By Colleen Van Tassell
at The New Haven Advocate
Gianni D'Amelio turned to his brother Giuseppe one day years after the brothers had opened up a deli. Gianni was surprised to see his brother behind a stove, instead of behind a slicer. Guiseppe was saunteing, maneuvering the pan like a pro.
"I said to him, 'I didn't know you could do that.'"
Guiseppe, as it turned out, had watched his mother cook and decided to put his knowledge into the frying pan.
Slowly the deli became a full-fledged restaurant, beckoning their Town Plot neighbors. And, as in New York's Little Italy, if you're going to succeed in an Italian neighborhood, you'd better be good.
D'Amelio's opened in 1982 as a deli and evolved into an unpretentious, warm, neighborhood restaurant. From subs to shrimp scampi, the brothers D'Amelio put themselves on the map. But I was unprepared for just how popular they are.
Reservations on a Wednesday night? In Waterbury? My New Haven snobbery got the best of me. D'Amelio's was hopping. Parties of two, four, six kept streaming in. Businessmen and women, well-dressed and casual, streamed in steadily. But when middle-aged and older Italian women came in, it was the highest compliment.
D'Amelio's menu features a dozen pasta dishes with various sauces—from alfredo to pomodori—a half-dozen each of classic veal and chicken dishes (florentine, marsala) and evening specials.
After decanting our wine, our waitress (Gianni's wife Justine) brought out a half loaf of bread studded with sesame seeds, along with a small bowl of fresh ricotta cheese, drizzled with olive oil, in place of butter. Never had it before, and I was missing out for years.
Joe and I started with a fresh bacala salad over baby spinach leaves ($9.99), and brushetta soprano ($8.99), which I wasn't too sweet on. Toasted garlic slices are served with a bowl of shrimp and spinach in a heavy cream sauce. I didn't get the connection between the two.
Quite noteworthy was the seven-cheese saccatini ("little purse" shapes) in pink champagne sauce that Gianni sent over to sample. All too often we get this tomato and cream sauce that's either too salty or flavor starved. D'Amelio's revives the played-out sauce beautifully.
The spinach salad was a thoughtful alternative to the prepared restaurant salad. The flavor of the greens was enhanced by a vinaigrette and pieces of chopped fresh bacon and sliced Bermuda onions.
Among the many pleasures of the dining out is being able to order dishes one would not dare to prepare at home. Following this logic, Joe ordered the osso bucco, which was accompanied by a rack of lamb. A feast of meat.
The osso bucco fell from the bone and couldn't have been more tender. The lamb, cooked medium and flavored with rosemary and cognac, was absolutely perfect. The dish was made even more so with the addition of garlic mashed potatoes, one of those simple things that tastes great and says "home."
Two dishes I like to put to the test: chicken marsala and marinara sauce.
D'Amelio's chicken marsala, first of all, is $12.99, but it's worth much more. You know how many times you've ordered a marsala sauce only to encounter a treacly pancake batter? D'Amelio's perfectly slenderized cutlets are lovingly covered, not drenched, in more of a marsala glaze than a sauce.
We had a lovely night with the Waterbury brothers and their staff (who put some fancier restaurant waitstaffs to shame).
If you find yourself in the Valley, find yourself pulling up to the pride of Town Plot.