At Marc Vetri’s third restaurant, everything but the portions are in order.
Six whole lamb shoulders, three trays of tiramisu, four hotel pans each of cannelloni and gnocchi, 30 pounds of octopus, 200 arancini and “a shit-ton of meatballs.” If you were among the more than 300 restaurant industry workers that mobbed Amis on March 8, Marc Vetri, quoted above, fed you right—and fed you for free.
“We actually used to do industry nights when I first opened Vetri,” the chef remembers, “but that was back when nobody knew who I was.”
These days, of course, everybody knows Marc Vetri: Philly boy. Beard winner. Lemonade Stand man. The chef and restaurateur has many faces, all equally self-effacing. When I ask about Amis’ menu, he says, “You definitely want to talk to Brad. This is the kind of food he loves to cook.”
Brad Spence, 33, sous chef at Vetri for the past three years, says the food he loves to cook is straightforward, seasonal and centuries-old. In a word, Roman. Over dinner at Amis, Spence proved an able translator of the trattoria experience. Think house-made gnocchi alla Romana smothered in rich, tomatoey oxtail ragu, and crisp almond-dusted sweetbreads kissed with anisey fennel marmalade. His food is very good. But please, sir, may I have some more?
Amis is billed as affordable, and it is—compared with Osteria and Vetri. The gnocchi were $14 for a portion the size of a Snickers bar. The sweetbreads, $10 for glands like dollhouse beanbags. Dressed for summer in lemon, parsley and pepper extra-virgin, the $20 griglata mista of swordfish, skate, shrimp and scallops sounds like a catch, but the cuts were trimmer than an Italian suit, the swordfish over-sated and the shrimp so average-sized that grilling and serving them in their shells just seemed triflin’.
If I’m gonna get my hands dirty, at least make it worth my while. Especially because Amis’ atmosphere—concrete columns, salvaged wood tables set with country-chic flower pots, metal construction foreman stools, warm wine-stained walls—encourages eating the Italian way: relaxed, informal, fueled by wine and conversation.
Spence best enforces that vibe with antipasti-like fat-flecked folds of house-cured coppa drippy with swoon-inducing hazelnut honey; fluffy focaccia; and smoked mozzarella seared on the griddle like Sunday morning pancakes. Paired with tiny pickled vegetables, the cheese’s contrasts made me quake: gooey with crunchy, fatty umami meeting unbridled tang.
These are snacks of the highest order, suited to drinking, a worthwhile endeavor at Amis’ happening zinc-topped bar. Though I’ve tipped back shots larger than the Campari & Juice, the cocktail was divine, with bitey pink grapefruit juice (squeezed fresh) and muddled basil that smelled and tasted like August.
Jeff Benjamin, Amis co-owner and noted sommelier, prefers the Cheechee, in which Marsala gets a long-overdue divorce from chicken and shacks up with Bourbon, Averna and mashed fruit for an Old Fashioned on Roman holiday. Benjamin’s landed some neat Italian beers too, and the tidy wine list offers great value by spotlighting offbeat grapes like Grechetto, Verdicchio and the vivacious Villa Solais Vermentino that was a killer match for Spence’s short rigatoni in an exuberant marinara of ruptured cherry tomatoes and poached cubes of (perfectly salted) swordfish.
Vetri and his wife ate a similar pasta dish during the trip to Rome that served as the inspiration for Amis. But the moist olive oil cake, a tall wedge suffused with orange zest and voluptuous extra-virgin, is all Spence—he “found the recipe in an old-school Italian cookbook years ago” and tinkered with it till it made the dessert menu at Vetri. The yeasty waffles owe their existence to another chef: Michael Symon, who was treated to a plate after gushing to Vetri about the waffles he’d recently had on a Sicilian vay-cay. At Amis, they fill each crisp-edged crater with Nutella and top them with vanilla semifreddo and toasted hazelnuts. At Industry Night, the guests gobbled them so quickly the expression might need to be changed to “selling like waffles.”
Of course, these addictive waffles weren’t sold at Industry Night. They were gratis. And with Amis’ in-the-biz evenings becoming a monthly occurrence, the iron—and the late-night bar crowd—will definitely be kept hot. Wrangle a W2 if you can.
For more on Philly's food scene, visit blogalicious-adam.blogspot.com.
412 S. 13th St. 215.732.2647.
Hours: Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-2pm. Dinner: Daily, 5pm-11:30pm. Bar menu till 1am.
Atmosphere: A refreshingly relaxed retrofit filled with salvaged materials, Italian antiques and an industry who’s-who.
Service: Smart and sunny.