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Odd hours make this a rare North End treat
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  March 25, 2009
2.0 2.0 Stars

SPECIAL STUFF The veal-chop special, loaded with prosciutto and cheese, was cooked to perfection — no easy feat for a stuffed entrée.

Amici | 111 North Washington Street, Boston | 617.742.2998 | Open Friday and Saturday (and during all Garden events), from 5–11 pm | AE, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Up six steps from sidewalk level; no wheelchair access
Remember the spirit and savor of the old-time North End red-sauce restaurants? Amici still does. That it carries on their traditions only two nights per week, plus during Garden events, is part of the fun. This great little place should be open more.

You know you are back to the future when the breadbasket comes out with soft white Italian bread and portion-control butter. And you know you are back in the North End when the grated cheese in the shaker on the table is actually rather good.

Access all the nostalgia centers of the brain with the eggplant rollettini appetizer ($10): three roll-ups that have the hot cheese and tomato taste of your first Italian food, whether that was spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmagiana, or cheese pizza. Eggplant provides the structure of the rolls, but the flavor is only faintly discernable. Sautéed broccoli rabe ($8) is overcooked to a pleasant softness that also removes some of the bitterness, with equally softened garlic cloves.

Even more creative is broccoli fritti ($8). I figured this would be like fried calamari transformed into health food, but what actually arrived was part frittata, part pancake — what my grandmother used to call a "pfannkuchen." It's yummier than fried broccoli florets (especially with a squeeze of the fresh lemon included with all appetizers) and somewhat healthier, as well.

Another old North End tradition honored at Amici is a list of attractive specials that don't announce the price. The stuffed veal chop ($32) was worth the gamble. The chef actually produced it rare, as ordered — no small trick with any stuffed object. It was almost the size of a bone-on rib steak, an inch thick before it was slit and stuffed with prosciutto and cheese. The color and flavor suggested that the animal-rights people are making good progress on improving the lives of veal calves, such that they eat real food and run around, and therefore taste like meat on the plate.

A haddock special ($28) was probably only a modest improvement on the regular menu haddock Italiano ($18). The fillet was unexceptional and served with three large shrimp and a scampi-like garlic sauce. Summer squash (it's summer in the Southern hemisphere, right?) and bell peppers were fine sides.

Linguini alle Vongole ($18) is an upgrade from spaghetti with clam sauce, mostly thanks to its use of both whole littleneck clams and chopped clams in the sauce. The dish's primary function as a garlic-delivery system is uncompromised. Amici has the old-school fully cooked pasta. (It's an irony of culinary history that most of the southern Italians who immigrated to the North End a century ago had not previously been able to afford dried pasta, and quickly learned to serve it cooked soft to American tastes in restaurants. When I visited Italy, my first surprise was the Roman preference for half-cooked spaghetti.)

Amici breaks with North End tradition by serving good side-dish pasta. Our side of ziti had some al-dente texture, a nice tomato sauce, and came to the table hot. No doubt the fast delivery has to do with this being only a 10-table restaurant, manned by a real cook. The staff also must get a lot of practice in rapid cooking and serving on game nights.

The wine list has no years listed and provides mostly Italian bottles at what, these days, are bargain prices. You get what you pay for. Ruffino Chianti ($6.50/glass; $24/bottle) is quaffable, cleaner, and fruitier than the stuff they used to sell out of bottles covered in straw (they had the unfortunately predictive-sounding name "fiaschi"). But it was still rather nondescript. Dynamite merlot ($7.50; $27) — that's the brand name — from California was a little juicier; Zonin Montepulciano d'Abruzzo ($7; $25) had a little more structure. In a blind tasting they would be hard to distinguish, though I think I would favor the Chianti with food and the Montepulciano d'Abruzzo with cheese.

Unlike many North End restaurants, Amici offers desserts — actually, just one: cannoli ($5). Show your Celtics tickets and get a free cannolo and coffee. The cannoli are fresh, with a crisp fried shell and a very sweet ricotta filling.

Service is terrific, not only because the place is small, but because the staff are friends and family and project that warmth. The old red-sauce Italian places were romantic in a Bohemian way, if slightly seedy with candles dripping over empty fiaschi and red-and-white checkered tablecloths. Amici is cleaner, more modern, and better lit — and the modern, drip-less liquid candles are safer, if less colorful.

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