A SNOWSTORM FREED up a table for my most recent visit to Amis, Marc Vetri’s hotly anticipated third restaurant. It was a lucky break; in the eatery’s opening months, reservations could be tough to snag. This rare quiet moment landed me a prime seat in front of the bright open kitchen, complete with views of a broad-shouldered and swaggering Marc Vetri lifting tasting spoons to his oft-photographed face. Soon, he wandered out of the kitchen and vaulted nimbly over a half-wall to sit briefly with a woman and two kids who were coloring while awaiting their meals. He is setting an example for the casual place he wants Amis to be.
[sidebar]His comportment says not only I own this restaurant but also I own this town, and rightly so. His flagship, Vetri, has won accolades since its debut in 1998, and Osteria, his second restaurant, is nearly as acclaimed. Some of the region’s best chefs (Michael Solomonov, Chip Roman) have made their bones in Vetri’s kitchen, and his fingerprints are visible everywhere on the Philly food scene. Amis has its own executive chef, Brad Spence, another Vetri alum, but on my visits, it was Marc who was in charge.
Long known for staying small as other chefs of his caliber went big, opening more and larger restaurants, Vetri has preserved his reputation for integrity as his mini empire has grown. Amis is smaller than Osteria, though there’s a similar vibe: the lofty black ceilings that vanish behind exposed pipes and industrial details, the warm woods in shades from blond to mahogany, the earnest, hyper–educated servers whose rhapsodic descriptions of the dishes borde-r on the evangelical, the pretty flower centerpieces. And, as when Osteria opened, Vetri is conspicuously there, actually cooking, running the show.
For the most part, the food at Amis lives up to the Marc Vetri mystique that surrounds it. The egg “tripe” in tomato sauce contains no offal — it’s a substitution of a plain omelet where braised tripe often is used. The effect is comforting and homey, a hug of balanced tomato flavor offset with rich egg and a hearty slice of bread. The creamy eggplant caponata, from the bruschetta section of the menu, is another dish in which the whole is greater than the sum of its simple parts. The veal cannelloni, sweet ricotta and veal wrapped in delicate fresh pasta sheets and bathed in thick porcini sauce, makes for a plate you’ll want to swab clean with a hunk of bread. More adventurous diners shouldn’t miss the fried lambs’ tongues, whose braised interiors are a tender counterpoint to the crisp fried exterior.
Many of Amis’ small plates are straightforward renditions of classic dishes: turkey cutlet Milanese with peppery arugula, curls of parmesan and a lemon wedge; briny marinated sardines with pickled vegetables; pork sausage over sweet red peppers. The familiar flavors are satisfying and clean, if a little expensive for what they are. A smallish bowl of clams and strozzaprete (think short, twisty spaghetti) was $14 (it’s now $18) — and sandy on my visit. A thin piece of rib eye ($26) was slightly overcooked. One of the pastas I sampled (tonnarelli with cheese and pepper) was so undercooked that I could see a raw-flour center at the heart of each strand. Even small missteps in execution are conspicuous when your reputation — and prices — suggests perfection is the rule.
On my last visit, the buzz about the restaurant continued to crackle. The snow kept some people away, but die-hard food lovers milled about, soaking in the cozy room and the Marc-is-in-the-house vibe. There is a lot to love about Amis: the bold, rustic flavors, the sleek atmosphere, the presence of a celebrity chef. But how much can Vetri grow while keeping the tight quality control that has made him what he is in the first place? The execution of dishes must be uniformly excellent to ensure his continued ascent. He’s set the bar that high.