We knew we’d end up happy when the octopus showed up. Why is it that – while we here in the States know only octopus that’s tough, rubbery and tasteless – the people who inhabit the Mediterranean coast know how to make it not. So it is with the octopus roasted with rosemary, garlic and fine herbs over sauteed escarole and capers at the new Amalfi Ristorante Italiano & Bar. And so it is with chef Giancarlo Ferrara, cooking his own region’s food at last in a restaurant he can call his own. In fact, with him in the kitchen and his wife working the dining room, he almost could be back home.
There’s a lot of seafood served at Amalfi – on the map, the place is the Amalfi Coast, after all. Yet there was also a lot of seafood at the chef’s previous gig, many years preparing the Sardinia-influenced cuisine of Arcodoro. Sardinia being an island. Still, for all the training and practice, this chef brings to his roasted octopus and his lobster tail segments with arugula, fresh orange and chive pink pepper dressing the sensitivity and sensibility of one who grew up on the water.
Regional specialties aside, what is Italian food to most Americans if not pizza and pasta? Ferrara and his wife Lisa are smart enough to give us what we want. There are pizzas starting with a classic margherita and running to the one I want to try next – Italian sausage and rapini. Can I add mushrooms to that? And while there’s no pasta offered quite so Little Italy as spaghetti and meatballs, there are these agnolotti stuffed with smoked buffalo mozzarella and ricotta, and paccheri with a hearty-winter ragu of braised Berkshire pork ribs.
Opening in the final months of 2014, Amalfi has gained quite a following among Houstonians living in the Galleria, Memorial and even Energy Corridor areas – always as relieved not to venture Inside the Loop as Inner Loopers are not to venture out of it. One of the best dishes at Amalfi has to be the Madagascar colossal prawns with zucchini risotto, joined now as a personal favorite by fall-off-the-bone ossobuco braised in Taurasi wine and sided with both thyme risotto and crisp-tender sauteed broccolini.
The crowd at Amalfi seems to appreciate a lot of dessert choices; tiramisu and all the other greatest hits are here, most of them seeming worth a try. But one of the finales most embraced so far is the so-called Trilogy of Hazelnut. The sampler is a living-breathing Nutella festival. There’s a lush warm cake (one of the best molten chocolate things we’ve ever had), plus a panna cotta and a scoop of gelato, all with easy access to a caramel sauce. As God is my witness, as long the Trilogy is available at Amalfi, I’ll never get tiramisu again.