What does it take to remain standing for two decades as a neighborhood restaurant? Well, presumably you have the top three keys — location, location, location — covered if you're actually in the neighborhood. But what if your neighborhood is Little Italy? What if, moreover, you're on High Street and you're within easy walking distance of the best the area has to offer?
Amicci's answers to those questions suggest that the pair of brothers who own the place did their homework.
11:54 We enter and are led to our table in one of three street-level dining rooms. Upstairs dining can accommodate larger groups. Downstairs, there's no question they could have moved in more tables if they'd knocked down a few walls, but they'd have lost the intimate feel of the smaller rooms. Instead, Amicci's has a homey vibe, which fits with its invitation to relaxed, informal dining. Even our server said she enjoys working here because it's more laid-back than some of its nearby upscale brethren.
11:56 We ordered iced tea and Amicci's signature starter: the pane rotundo. At $14, it's pricier than any of the lunch entrees, to say nothing of salads and the other appetizers. In fact, the next most expensive lunch menu item comes in at just under 10 bucks. We took a little more time to browse the menu as our server slipped off to place the pane order and fetch our drinks.
Throughout the meal, we were impressed by how quickly things moved. Servers here seemed always to be zipping efficiently through the dining rooms and back and forth from the kitchen. Our server was friendly and approachable without trying to be our best buddy. She did a good job of answering our questions and a fair job of describing dishes.
12:04 The pane rotundo arrives. At about 9 inches around and 2 inches high, it might remind you of a cheesecake. They brush garlic butter on a round of fresh bread, toast it and generously ladle in a garlic cream sauce. Six scampi-style shrimp are arranged on top. It's filling, but not as heavy as it looks. The bread's crust is crispy and its center spongy. The shrimp were beautifully done and lightened the tone of the sauce. It was a bit of a chore to cut up, but worth the effort. If I ever decide to have another birthday, the pane rotundo's what I want the candles sticking out of.
We ate just a bit more than half the appetizer; it would make a satisfying lunch for two.
12:17 We ask about signature entrees and our server tells us we will find them on the dinner menu. Amicci's, she said, will serve dishes from either menu all day. She points out a few favorites, and they do look tempting, but we stay with the lunch menu.
Amicci's offers a couple of salads for $4. For another $3 you can add chicken, shrimp or calamari. A spinach salad sells for $4.50. Their nine entrees ($8-$9.90) include a vegetable and a meat lasagna, chicken parmagiana, a penne and a vegetable gnocchi. Another option is to pick from six pastas and add one of nine sauces. We do that. My friend orders a potato gnocchi, and I picked linguini. Both of us choose the bolognese, with the fra-diavolo being my runner up.
I know enough about Italian cuisine to know I'm no expert when it comes to distinguishing classic types from variations within the genre. I've had bolognese sauce, and my picture of it is different from what I see on our plates. But my dining companion assures me I hadn't lost my way: The cream in Amicci's bolognese makes it look more like a vodka sauce. In any case, along with ground meat, flecks of parsley and diced tomatoes, I am glad I chose this sauce. The tangy gnocchi make my friend's dish distinctly different from mine — a touch more nuanced. Amicci's pastas are made fresh not far from the restaurant.
12:30 Full and finished, we have leftovers. We continue to pick at the pane. It happens to be very nice dipped in bolognese sauce.
12:40 We leave Amicci's feeling like we had a Little Italy-worthy meal in a genuine Baltimore neighborhood. We were never rushed and could have easily been in and out in 35 minutes. Service, setting, food, price: Amicci's has neighborhood dining figured out.
Where: 231 S. High Street, Little Italy
Contact: 410-528-1096; amiccis.com
Lunch hours: 11:00 a.m.-3 p.m.
Lunch entrées: $8-$9.90
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭ Good: ✭✭✭ Fair or Uneven: ✭✭ Poor: ✭]
Dining time: 46 minutes