It’s hard to imagine these days that Americans once considered Italian food exotic. Sure, the Italian food on which my generation was raised — lasagna and chicken cacciatore and even Spaghetti-Os with meatballs — was as representative of Italy’s cuisine as hamburgers and milkshakes are of ours. But to many Americans, Italian standards are now comfort food on a par with pot roast and mashed potatoes. How quickly things have changed. “My mother used to make something she called ‘Eye-talian Chop Suey,'” recounted my friend Vincent over dinner last week. Vincent was raised by Irish parents in New England in the ’30s and ’40s. “She’d break spaghetti in thirds and mix it with condensed tomato soup and ground beef. We kids loved it, but my father refused to eat it. That was the only Italian food I had growing up.”
Of course, now we modern-day Northern Californians get our kicks from tripe and octopus, not spaghetti carbonara. Not content with just eating “Italian,” we want more.
Thank god for the explosion of interest in regional Italian food in the ’80s and ’90s, a movement that still echoes across the culinary landscape. Not only can many Bay Area diners distinguish between northern and southern Italian food, we are learning specifics: Tuscany, Venice, Sicily.
One Walnut Creek restaurant is narrowing its focus even further: Amalfi Trattoria specializes in the food of the rocky Amalfi coast, which stretches along a small peninsula just south of Naples. This stunning region has been a playground for the rich since the Roman Empire. Amalfi, the restaurant, is located along Walnut Creek’s own Amalfi Coast — a strip of Italian restaurants that stretches down North Main between Bonanza and Lincoln.
The region’s cuisine is famous for its seafood and its lemons. At Amalfi Trattoria, lemons are everywhere — painted in a mural that runs along the tops of the walls, set in blue-glass bowls on every table, turned into a house-made version of the region’s famous limoncello liqueur. Lemon-yellow walls cheer up the narrow, deep room, offsetting the gray-blues and seashore paintings that call forth the coast. High ceilings and an open kitchen up front make the small space feel expansive.
Chef-owner Giusuppe Ferrara grew up in Cava dei Tirreni on the Amalfi Coast. Once the chef at Prima, the well-known restaurant next door to Amalfi, Ferrara opened the trattoria a year ago in April to exercise creative control over his food and highlight the foods of his home region. Prior to working at Prima he cooked at San Francisco’s Spiedini and at Harry’s Bar and American Grill.
More casual than Prima, Amalfi is a good first-date restaurant or a place to take a group of talkative friends. Perhaps it’s the Italian influence, but the pace is relaxed enough for servers and patrons to chat with one another across the bar or at table. The service is competent enough to put diners at ease. Both times, the courses arrived in a smooth, well-paced procession. On our first night, our waiter seemed distracted and hard to find, but the busser took charge in his absence. On our second visit, the same server appeared more attentive, and answered a dozen questions knowledgeably.
Ferrara’s menu, which changes seasonally, features lively appetizers that shine with the flavors of the seacoast of southern Italy; unfortunately, the heavy bistro-style pastas and entrées taste more like they came from that red-checkered-tablecloth place your parents used to love. The lunch menu includes a number of small and meal-size salads, pastas, panini, and full-size entrées. Diners can order American-style (appetizer-pasta/meat-dessert) or Italian style (pasta/risotto-entrée-salad-dessert). Ferrara has also created a moderate-sized, moderately priced wine list that focuses on California and Italian wines, including a lovely selection of Italian whites.
We started dinner with a colorful, generous antipasto plate ($5.95 per person) that included grilled asparagus, shiitake mushrooms, and thin zucchini and eggplant slices, along with mixed olives, prosciutto, chunks of fresh mozzarella, and stuffed roast piquillo peppers, small and sweet. The cooks spooned a minty “scapese” dressing — overgenerous with the olive oil but not too tart or pungent — over the plate. A simple spinach salad ($5.75) tossed in a discreet vinaigrette took on nutty flavors from slivers of parmesan cheese, roasted shiitake mushrooms, and roasted pine nuts.
I had never heard of another starter, swordfish patties grilled between lemon leaves ($7.95). A thin layer of seasoned minced fish was spread across a thick lemon leaf, topped with another lemon leaf and grilled. The fish, salty but otherwise flavorful, picked up a delicate scent of lemons that a drizzle of lemon juice and olive oil accented. Another light, flavorful seafood appetizer featured baby squids ($7.95) stuffed with a mixture of breadcrumbs and grated vegetables and arranged on a barely cooked tomato sauce speckled with basil and black olives. Light and summery, a warm asparagus salad ($7.25) masterfully combined crisp blanched asparagus with sweet prawns, shaved fennel, and roasted red peppers, all dressed in an aniseed-black olive vinaigrette.
The entrées I tried all suffered from excessive heartiness compared to the elegant flavors of the appetizers. They reminded me of that coworker who makes your fingers curl up involuntarily every time he corners you at the coffeemaker to help him laugh at his own jokes. One example: tender but dense ricotta gnocchi ($14.95) came with roast chicken and spicy sausage in a thick gorgonzola cream sauce pink from tomatoes. It was good, but we quickly tired under the onslaught of such rich flavors, and had to pack up the remaining half for another day. Less bombastic pastas, all homemade, include lobster ravioli in a brandy chive cream sauce ($14.95) and laganelle pasta with prawns and spinach in a curry sauce (15.95).
For a restaurant specializing in coastal food, there was a noticeable lack of seafood entrées. Several of the pasta dishes had shellfish, and one nightly special was a shellfish risotto, but that was it. On the up side, vegetarians and even vegans have nothing to fear: they can even eschew salads and choose from a couple of appetizers and entrées.
Most of the meat dishes come with crisp blanched baby vegetables and roasted potatoes or a golden mound of cheesy herb-flecked polenta so creamy that one forgets its origins in poverty. One of its accompaniments, a lamb shank ($17.75), was braised with green apples, carrots, and celery until the meat separated from the bone. Though any distinct apple flavor had disappeared, the thin sauce drew out the lamb’s lightly gamy flavor.
Still a sucker for anything that whispers “authenticity,” however ludicrous the claim, I tried two entrées described by the chef as “my mother’s recipe.” With a few substitutions — mashed potatoes for polenta, say — I would have sworn his mother came from Krakow. Two forelegs and a saddle of roasted rabbit ($16.95) came sauced in a red wine-veal reduction studded with peas and pancetta cubes. I’m glad I enjoyed the huge, meaty flavors in the sauce, because they completely covered up those of the rabbit, the peas, and anything else that came within several inches of the plate. Of all the entrées I tried I preferred the braciole ($15.95), thinly sliced beef rolled around prosciutto, provolone cheese, and hard-boiled egg, the stuffing dotted here and there with sweet raisins. The roulades, too, were braised in veal stock, but the addition of tomato paste punched up the reduced stock sauce.
Desserts, all $6, include a number of standard bistro dishes, such as vanilla crème brûlée, an apple galette baked in lackluster puff pastry, and a torta caprese, a flourless chocolate cake that was barely denser than a soufflé and didn’t overwhelm the palate with the force of its chocolate. Don’t miss the imported gelati and sorbetti, which can be ordered by themselves or in more elaborate concoctions. I have eaten any number of high-end American sorbets and ice creams that match their Italian cousins in depth of flavor, but none of the domestic desserts have ever replicated the latter’s satiny texture. Housemade limoncello is sprinkled on berries with whipped cream and appears in the center of a “tartufo,” a ball of lemon gelato coated with meringue sprinkles. Another housemade specialty of the Amalfi region, concierto liqueur, is an anisette relative of chartreuse.
Big Night, Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s 1996 film, told the story of a pair of brothers in 1950s New Jersey who try desperately to bring Italian haute cuisine to a spaghetti-and-meatballs crowd. At Amalfi, the challenge is not how to sell the delights of an unknown regional cuisine to the public, but rather how to move the heavy old standards off the menu.