On a recent Sunday night, a cacophonous buzz spilled out of the dining room at L’Amico (849 Avenue of the Americas; 212-201-4065), through the open doors and out onto the Chelsea street. Tourists and locals traipsed across the neutral multi-hued triangular tiles, trying to get a peek at the action between courses. Media types occupied the rounded brown leather banquettes flanking the side of the restaurant. Servers clad in denim shirts and dark wash jeans skirted in and out carrying wooden trays of crostini, cast-iron serving ware with fishtails spilling over the edges, and plates overflowing with bubbling pizzas.
Inspired by childhood meals cooked by his Genoa-native grandmother in the European countryside, Laurent Tourondel’s latest eatery is an impressive departure from his past repertoire and the crowds are already rushing in.
This is Tourondel’s first go at Italian cuisine; the chef was raised in France and is known for cooking reinvented American classics. He says the menu is a reflection of what he felt like creating. “It’s not centered in one region or Italian-American, it’s things I wanted to do for a very long time,” Tourondel tells the Voice. “It’s not 100-percent Italian. It’s basically, whatever the food I like to make.”
To start, L’Amico offers a selection of crostini, including an excellent sardine and salted butter version with fresh giardiniera ($9), and larger appetizers. Veal and pork meatballs “al forno” ($17) are light and airy, dressed in a bright tomato sauce and served with a large chunk of garlic-parsley focaccia on the side — it’s one of Tourondel’s top picks. Spiced tuna ($16) layered over lemon yogurt and charred broccoli sprouts is brightly acidic and refreshing. There’s also a simple plate of sliced San Daniele prosciutto on an olive-parmesan cracker ($17).
For five years, the chef’s been working on perfecting his pizza dough. The result is not Neapolitan, it’s loftier and more crisp than the traditional soggy-centered pies from the south, with bubbly charred crusts around the edges. Each one is covered with unique toppings like the white mushroom ($15), an aromatic mix of truffle paste, fontina, taleggio, and sage. Esposito’s sausage ($14) is a fantastic, creamy combination of panna (the milky center of burrata), shishito chiffonade, red onions, and a sprinkling of fennel pollen. Like the famous pies of Napoli, all four selections are fired in twin copper-clad wood-burning ovens.
Those ovens are used as a cooking tool across the seasonal menu. Mains, like a whole roasted orata ($27) with Calabrian chili verde, a slightly spicy, herbal vinaigrette, are well executed and simply prepared. A server highly recommended blackened scallops with cranberry beans, eggplant purée, and sherry vinaigrette ($25). Skirt steak and roasted chicken are also available with Italian-influenced accompaniments such as charred cauliflower and broccoli rabe.
Pastas are a must-try here. Smoked ricotta gnudi ($27), pillowy mounds of cheese encased in a thin layer of dough, are drizzled with sage brown butter with freshly shaved truffle on top. Cappelletti ($18) is a show-stopper — the sturdy fontina-filled pasta is served on a puree of fresh Jersey corn with guanciale and a sprinkle of fresh herbs. It’s sweet, salty and creamy, and when the plate is empty it feels like summer is over. Agnolotti ($24) are filled with scallops and lobster, topped with more scallops, lobster, shrimp, and some greens, and presented over lemon-mascarpone cream. It’s enjoyable, but less exuberant than the other pastas.
Save room for dessert. While gelato can often sound like an afterthought, here it’s a centerpiece. For $7, two flavors (ranging from black cherry amaretto, pistachio-orange marmalade to Long Island corn and an excellent acacia honey) are presented in a silver coupe with thin pizzelle cookies. Amaretto cake ($8) is another winner — drenched in latte dolce (sweet milk) with whipped cream on top, it’s like a cross between tres leches and bread pudding, but with sweet almond notes. Chocolate budino ($10) with hazelnut caramel and cinnamon-milk gelato is another one to try.
Although the debut of L’Amico has been a few years in the making, Tourondel says he isn’t done yet; he doesn’t give details, but he admits he already has “a new concept in the works.”