’t overly large, holding a short, cozy bar and maybe a dozen tables, but it’s a comfortable, inviting setting with a touch of Italian style enhanced by a wall-size mural featuring a Tuscan vineyard scene, with faux windows and shutters on a stucco wall to impart a trattoria look. Undraped black tables and a high, shiny-metal ceiling makes for a somewhat noisy scene, as happy voices echo off the hard edges when the room fills up.The fairly extensive menu features a mix of some red-sauced Italian-American dishes with their roots in Southern Italy (spaghetti and meatballs, $11, hearty lasagna, $14) and a few classic “Northern Italian” dishes (veal piccata, $15, shrimp and scallop risotto, $17); a short list of pizzas ($10) and panini ($7.50-$9) plus soups, salads and appetizers.  The wine list isn’t overly long, with only about 25 bottles, and they’re mostly mass-market labels, but they’re priced to sell, from as little as $11 (for a bottle of C.K. Mondavi Zinfandel or Chardonnay) to $26 (for Laetitia Pinot Noir). All are available by the glass at about one-third the price of a bottle, which is a bit of a mark-up unless it’s a mighty generous pour. There’s a good selection of artisanal beers from tap and bottle, too, and a full selection of coffee and espresso drinks.We’ve been in a few times with few disappointments in food or service. Meals begin with crusty ciabatta-style bread served with olive oil for dipping.An Italian meatball soup of the day ($3.50) offered lots of small bits of artichoke and tomato in a thin broth, tangy and piquant with a shot of vinegar and a dash of hot red pepper. It was offbeat but strangely appealing, and the more we ate, the more we liked it.A portobello panini ($8) was idiosyncratic, a pressed and grilled sandwich made with thick-sliced Italian-style white bread rather than the more customary ciabatta-type panini bun, sandwiched around sliced tomato and eggplant and portobello with a sweet balsamic marinade. The vegetables had been grilled with olive oil and the sandwich grilled with more oil, so you definitely get your share of omega-3 fatty acids here. It’s good olive oil, but you’ll want to ask for extra napkins.Pizzas look as if they may be built on pre-made crusts, but they come out just fine, sizzling and molten, thin crusts in the middle puffing up to thick edges that you can get a good grip on. A pizza Margherita was topped with billows of molten cheese and just a touch of tomato sauce and basil pesto.Desserts come out of an old-fashioned pie case and aren’t necessarily Italian; a mixed-berry torte ($6) appeared homemade and, with strong, chocolatey espressos ($2), made a fine finish to a filling meal.On a return visit, I couldn’t resist trying one of the more unusual dishes on the menu, penne alla Lorenzo, which might be loosely translated as “Larry’s pasta.” Billed as “old family recipe,” it’s a combo that some might find challenging, short penne pasta tossed with shredded bits of sardines and prosciutto, sauced with an Alfredo-style cheese mix made with tangy blue Gorgonzola cheese; to top it off, bridging the long gap between the Amalfi Coast and the Bluegrass, it’s garnished with a pair of crisply fried green tomatoes. The combination of cheese, sardines and ham made for a mighty salty dish, but the wacky mix of unexpected flavors turned out fine, and I cleaned my plate. Like many of the dinner options, it came with a salad, a good-size ration of limp mesclun greens, tomatoes and a few pine nuts in a rather sweet Italian vinaigrette.Amici offers the same menu for lunch and dinner, which makes it a bit spendy for the midday meal but quite competitive after the sun goes down. One meal for two, without wine, came to $35.50, plus a $7.45 tip for competent and professional service; on another occasion I picked up my own tab at a group lunch and got away for $16.25 for one, leaving the change from a $20.Amici316 W. Ormsby Ave.637-3167Rating: 82 These people have got some crust ...Speaking of pizza, the lovable Italian pie comes close to barbecue in dividing its aficionados into warring camps. Do you favor thin, crackery crust or thick and bready? Are you a true believer in the thin New York style by way of Naples and Rome, or the thick slabs from Sicily via Chicago? Some heretics even swear by the deep-dish variety that those of us in the East Coast thin-crust faction dismiss as “casserole.”Matthew Ptasienski: recently changed the name of his Chicago-centric pizzeria from Queenie’s to Windy City Pizza — duh. He makes thin pies (left) and thick pies (right), he’s got Goose Island on tap, and on monthly charity days, he donates 10 percent of the restaurant’s grosIf you just can’t make up your mind, I recommend a trip to Windy City Pizza, where proprietor and pizza chef Matthew Ptiasienski (“Tah-shen-ski”) proffers estimable pizza thick and thin, baked crisp and hot on a stone hearth. He recently re-dubbed the place, changing its name from Queenie’s, the better to promote his thick-crust, Chicago-style pies. This message is reinforced inside by a large Chicago skyline mural, a blue neon Cubs clock and three clocks fashioned from deep-dish pizza pans to show the current time in Chicago, Italy and Louisville. (Chicago’s Goose Island beer is also available, among others on tap.)You’ll find Windy City just a bit off the beaten path, in a solid brick building that looks a bit like an old saloon, on a yet-to-be-gentrified block of Fourth about halfway between U of L’s Belknap Campus and Churchill Downs. It’s worth the trip, not only because Ptiasienski’s pies are worthy, but because the man is serious about sharing the wealth, such as it is, with community and charitable organizations. A big green bucket on the counter is not for tips but small change that’s passed on to the Louisville St. Vincent de Paul Society; and every month on a special Charity Day, he turns over 10 percent of the restaurant’s gross — not net but gross — to a charitable beneficiary.The next Charity Day will be Thursday, Sept. 21, to benefit Seven Counties’ WONDERS program, a small program that offers medical help for infants and children who were exposed before birth to alcohol, tobacco and other drugs at levels that can have serious effects on the child’s development.Matthew Ptasienski: at Windy City Pizza makes thin pies (left) and thick pies (right).On a recent visit, we tried one of each. A whole, small (10-inch) thin-crust pizza ($8.75) was crisp and crackery — just the way I like it — topped with mild crumbled Italian sausage, tender mushrooms, crisp bits of green pepper and sweet onion, a discreet schmear of tangy tomato sauce and plenty of molten mozzarella. The Chicago-style pie is available by the slice ($2.95 as a lunch special). No mere casserole, it’s a double-crust pie, with a ration of lava-flow cheese and, in our version, thin-sliced pepperoni) encased between the top and bottom crust; the top crust is lightly painted with herbal, tangy tomato sauce, and it’s all held together by an inch-thick handle of side crust as chewy-crunchy as fine Italian bread.Windy City isn’t just about pizza: Spaghetti and pasta dishes are fine, and we made an appetizer of a small (6-inch) Chicago-style Stromboli ($4.25), sliced ham, turkey, salami and pepperoni dressed with lettuce, tomato and mayo, piled on a crisply toasted hoagie bun. Even with this third course, a filling lunch for two, with a soft drink and strong unsweetened iced tea, came to a very reasonable $20.19, rounded upward with tip to an even 25 bucks.Windy City Pizzeria2622 S. Fourth St.636-3708www.mywindycitypizzeria.comRating: 88 NibblesKibbi-tzing at KayrouzNow that the third generation of the Kayrouz family has had Kayrouz Cafe open for a year or so at 127 Wiltshire Ave. (896-2630), fans of the family’s cuisine are lining up for tables in the small, much-renovated dining room that had housed a series of local fast-food ventures. Chris Kayrouz serves many of the down-home American-style dishes (plus hummus and tabbouleh) that his parents, Joe and Norma Kayrouz, had made famous at the St. Matthews restaurant that bore the family name. We’ve marked our calendars for a Friday evening, when a weekly special celebrates the family’s Lebanese heritage. The $13.95 dinner special includes Kibbi, a Lebanese lamb meatball; Mishi, ground lamb and rice rolled in a cabbage leaf and simmered in lemon water; hummus and tabbouleh. Taking it Slow at 21CYou’re going to have to hurry if you want to slow down for the Slow Food Film USA Tour: It’s coming up tonight (Aug. 30) at the 21C Museum Hotel, 700 W. Main St. Slow food doesn’t mean escargots and turtle soup; it’s a casually organized movement, with its roots in Italy, that celebrates the opposite of everything that fast food is all about. The Film Tour features selections from the Slow Food International film festival in Italy, films that explore food and how it relates to people, culture and society. The reception begins at 6:30 p.m. in the hotel’s atrium gallery, with slow food prepared by Proof on Main’s Chef Michael Paley. The film festival runs from 7-9 p.m. The event is free, but donations to Slow Food Bluegrass are appreciated. To make reservations, call 303-3760 or send e-mail to slowfoodbluegrass@msn.com.Sorry, BambiIf you cried during Bambi, you might not want to know this: Over the past six years, Kentucky hunters have donated nearly 250,000 pounds of venison — that’s more than 5,500 deer — to hungry people through food banks and missions. The program that organizes this largesse, Kentucky Hunters for the Hungry, is financed through $2 donations as an optional extra fee at vehicle-license registration. Hunters who wish to donate deer may deliver them to licensed game processors around the state. If you accidentally bagged a cow or a Great Dane, we don’t want to hear about it. Contact Robin Garr at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com