From Indy to old Napoli 

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Amalfi delivers traditional Neapolitan fare in cozy setting

First, a highlight. The “melanzane alla grillia” ($5.50) at Amalfi. It’s grilled eggplant the way it should be. Tender but not mushy, slightly smoky but not blackened, succulent without any of the bitterness that often plagues this summer staple. Bracing bits of raw garlic, fruity olive oil, chili flakes lending a kiss of heat. It’s potent enough you’ll want to share it as an antipasto. But you won’t want to miss it.

Now, a little Italian lesson. Not the language, the local scene. When an ethnic cuisine becomes as ubiquitous as Italian has across our city, the restaurants start to fall into loose categories based on offerings and intended audiences. With at least 100 Italian eateries in Indy, not counting pizza chains, its time to sort them out. Here’s a primer.

• “Fast” Italian. Enough said. If you’ve been to Italy, you know Italians don’t rush a meal. If you must eat at one of these places, drive through and wear dark glasses.

• The checkered-tablecloth-and-Chianti-bottle joints. (Cue violins.) Most of these are local; many are charming. Think lots of sauce, either red or white. Plenty of starch: pasta and pizza crust. Wine served in tumblers. Italian-American immigrant food with its heart in the good ol’ U. S. of A.

• Sure, we’re Italian. But we’re based in Minneapolis. You know these places. From trees growing out of their roofs to paparazzi snapshots of Sophia Loren covering the walls, these places pack in the diners, despite their manufactured hubbub and kitsch. Will the waiter sing “O Sole Mio”? Why do we fall for them? Because these places have corporate backing (read: aggressive marketing teams) and they sometimes offer things local places don’t. But mostly they’re soulless pasta factories. Loosen your belt for some mid-grade, overpriced food!

• Authentic Italian ristorantes. Don’t call them restaurants. These places have actual Italian natives in the kitchen. Their menus are largely in Italian, always arranged in courses. Some knowledge of Italian culinary customs is assumed — the fact, for instance, that Italians rarely eat a main course of pasta. At the best of these, diners can say, “Finally, what I ate in Italy.” Here, one hopes, the chef takes more risks; here, one hopes, things aren’t swimming in sauce or hidden under cheese.

• Your Italian grandmother’s kitchen. OK, this isn’t technically a restaurant, but the point about Italian food is that, even with so many cutting-edge Italian eateries now outside the boot, the best Italian food is still made in the home. The simplicity of this great cuisine relies on the fresh, quality ingredients that go into it. Restaurants, unfortunately, have to think about cost. You’d pay $10 for a wedge of parmigiano reggiano, but would your neighborhood trattoria?

Amalfi clearly falls into that next-to-last category — and it aims for a bit of the last. Founded by ex-patriot Neapolitan Mario DiRosa, along with wife Joni and mother Pina, in 1991, this has long been one of the handful of go-to, authentic Italian trattorias, most of them on Indy’s Northside. Somehow, I let Amalfi fly outside my culinary radar. But when a place pushes the 15-year mark and turns up on so many “Best Of” lists, it deserves a second look.

Despite its strip-mall locale, Amalfi does have an out-of-the-way quality to it. You definitely can’t see it from 86th Street. An outside deck overlooks the parking lot, but the place is quite cozy inside, and a hearty following of regulars filled the place with a genuinely raucous spirit. Oversized paintings in ornate frames recall a bit of the DiRosas’ beloved Italy, but wine racks contribute the most striking element of décor.

True to form, the menu starts with antipasti and offers both “primi” and “secondi” plates that, together, would make a pretty heavy meal. Along with that excellent eggplant, the waiter recommended the caprese salad. But with tomatoes out of season, the Caesar ($4.50) seemed a safer bet. Added anchovies were plentiful, but dressing was so exceedingly light and romaine so full of tough outer ribs that this didn’t really impress. Amalfi’s wine list represents Italian wine regions well, but the list of wines by the glass doesn’t list vintners and could be more imaginative. Don’t fall for the half bottles. Many are over $20 and offer just over two glasses.

First plates aren’t exactly light pastas to whet the appetite. Most are heavy with meat and cheese, including an Italian “macaroni and cheese” our waiter said had eight different cheeses. Most first plates run around $15. My dairy-eschewing friend and I split the linguine alla puttanesca ($15.95); our helpful waiter made sure any butter was left out. The tomato sauce was bright and sweet, clearly made from fresh tomatoes, and the pasta had a nice bite. But the olives and capers didn’t add quite enough of the briny tang that typically distinguishes this dish, made legendary by Neapolitan prostitutes.

Second plates are basically variations on similar cuts of chicken and veal — with more tradition than innovation. Seafood is minimal. At the waiter’s suggestion, we went for the vitello alla Floretina ($18.95), as well as the pollo alla Scarpariello ($17.50). The veal was tender and roasted potatoes and vegetables were quite nice on the side. But the “touch of cream” turned out to be several ladles of a rich cream sauce that nearly drowned the meat. So much for tasting the natural flavors of the veal. The chicken was lighter, if a bit bland, though hints of rosemary did come through.

About half of the desserts are made in-house, and a chocolate mousse cake ($7.25) had an exceedingly dark chocolate layer — less a mousse than a thin filling. Grand Marnier added a stiff kick of potent orange flavor to the cake. Amalfi is famous for its homemade limoncello, a sweet but fiery lemon liqueur. At $6.50 a shot, it seemed a little steep, but we were soon swooning under its fruity allure. While little stood up to that stellar appetizer and a few more things could have deviated from other local Italian eateries, Amalfi did deliver a bit of the authentic soul of the owners’ Napoli.

Amalfi
1351 W. 86th St.
317-253-4034

Dinnerr
Monday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.

Lunch
Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Food : Four and a half stars
Atmosphere : Three stars
Service : Four stars

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