No one—not E. Charles Hunt, executive vice-president of the New York State Restaurant Association; not Tim and Nina Zagat, who need no introduction; not even the Department of Homeland Security—knows how many Italian restaurants there are in New York. Thousands open every day. (Mario Batali alone personally builds by hand 1.5 per week on average.) There are good ones, of course, and there are bad ones. But mostly there are fair-to-middling ones: ones that stick to a tired formula (a brick wall here, a splotchy yellow one there); and ones with cookie-cutter menus that are a mishmash of north and south, Little Italy and Arthur Avenue.
Imagine the Underground Gourmet’s surprise, then, to discover Ama, a bright, stylish spot that opened recently on the cusp of Soho, both footsteps and worlds away from the old-school Italian-American holdouts that have long characterized the microneighborhood. Ama is proudly Pugliese, its focused menu indigenous to the heel of the Italian boot. This seems, in the wake of a welcome Emilia-Romagnan boomlet and the periodic Sardinian spurt, to be Puglia’s culinary moment, with newcomers like Ama and Osteria Gelsi joining the pioneering I Trulli in its celebration of the region’s cucina povera.
Ama’s cuisine might be born in poverty, but the setting isn’t. From its stark façade, which emits a bright, otherworldly glow, to its glossy white interior, the look is more New Age spa than wind-whipped Pugliese farmhouse. Its vibe (and clientele) seems more Madison Avenue than Macdougal Street, but its prices—save for a handful of wines by the glass, which wander boldly into the mid-teens—tether it firmly enough to Underground Gourmet territory.
The Pugliese kitchen abounds in beans, greens, seafood, and simple pastas, and for the most part, so does Ama’s. Fava beans, a Pugliese staple, make frequent appearances throughout the streamlined menu—in a fava-flour lasagnette, wide noodles barely sauced with tarragon, oven-dried tomatoes, and tiny shrimp; in a light, vernal purée that anchors a crisp-skinned fillet of cod; and as a contorno: sautéed fava beans and pecorino.
To counteract the salutary effects of the fava bean, you can always indulge in an order of panzerotti, a quartet of deep-fried mini calzones variously stuffed with cheese and veggies, and small enough to gulp down in a couple of bites like a Geno’s Pizza Roll. The warm, charcoal-grilled octopus is an invigorating surprise, the embodiment of that elusive, rarely achieved octopod tenderness, dressed with capers, onions, cherry tomatoes, and a lively splash of olive oil. Just as characteristic of Pugliese cuisine is the tiella, an individual baked casserole layered, in Ama’s rendition, with Arborio rice, thin slices of potato, sweet shrimp, and plump little mussels, anointed with olive oil, sprinkled with Parmigiano-Reggiano, and browned under the broiler.
The tiella makes a fine, flavorful introduction to the Pugliese kitchen, and so do the pastas. So fond are the Pugliese of the starchy stuff, writes Nancy Harmon Jenkins in Flavors of Puglia, that she refers to the region as a land of pastivores, and Ama’s kitchen does that Atkins-be-damned tradition proud. Tria bianconera, a take on the classic ciceri e tria, combines scallops and flat chickpeas with eggless black (squid ink) and white (semolina) fettuccine—garnished with ribbons of fried pasta. Caputini, akin to cavatelli, tossed with bits of eggplant in a bright tomato sauce and sprinkled with ricotta salata, is absolutely delicious. And orecchiette (the crossover Pugliese pasta) with broccoli rabe and toasted almonds is its pleasingly bitter equal.
Appetites tend to flag after such filling primi, portioned here as main courses, but one secondi you shouldn’t miss is zuppa di pesce Barese, a rousing bowl of saffron-scented tomato broth loaded with delicately sweet and briny shellfish. To our taste, the surf outshines fussier turf like loin of rabbit, stuffed with chestnuts and Swiss chard, and served with a cup of honey-sweetened whipped cream.
Pugliese desserts, like many Italian confections, seem to be an acquired taste. But in the spirit of culinary adventuring, give the crema fritti a shot. They’re three Twinkie-shaped fingers of battered, deep-fried custard that will remind you there’s more to life—and New York Italian restaurants—than tirami su.
Ideal Meal: Octopus salad, tiella Pugliese, zuppa di pesce.
Note: Mom’s excellent zucchini fritters make a nice appetizer for the table. If you don’t get the gratis homemade almond cookies with dessert, ask.