115 E. 60th St.
Upper East Side
My mother grew up in a genteel, mostly vanished world where the best restaurants lived long and prosperous lives, and if you liked them, you visited them, like churches, again and again. So you can imagine her surprise when we sat down the other evening at the popular new restaurant Amali on East 60th Street. She remembered the time, not so long ago, when Amali was Persephone, a classic Greek establishment where the white walls were hung with Matisse prints and the rafters were painted red, like in an old taverna. But the walls are corrugated now, like a modish container shack, and the rafters have been replaced with dark wooden slats. The menu of old Greek favorites is also gone, and the new one emphasizes “farm-to-table Mediterranean cooking,” our chatty waiter said. My mother digested these jarring changes for a time in silence. “I don’t know how you keep up with all this confusion,” she finally said.
Judging from the crowds of people who were jammed into Amali on the evenings I visited, however, this radical makeover has been a success. Amali’s old-school proprietors, Steve Tzolis and Nicola Kotsoni (Il Cantinori, Periyali), have installed a dining counter in the front of the house, where you can pick at artisanal salumi (on butcher boards, of course) and bowls of cappelletti tossed, in fashionable Greenmarket style, with dandelion greens and slices of charred fig. Like other trendy restaurants in this roughage-conscious era, a whole section of the appetizer menu is given over to salads and vegetables (crisp roasted broccoli spears with hazelnuts, chunks of smoked eggplant dripped with spicy Calabrian honey), and if you ask the wait staff about the black-bass crudo (poured with corn purée), they’ll tell you that it comes from Montauk, where Tzolis and Kotsoni are part owners of an actual fishing boat.
“This has a nice crunch to it,” said my mother as we sampled a helping of corn fritters garnished with sheep’s-milk ricotta and roasted okra on a wooden peasant’s plate. We liked the smoky, spicy, almost Sichuan-tasting eggplant too and the silky mound of burrata cheese, which this aggressively sustainable, ecotrendy restaurant flies in specially from Campagna, in a slightly scandalous, non-ecofriendly way. The three pasta entrées on the menu were less popular among the pasta snobs at my table (bland spaghetti pomodoro, a soggy linguine with lump crab and bacon), but nobody had any complaints about the more classic Pan-Mediterranean dishes, like octopus à la plancha (with a tart red-wine vinaigrette), the crunchy-skinned gourmet version of Tuscan chicken “under a brick,” or the lamb loin, which the chefs enliven with cannellini beans and a rich sofrito threaded with crumbled bits of merguez.
Amali is a more crowded, populist operation than Persephone used to be, which means the little rooms buzz with too much noise on busy evenings and dishes occasionally arrive late or, in at least one case, without all the ingredients on the plate. You can distract yourself from these glitches by knocking back pitchers of pleasant house sangrias or perusing the impressive 400-bottle wine list, which the proprietors have built up over more than three decades in the Mediterranean-restaurant business. The small but satisfying desserts include honeyed cannoli wrapped in kataifi pastry, a nice chocolate torte strewn with candied hazelnuts, and tall servings of panna cotta touched with crème fraîche. But if you miss the simple elegance of the old restaurant, get the Greek yogurt, which is as rich and creamy as any ice cream, smothered on top with spoonfuls of housemade strawberry jam.