Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 11 p.m. BA, AE, MC.
Food: Good, homestyle Italian food
Style: Homestyle service in a casual setting.
Price: Inexpensive to moderate
THOUGH ROCKVILLE'S Parklawn Drive twists and curves to Wilkins Avenue and the Amalfi Ristorante Italiano, the view compares not at all to that spectacular costal road that leads to Italy's Amalfi. Comparisons with the original should be left until you are inside the restaurant. Like an Italian trattoria, the small room looks as if everybody in the family contributed a bit to the decor - copper sculptures on the walls, carved wood lanterns, a large smoked-glass mirror - in an attempt to dress up the place despite the checkered plastic tablecloths. Waiters wear black tie, but they are as irreverent as beach boys, and seem to be having as much fun. They serve promptly and steer you towards the best dishes, but seem reluctant to be so crass as to present you with a check.
And like an Italian trattoria, Sunday afternoons are family days, when the neighborhood clans gather around pizza and spaghetti for the children, zuppa di pesce and a carafe of wine for the adults.
Most important, like an Italian trattoria, fresh vegetables appear prominently on the menu, varying from day to day. And these are among the best things to order.
Start your meal with fried zucchini, paper-thin slices in a feathery batter, with a wedge of lemon to squeeze over them. There may be fresh asparagus, a generous portion slightly overcooked, but ask for it without parmesan if you object, as I do, to the grainy packaged version. Amalfi's white beans are a revelation to anyone who has not considered them as an appetizer. A soupy plateful comes swimming with onions and herbs, highly peppered, a fine example of Italian soul food. The antipasto, a usual collection of salami, cheese, tuna and salad, comes tossed with a nice, simple oil and vinegar dressing.
If Amalfi's kitchen has a consistent peculiarity - besides the gritty parmessan - it is overpeppering its foods. Fried mushrooms, for instance, are not, as one might expect, a fungus version of the fried zucchini. They are sauteed dark mushroom, but so highly peppered that they can be taken only in small doses. Even the spaghetti sauces tend to slightly singe the tongue. I mention this not as an objection but as a warning. Another warning, this time to the restaurant, is that Maryland's truth-in-restaurants legislation now requires that pastas listed on the menu as homemade must, indeed, be homemade. Our waiter admitted that most were not, but the menu has not caught up with that fact.
Manicotti, which does taste homemade, is a good choice at Amalfi, not only because it costs only $2.75, but it is a savory casserole of very light pasta almost the texture of an omelet, filled with a mild ricotta stuffing, covered with mozzarella and a delicate tomato sauce. It is a pasta dish light enough for summer. Cannelloni, on the other hand, was overburdened by a thick cheese sauce, and the meat filling was beyond mild, more aptly described as bland. Lasagne and Spaghett, too, tasted like the stepchildren of the menu.
The robustness of the kitchen compliments their fish dishes; a zuppa di peace, a large bowl of clams, mussels, shrimp and squid, is heady with garlic, oil and herbs, and cooked to just the right texture. They treat whole rockfish just as carefully, grilling it so that it remains moist.
As one expects at Italian restaurants, Amalfi specializes in veal; in fact, chicken and sausage are the only other meat dishes. They regular serves veal as thin scallops and osso buco. But if you hit the right day, you might have a chance at a roast veal in a rosemary-scented wine sauce, tender and juicy and the perfect mythical Sunday night supper.
It may not seem logical, but while Amalfi does well with fresh vegetables as appetizers, the vegetables which accompany main dishes are apt to be as unexciting as canned carrots. And just as illogically, while an order of spaghetti wore an indifferent meat sauce, the tomato sauce on a side dish of spaghetti tasted light and springy.
If you bring children and they order pizza, don't let them get by without giving you a taste. Or order one for youself. It is distinctive pizza, reminiscent of the original tomato-seasoned breads rather than the overloaded edible cardboards which are sold at every wayside. The crust is yeasty, ever so slightly crisp around the edges, and the bit of light tomato sauce and melted cheese is more a garnish for the bread than the reason for the whole thing. Amalfi also serves white pizza, the same dough with garlic and oil, minus the tomato and cheese.
Also remarkable at Amalfi is the possibility of ordering cheeses and fruit for dessert. But then you would miss the wonderful spumoni, several favors of ice cream and whipped cream marbled with candied fruit and chopped nuts, ringed with a thin layer of sponge cake. The cannoli, too, is one of this city's more respectable versions, filled at the last minute so the shell is still crunchy.
You need not get nervous about the bill. With appetizers $1 to $2.25, pastas $2.75 to $3.75, and meat or seafood dishes $4.50 to $6, it is easy to eat for under $10. Plain pizzas are $2.50 and $4.50, with fifty cents additional for each topping. Lunch prices are twenty-five cents to $1.25 less per item; in general, the menu and prices are similar at lunch and dinner.
As for beverages, Amalfi offers a few Italian wines at $6.50, carafes for $5, and beer for eighty-five cents to $1.25. You can top your meal with authentic Italian espresso or cappuccino, needing then only a Mediterranean beach to lie on while you digest the meal.