ARCHIVES: AMICI: Buon gusto for sure!

Amici, an Italian trattoria, opened in Pickering for about two years. Without reservation (I couldn’t resist that one), in my opinion, it is the best Italian eatery in the entire Durham region.

Owned by a Sicilian immigrant who came to Canada in the mid 1960’s, Tony Albis has earned his chops over the years as he has managed or owned bars, clubs, banquet halls and dineries in the GTA area. Amici is his Pickering venture and it accompanies his other two eateries in the area, Avanti, an Italian bistro in Oshawa and a ‘mangia cake’ pub, Hops House in Whitby.

Based on numerous visits, I can confidently say the Albis family have hit the culinary/restaurant sweet spot with Amici.

More than one visit
With about a half dozen visits under the every tightening belt, Amici has repeatedly lived up to expectations. Pickering is a relatively small community and so limited in its support of high-quality restaurants. This is changing as more and more higher quality diners are opening kitchens here.

Amici may arguably be the best of these better eateries. Only an authentic Italian mama’s homemade meal might hit the top spot on a favourite diner list, but Amici is a highly recommendable second. The menu selections are numerous; every choice very good.

Really GOOD
Amici has no problem customizing an order to your liking; prefer a different type of pasta, just ask; want a different side, just ask. The kitchen staff usually hits the mark in quality and preparation.

Some particularly tasty dishes: try the piatto misto, an antipasto of sliced Italian meats, some giardiniera, olives and artichoke hearts and some provolone cheese. Tony’s kitchen is careful to serve fresh, well-maintained salumi, so you can be assured the Italian deli slices in this dish are fresh and appealing. A little disappointingly, the dish is no longer is served as a double portion as before, It was nicely presented on a rectangular board and it is a very good choice as an antipasto.

The pasta dishes which I have had eaten have all been very good. Manicotti di Ricotta, very tasty with just the right amount of ‘sugo.’ Spaghetti di mare, oh yes! Calamari that isn’t rubbery and vongole (clams) that still have tenderness is a challenge for any chef. Albis’ chefs are up to the culinary challenge.

Speaking of challenges, Italians love rapini, a leafy vegetable from the broccoli family. It has a unique but engaging taste which can be very bitter if not prepared properly. The Amici chefs know their stuff, their rapini has the right hint of bitterness but retains the proper balance of flavour. Delicious and well worth ordering as an accompanying side to a robust meat dish like a steak or a chop.

Amici recognizes that its clientele may have Canadian palates which do not venture into more exotic fare. Arguably, Pickering dining patrons who have talked with eatery chefs and cooks, taken cooking courses with knowledgeable and skilled chefs, or dissected, analyzed and experimented with recipes in their own kitchens are in a minority. Caesar salad can be a test of excellence for any restaurant. Sadly, most eateries prepare this salad to accommodate the tastes and expectations of less demanding patrons. To prepare Caesar salad as it should be prepared is not cost effective for most restaurants. Proper preparation requires the salad be prepared tableside but doing so demands extra training of staff, more work in the dining room and more personal service. A diner will not find a dining room in Pickering that prepares Caesar salad as it should be prepared. However, Amici does a commendable job; the romaine is cold, crisp and crunchy with a judicious dousing of mustardy Caesar dressing, topped with a bit of sliced parmiagiano. Acceptable.

Disappointingly an outstanding and adventurous dish is no longer available on the menu, ‘polpo,’ octopus. Amici used to offer this dish and it was delicious, the best, bar none. ‘Mama’ had met her match with Amici’s dish here. Just the right amount of sauce, and a sauce which was right on, a tomato-based broth bordering but not becoming a thick pasta sauce; light but deep in taste. An outstanding dish, with no reservation. Sicilians know seafood. Tony Albis is a Sicilian. He claims his octopus originates from the Mediterranean Sea where the species languishes on the sea floor living almost as southern Italians do, a leisurely lifestyle with little stress and tension. The result, an octopus that is not muscular and tough that in the hands of an inept cook becomes a vulcanized, rubbery piece of tasteless Goodyear. Not at Amici where is prepared and rises to peaks of culinary glory. Absolutely delicious…bravo chefs!

However, here’s a secret you must keep to yourself. Polpo is one of the boss’ favourite dishes, Therefore it is in the kitchen almost every day in case the boss wants it. Ask the waiter, in a gently persuasive way and you likely will be able to taste this seafood dish supreme. But keep this to yourself as Tony says “Octopus is very, very expensive and Pickering residents are reluctant to pay the price of what it costs his kitchen to produce.”

The Bottomline
Italian food, Amici without hesitation. I have eaten here now about a half dozen times. I will be back!

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