It's a good thing that Amalfi's waiters serve wine expediently, because it's the only entertainment guests will get for 30 minutes. That's how long it takes to place a food order at dinnertime, and that's not a one-time problem. It happened on two different visits. As a result, the first nibbles didn't show up for an hour.
There are few dishes at Amalfi worth that interminable wait, and one was downright tragic. The terrina di fegato grasso al moscato, or foie gras terrine, has dashes of moscato wine gelatin and comes on unnaturally green pistachio brioche points. Foie is, of course, never cheap, and in this case, the triangular-shaped terrine was $22.
Foie is revered because when it is good, it's silky and mild with a delicate meaty flavor that is perhaps only a touch livery. When it's not fresh or of good quality, it is pungent. A good analogy is fish. When it's fresh, it doesn't smell fishy -- it smells of the sea.
When the terrine hit the table, it was immediately obvious something had gone terribly wrong. It smelled like a wet dog. The dry neon-green pistachio brioche didn't win any fans, either. When the server picked up the mostly uneaten plate, there wasn't even a hint of curiosity about why such a delicacy would go unfinished.
Amalfi opened in a strip center off Westheimer near The Palm between Fountainview and Voss in November. Its chef, Giancarlo Ferrara, trained in Salerno on the Amalfi Coast of Italy. Later, he spent years in the kitchen of Arcodoro here in Houston before striking out on his own with Amalfi.
There is no doubt he can execute the traditional cuisine of the Amalfi coast at a high level, but something is getting lost in translation from the kitchen to the table. Speed of service especially needs work. Amalfi becomes quite busy in the evening and there isn't enough staff to handle the workload. It took more than two and a half hours to get through three courses. While no one was there for fast food, that's ridiculous. There are nine-course tasting menus in this city that take about the same time.
While the interior decor at Amalfi isn't glamorous, it's not bad, either. There's a long bar, a mirrored wall and white tablecloths all around. The centerpiece is a small stone pizza oven inset in a wall of cheerful white, yellow and blue tile.
You'd think that with that in the center of the room, the pizzas would be terrific. The Diavola pizza belies this notion. "Diavola" means "devil" in Italian and when used in the name of an Italian dish, the term means that it's spicy.
This dish had no touch of spice, but it would have been very welcome to offset the blandness. The little rounds of "hot" soppressata added little more than a layer of flavorless reddish grease across the top. The edge was nicely crisp, with little fire-blackened spots adding some great texture, but the center didn't bake to the same degree. The slices were thin, floppy and forgettable.
On a subsequent visit, we reordered the foie terrine to test whether the bad order we got the first time around was a one-time problem or a perpetual one. Thankfully, the second order was heavenly, with substantial chunks of pure foie held together by more that had been blended with Sauturnes. A layer of gorgeous duck fat was a crowning touch of rich gold. Now, that's more like it.
We also ordered Taurasi wine-braised osso buco twice, but for the opposite type of consistency check. It was the one thoroughly enjoyable dish on our first visit. Would lightning strike twice? Yes indeed. It's a big, hearty veal shank with an ample bath of chunky tomato sauce that's strewn through with bits of onion and carrots. The bone is extracted and set upright, and there's a marrow fork alongside for scooping out the succulent marrow.
The thyme-infused risotto that came alongside was less worthy. Rather than being creamy and smooth -- which would have been the result of using short-grained, starchy Italian rice -- it was made with a medium-grained rice that gave it a chunky, rough texture. Few places in Houston do a good job with risotto; a traditional Italian restaurant should excel at it.
Along with the foie gras terrine (when it is on point) and the veal osso buco, there are glimmers of what Amalfi could and should be, like the perfect, tender, firm pasta used for its ravioli. It was the highlight of the agnolotti con provola affumicata, or ravioli filled with smoked buffalo mozzarella and ricotta cheese with smears of heirloom tomato sauce across the top and on the plate. It's topped with crispy fried sage.
The tantalizing smell of the fried sage led to hopefulness, but it turned out to be a dead end. The ravioli were flat, underfilled, mild and otherwise forgettable. Even with the stellar pasta, $21 seemed far too steep a price for such a letdown, especially considering that the foie gras terrine is only a dollar more.
Amalfi makes its own limoncello, and we ordered shots to go along with dessert. It would have been better to just stick with the shots and skip the sweets. The limoncello was strong, tart and very cold without being too sweet. The actual desserts took 25 minutes to arrive and weren't worth waiting for. One featured a babà, a round yeast cake that tends to be dry and needs a little help, so it's traditionally served soaked with a spirit or liqueur to add moisture and flavor. Amalfi uses more of the limoncello for its version, but far too little of it went into our serving. As a result, the cake was dry and crumbly.
Conversely, the trilogia di nocciola (or hazelnut trio) sported a delightful gelato thoroughly permeated with fragrant flecks of vanilla bean. It was one of the best flavors of the evening. The panna cotta tart was sufficiently smooth and creamy, but the "warm cake" was just a chocolaty nub that looked like a lump of coal and was just as inspiring, with nary a hint of hazelnut to it.
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It was annoying to find on our second visit that Amalfi was out of the wine we fell in love with, a reasonable $50 bottle of Marchesi Biscardo Ripasso Della Valpolicella 2012. However, servers at Amalfi are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. They worked hard to find a suitable replacement, and it proved to be the best part of the service experience.
Amalfi is expensive, and it's reasonable to expect that the restaurant would execute at a much higher level. An appetizer, entrée and dessert averaged about $69 not including wine or cocktails. (Actually, stick with the interesting Italian wine list and skip the cocktails. The Tu Vuo Fa' L'Americano we ordered, with limoncello, vodka, bourbon and cola, managed to be too sweet and too strong at the same time.)
With the prices Amalfi is charging, there are far better options for traditional, high-end Italian cuisine, like Da Marco, Quattro, Tony's and Damian's. Radio Milano is doing a good job with its modern take on Italian, and Giacomo's is a better (although more casual) option. Amalfi has a lot of work to do before it can expect to compete with what should be its peers.
Diavola pizza $14 Carpaccio di manzo $14 Crudo tonno $14 Polipo arrostito con scar $16 Agnolotti con provola affumicata $21 Terrina di fegato grasso al moscato $22 Babà al limoncello $9 Ossobuco al taurasi con risotto al timo e burrata $34 Salt-Crusted Branzino for Two $70 Tortino al cioccolato fondente $12