(Amerigo Italian Restaurant, Voice-Tribune, Aug. 9, 2007)
Amerigo Vespucci, a minor mapmaker of fifteenth century Italy, may have visited the New World briefly a decade or so after Christopher Columbus set foot ashore in 1492.
Yet, thanks to another mapmaker who named the new continents after his cartographic colleague, the Americas are forever known by Vespucci’s slightly altered first name; while Columbus’s moniker attaches only to such relatively little-known patriotic hymns as “Hail Columbia” and, well, the capital of Ohio.
Now Amerigo gains a 21st century connection on the sign over the door of a six-unit, Nashville-based Italian-style restaurant chain that recently opened its first Louisville property. Housed in the building that was formerly home to Harper’s, Amerigo Italian Restaurant has built a substantial word-of-mouth buzz since its opening last month.
We’ve found a lot to like on early visits: The renovated building retains a casual, upscale feel, with exposed brick and stone and warm, polished wood, a stylish bar up front and white-draped tables in comfortable dining rooms.
Black-clad servers wear Parmesan graters on their belts, an offbeat touch; they’re competent and friendly, but can get a little pushy about encouraging you to upgrade your meal with drinks, appetizers and side dishes.
The bill of fare blends American and continental flavors with a distinct Italian accent, and the presence of Chef Anthony Lorie in the kitchen is a distinct plus. Lorie, who’s cooked at RAW and Bluegrass Bistro, has impressed me in the past, and he seems to have a firm hand on Amerigo’s kitchen.
The menu and the wine list are both divided into separate Old World and New World sections, with main dish prices ranging from $10.50 (for flame-grilled chicken Margarite over angel hair pasta) to $24 (for a 10-ounce hickory “brick-grilled” prime sirloin with grilled asparagus, red chili roasted potatoes and espresso demiglace). There’s also a good choice of pastas and wood-fired pizzas; a lunch menu is available from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, and a Sunday brunch menu (10:30 a.m.- 2 p.m.) features choices from $9 (for egg dishes and pasta selections) to $20 (for Tuscan-style steak and eggs).
On a recent visit, the soup of the day, Tuscan white bean ($3.50 for a cup), was very good, if a bit more down-home American-style than Italian: Long-simmered, tender white beans in a thick, creamy, sage-scented soup with a tiny diced carrots and bits of ham (vegetarians take notice). Mild grated Parmesan-style cheese garnished the top, but a crouton mentioned on the menu was missing in action.
A dish of good olive oil came out with warm slices of cake-like focaccia. It would have been nice if I could have had it with the soup rather than brought out afterward.
A signature entree, cedar-planked fish ($14 for lunch with choice of salmon or halibut), wasn’t particularly Italian, but it was mighty tasty. A gently charred two-foot cedar plank served as a plate for a ration of smoky, crisp-tender strips of red bell pepper, yellow squash and zucchini dressed with olive oil; a mound of steaming-hot smashed potatoes with earthy Asiago cheese; and in the middle, a small but fine piece of snow-white halibut, grilled hot and flaky.
I chose the “Kentuckiana cheese” wood-fired pizza ($10), billed as a blend of “local” blue, goat and white cheddar cheeses with basil walnut pesto. I assume the cheeses came from Capriole Farm in Indiana and Kenny Mattingly in Kentucky; I wish management had thought to promote the local vendors on the menu. The pizza was oval, not round, the shape of a flattened football. The thin honey-yeast crust wasn’t particularly inspiring, perhaps yanked out of the wood oven a little too soon; but the “white” all-cheese pie with its combination of mild, earthy and tangy cheeses made an appealing alternative to the usual tomato-sauce pizza.
With a couple of glasses of strong, fresh iced tea, a filling lunch for two came to a reasonable $33.81, plus a $7.19 tip.
Amerigo doesn’t compete on the same level with high-end, more authentic Italian spots like Primo or Volare or Vincenzo’s. But it certainly ranks high against its chain-Italian competition on the Hurstbourne strip. We’ll be back, maybe to try that brunch.
Amerigo Italian Restaurant
871 S. Hurstbourne Parkway