Sud Italia: charming restaurant, charming owner. (Courtesy Sud Italia)
It’s back… from August 1 through September 4, more than 200 restaurants in the Houston area are doing a good deed and donating a portion of their proceeds to the Houston Food Bank via Houston Restaurant Weeks. You know the drill: Make a reservation at one of the participating Houston restaurants, order the HRW menu, enjoy your lunch or dinner (or brunch), and go home happy, knowing that you (hopefully) dined well and helped the needy in the process.
This week, I got a sneak peek at the HRW menu at Amalfi Ristorante Italiano & Bar, a restaurant that specializes in the cuisine of southern Italy, most notably that of the Amalfi Coast. The chef there, (and co-owner with his wife, Lisa), Giancarlo Ferrara, came of age in Salerno, learning from his mother all about the foodways of his rich region (not the least of which is glorious seafood). He opened Amalfi in late 2014, and locals (plus Martha Stewart) have made it a Houston favorite.
For this year’s Houston Restaurant Weeks, Ferrara is serving a three-course dinner ($45, of which $7 will be donated) that begins with a frozen Bellini and a few amuse bouche (bite-size pizzas on the evening I dined there, one with mushrooms and another with sausage), a charming gesture.
I tasted from the menu — you get four choices for your first course, five for the second, and three for the third (dessert) course — and was especially happy with the scallop and the sea bass. The former is seared with care, resulting in a crisp exterior and tender flesh, and served with a zucchini mousse, chanterelles, and summer truffle cream sauce. The sea bass, my favorite dish of the night, will please even the most selective lovers of fish. It’s moist and full of flavor (garlic, olive oil, the sea), and is accompanied by potato gnocchi, roasted artichoke, and a lemon cream sauce.
All components of this course meld in a pleasing manner, but do try a piece of the bass on its own first… this is good seafood.
Other first-course choices on the menu include grilled calamari, beef carpaccio, and prosciutto served with figs (order this). For the next course, you can opt for pork tenderloin (mine was a touch dry), tortelli stuffed with Asiago, potatoes, and pancetta served with beef short ribs (yes, this one is a winner), or spaghetti chitarra paired with confit of duck leg.
Dessert is definitely not an afterthought, and includes a fine Baba al Limoncello (top choice) and vanilla gelato with Texas peaches. (Click here for the complete menu.)
I visited Amalfi on a Tuesday evening, and the dining room was packed and bustling. A large group of men — office event? — occupied a rectangular table in the middle of the space, a party of 10 was celebrating a birthday, two middle-aged gentlemen accompanying a fetching young woman who stood at least 6-foot-5 paraded across the floor, to the delight of the businessmen, and the wait staff handled everything with aplomb.
Speaking of southern Italy, another restaurant taking part in Houston Restaurant Weeks is giving diners the opportunity to travel to the magical region without boarding a plane. I’m talking about Sud Italia, whose $35, three-course menu is promising, and intelligent. (You’ll donate $5 to the food bank for your pleasure.)
Shanon Scott, the owner of the Rice Village restaurant, has decided to skip dessert on his menu, telling me that a lot of his guests left the final course untouched in previous Restaurant Week offerings. Instead, he’s serving a pasta course between the opener and the final offering.
Scott’s menu includes a chilled tomato soup, burrata with tomatoes, and salmon carpaccio (first-course selections); rigatoni with tomato sauce, eggplant, and ricotta salata, a strozzapreti with calamari and basil pesto, and orecchiette with sausage, rapini, and porcini in a tomato sauce (the pasta selections); and roasted chicken breast served with caponata and fingerling potatoes, a grilled tuna steak with green peppercorn sauce, asparagus and, potatoes, and, finally, a beef stew served over potatoes.
Sud Italia’s rustic menu is always satisfying, Scott is a gregarious and passionate restaurateur and host, and you’ll be won over when he serves you a digestif of homemade limoncello, an Amalfi coast tradition.