Amarsi Ristorante is one of those places where I wish the company would spring for more than just two visits. The menu, though not overly huge, has so many tempting offerings that it was difficult to choose the right items to describe what's happening at this Oro Valley spot.
The claim to fame here is East Coast Italian-style food, with a nice mix of red sauces, veal, seafood, pizza and homemade sweets. The atmosphere is like something you might experience in the North End of Boston, or maybe on the Jersey shore, with a healthy dose of Arizona thrown in. The waiters are dressed in long-sleeve white shirts and ties. They keep up a friendly patter without overdoing it. A mixed blend of unobtrusive tunes play overhead. The room is bright, cheerful and welcoming.
At our dinner visit, we found the bar busy with what seemed to be regulars. The dining room kept up a steady pace as well.
We kicked off the evening with a couple of glasses of Chianti ($6) and the stuffed mushrooms ($7.95). We also ordered the veal Parmesan ($21.95) and the spaghetti Bolognese ($17.95).
The wine list is interesting in the fact that it is color-coded. It's divided into reds, whites and sparkling varieties, but certain wines are printed in red and blue, denoting either a good value or a nightly special. I've never seen anything like it.
Our server timed everything perfectly; we were able to enjoy the wine for a while before the mushrooms were brought to the table. They consisted of six caps stuffed with ricotta, breadcrumbs, herbs and a sprinkling of Parmesan, sitting in a pool of creamy tarragon sauce. Rich without being heavy, they were a nice start.
The veal Parmesan was served with linguini in the house marinara. The menu describes the dish as "thinly pounded veal medallions," but instead, there was one good-sized piece of veal. The breading was flavorful and light. Seasoned nicely, the breading enhanced the veal rather than overpowering it or playing second-fiddle. The meat was topped with the house marinara and a slice of mozzarella, then placed under the broiler just long enough to melt all of the cheese. This is a traditional take, of course, but it was done with care and skill.
The Bolognese was a heaping portion of spaghetti tossed and topped with a meaty, slightly spicy sauce. As with the veal, this was a traditional dish made modern and flavorful.
Dessert consisted of the house-made lemon-curd cake ($7). The cake was good but a little dry.
At lunch, we had a chance to check out the space. The room is a backward "L"-shape with the bar filling up the upper part of the room. The walls are painted a pale yellow, with an accent wall in orange. Tables have crisp white cloths gracefully draped across, with fresh cut flowers on top. The windows have pretty white tea curtains, which allow views of the mountains from some tables.
The walls are filled with various stylized paintings created by the sous chef, Glen Andrews. The back wall looks like a mix of different faces in wooden frames, but upon closer examination, it becomes clear that it's a nightclub scene—very clever. In the main dining room are celebrity portraits; they catch the eye and certainly inspire conversation.
At lunch, we decided on the calamari ($7.95) as a starter, followed by the eggplant Parmesan sandwich ($8.95) and a cheese pizza with sausage ($10.95). Again, service was smooth and friendly, and the timing was on target. The host even remembered us from our previous visit, and we got to meet the chef/artist.
The squid came out of the kitchen hot and crunchy; the coating was light and crackled with each bite. Both lemon and marinara were on the plate, but the calamari easily stood on its own.
Pizza is only served at lunch, with some specialty offerings, including shrimp, artichokes, pineapple and such. We settled on simplicity, though: The spicy sausage, the mozzarella and the marinara sauce were tasty, but the crust—not too thin, not too thick—could've used a few more minutes in the oven.
The sandwich was practically perfect. There was a judicious use of breading, cheese and sauce, so you could taste the tender eggplant. This is one of my favorite sandwiches, and Amarsi did it right.
Dessert again was a bit of a disappointment. We ordered a house specialty: amaretto bread pudding ($7). It was warm and gooey but needed a longer setting time for all the ingredients to blend.
For some, Amarsi offers a bit of home. For others, it's a place to enjoy some good Italian-American food just up the road a piece. Buon appetito!