7170 Transit Rd, Williamsville, NY 14221
Web: Amaretto Bistro
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American Italian Williamsville
"As with the Wild Game Sausage, our Steak and Scallops entree arrived with rustic flourishes, including more of the thin-fried leeks, roasted red potatoes, and a large, wonderfully cooked cluster of broccoli."
If you ever wondered how Western New York's needlessly endless construction projects - one-month jobs in California that take two years here - hurt our economy, a drive down Transit Road six months ago would have said it all. New businesses, such as the former Greek restaurant El Greko, couldn't attract customers even when they sent dancers out to entice people stuck in traffic. Old businesses were blocked off and slowed down for a year, maybe more. But now, with the road crew finally gone, good things are once again beginning to happen on Transit. Three new restaurants have all signaled openings, and one actually began serving meals at Thanksgiving: Amaretto, also known as Amaretto Bistro, a small Italian-American spot near the corner of Transit and Main. As it replaces Bravo, which we didn't care for, and El Greko, which disappeared after only a brief attempt to solicit business, we didn't have high expectations for whatever we might find in the same space. Boy, were we surprised.
New Owners. Amaretto is chef-owned - note our use of the word "chef" rather than "cook" - and family-operated, with no apparent overlap from either of the prior tenants; the new owners bring obvious pride of ownership to what used to be a somewhat dingy space. In addition to the requisite new coats of paint, Amaretto has received a nice but small new bar, dividers between the bar and the dining room, and a new tile floor, complete with a circular floor medallion. When it was El Greko, the same space looked hastily and amateurishly decorated. Now it looks really nice.
The Menu. Only two pages long, the menu isn't exactly packed with choices, but we soon began to understand why: the focus is legitimately on quality - not just in word, but in actual execution. Seven $5-$10 appetizers include standards such as calamari and mussels, but also cured salmon and citrus arancini rice balls; five $7-$9 salads range from a caesar to a fennel orange salad, with six $14-$22 pasta dishes and six $17-$26 entrees rounding out the selection. Apart from a similarly brief list of desserts, which don't appear on the menu, that's it besides the drinks. We overheard one of the owners telling patrons that the menu will be evolving as they survey the guests to see what they want - a smart strategy that will build loyalty over time.
When Owners Care, It's Different. Certain little touches show that owners of an Italian restaurant care about impressing their customers, and bread is one of them: at some restaurants, it never arrives, but on most occasions, it's fine plain Italian bread, and at better places - as here - it's special: sesame and poppy seed crackers, olive loaf, and fresh Italian slices arrived together in a basket along with a bottle of peppercorn, rosemary, and garlic-hinted olive oil, all delicious. The same obvious interest in doing things well carried on to every one of the plates, which despite familiar names bore little resemblance to the line-assembled dishes served elsewhere. Each plate was the product of obvious individual attention.
A Surprising Appetizer and Salads. Order a sausage at the typical Italian restaurant, as we do on occasion, and you'll be presented a greasy, tasty link in some red sauce. At Amaretto, the Wild Game Sausage ($10) was the opposite: a grilled and obviously homemade banana-shaped piece of ground meat, served without a casing and in little oil, enabling us to enjoy the savory, rich taste of what would normally be a wet and juicy sausage. We would have been fine had it been served alone, but Amaretto went further, placing it atop a thoroughly interesting salad of fresh sweet corn, black and red beans, chopped tomatoes, and fried leeks, the latter adding a paper thin, lightly crispy onion flavor to every bite. In short, the preparation and presentation were thrilling. A $7 Caesar Salad was served with full romaine leaves, large shavings of cheese, and a wonderful dressing, though the croutons looked and tasted boxed and boring; the $9 Caprese Salad arrived with big chunks of fresh Mozzarella and tomato, dressed to impress with light pepper, sliced red onions, basil, and Kalamata Olives in a sop-it-all-up olive oil. What was left of the bread disappeared along with the dressing; heading into the entrees, we were very pleased.
Similarly Strong Entrees. In an effort to sample a little from the pasta side of the menu and a little from the traditional entrees, we went with the Lasagna ($15) and the Steak and Scallops ($20), expecting - at the time we ordered them - fairly traditional preparations. Nope: as with the Wild Game Sausage, our Steak and Scallops entree arrived with rustic flourishes, including more of the thin-fried leeks, roasted red potatoes, and a large, wonderfully cooked cluster of broccoli. The veggies were actually just a little sweet on our first bite, and the broccoli was so moist that we found ourselves surprised at how much we were enjoying it. The steak, ordered medium-rare, was cooked perfectly to order - it wasn't the best cut of beef we've had in recent months, but it was good - while the twin jumbo, near colossal scallops were perfectly seared to a lightly crispy exterior and tender interior. A corn and pepper relish was again sweet, nicely balancing the taut kernels of corn with the softer meats and delicate leeks.
The Lasagna was another surprise. Though it wasn't much to look at in the sense that it arrived as a very large block of pasta, submerged in red sauce within a plain white bowl, the flavors and little touches here were just great: thick, seemingly homemade flat noodle layers mixed with three pleasant, non-runny cheeses, meat sauce, and what tasted like finely-chopped spinach. Amaretto's portion was too large to finish - we still had dessert to consider - so we brought it home.
Wowed By Desserts. We're picky about cannoli. Very picky. In the day that preceded our visit to Amaretto, we passed up an opportunity to grab what one store claimed were the area's "best" cannolis because they were sitting pre-made in a refrigerator - a tell-tale sign of sogginess. Amaretto's cannolis ($3 each) were, in a word, awesome, quite possibly the best we've had here. "We should really post a roundup of the area's best cannolis," mused Christina before the desserts arrived. Several minutes later, after she'd had her first bite, that thought continued. "They win," she said, and we both knew what she meant. Perfectly smooth, cloyingly sweet cream combined with a delicately crunchy, sugar-powdered shell that was claimed to be homemade. Add a chocolate version like the ones at Caffe Palermo, and another one with some pistachios or other nuts in the filling, and Amaretto could just stop serving everything else - we'd be back just for these. By comparison, the Amaretto Cake ($6.50) was a beautifully presented white layer cake with amaretto frosting and a berry garnish. Obviously assembled with the same visual flare as the entrees, the cake was light and delicate, fresh but not overly moist, and a little plain. It could hardly compare with the cannoli, and next time we visit, it won't have to try.
Great Service, With Only One Hiccup. From start to finish, we were pleased with Amaretto's service: two friendly servers, one the chef's wife, were attentive and responsive. Ordering, delivery of items, refills, and plate clearing were all handled well. Only at the very end of the meal did we have a small issue, specifically, that the Wild Game Sausage was priced on our bill at $12, two dollars higher than the menu price, so we needed to request a correction. This was handled quickly and apologetically; hopefully other people won't have a similar problem going forward.
Though we're not issuing a star rating to Amaretto Bistro quite yet, we were impressed and a little surprised by the restaurant: the new owners have accomplished the equivalent of a Extreme Home Makeover inside the place, starting with the dining room and continuing to the kitchen. There's nothing plain about this place any more, and we actively hope that it enjoys the success such impressive plates deserve. Just one thing: when you visit - any day but Sunday when it's closed - don't leave without trying the cannoli. If it's like the one we had, you'll be back for another.
Updated December 23, 2009: After exploring the menu further on a subsequent visit, trying entrees such as the Half Chicken (shown), Pork Tenderloin, Salmon, and Pasta Primavera, as well as the Orange Fennel Salad and Calamari, we've awarded Amaretto three stars. With only one complaint about these dishes - the dark, well-seasoned Pasta Primavera was deemed too light on vegetables and too heavy on oil by its recipient, who had requested that the dish be very light on oil - we were very satisfied by the followup meal, and have little to add to the prior review save to note that every one of these meat and seafood dishes was as tenderly, precisely prepared as the ones that came before. The Calamari was better than expected, thanks to a judiciously applied and nicely cooked batter; the Orange Fennel Salad was good but not great, with large orange cross-sections that might have been better off in the opposite orientation. Finally, three more cannolis were ordered, and thoroughly enjoyed by all.