August 2005: Amici Miei

By: Cynthia Hacinli

Authentic Italian Cooking Comes to Rockville

Totò, the Neapolitan comedian, smiles down from half a dozen black-and-white photographs in the handsome dining room of Amici Miei. Why shouldn't he? Close your eyes and you might be eating those butterflied sardines on the Costa Smeralda. Or pizza Margherita at a wine bar in Rome. Or vitello tonnato in a villa high above the River Po.

Tucked in the Potomac Woods Plaza in Rockville, Amici Miei is the brainchild of Roberto Deias, who grew up in Sardinia, and Davide Megna, who hails from the Piedmont region of Italy. Both have worked with DC's Italian luminaries, Megna as chef at Roberto Donna's Arucola in Chevy Chase and Deias as a waiter at Galileo and Cafe Milano and as manager at Al Tiramisu and Sette Osteria. At Amici Miei, Deias runs the front of the house while Megna presides over the kitchen.

Those wonderful sardines--with peppery arugula--will be on the specials menu most days, as will pungent fresh marinated anchovies. Both are a good way to begin. The regular menu yields gems, too, including grilled baby octopus with Yukon-Gold-potato-and-olive salad, beautifully fried squid tentacles and ringlets, and vitello tonnato, thinly sliced veal eye round with a good purée of tuna and anchovy.

Pastas and thin-crust pizzas can be ordered as main courses, but they work well shared as a first course, too. Pizzas arrive crisp-crusted, scantily embellished Roman-style, and smoky from the wood-burning oven. The Margherita wows until you get a taste of the even-more-arresting diavolo, which brings spicy salami and roasted peppers to the party.

Pastas to consider are the properly al dente linguine with white clam sauce, an elegant lasagna, and ravioli di magro stuffed with spinach and ricotta and kissed with mascarpone cream. Fettuccine alla bolognese sports a savory veal-and-tomato sauce, but the house-made pasta could have used a minute less in the pot. And house-made veal ravioli with wild mushrooms has an intense, livery flavor.

For those who revel in simply grilled fish, there is a bounty to choose from: briny head-on shrimp, delicate trout, Sicilian-style swordfish, and the star of the lot, a frequent special of branzino (striped sea bass) cooked whole. All get a drizzle of the marvelous salmoriglio sauce--olive oil tinged green by puréed basil, parsley, and a bit of garlic.

Meat lovers will gravitate to the flavorful, sliced beef sirloin with balsamic vinegar sauce and veal scallopine with wild mushrooms and soft polenta. Also keep an eye out for a mixed-grill special of skirt steak, sausage, chicken, and lamb chops, reminiscent of something you'd find at a rosticceria in the Aeolian Islands. Both seafood and meat are paired with a mound of flash-sautéed rabe, spinach, or caponata.

The wine list is on the short side yet thoughtful and well priced. It has some fine by-the-glass choices, such as a heady Vermentino di Sardegna--a few more would be welcome.

The same menu does duty at lunch with the addition of a few sandwiches, such as an omelet with zucchini and asparagus on focaccia with house-made potato chips, and a few simpler pastas like linguine with pesto and a rich spaghetti alla carbonara.

House-made tiramisu vies with a dense Neapolitan chocolate-nut cake for the top finish, but the imported tartuffo--a ball of gelato in a shower of cocoa powder--isn't far behind. Totò is still smiling.

Amici Miei

Potomac Woods Plaza, 1093 Seven Locks Rd., Rockville; 301-545-0966. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, Sunday for dinner.

Atmosphere: Earth-toned marble wainscotting and black-granite tables make for a handsome room. There's patio dining, too.

Food: Authentic regional-Italian dishes with nods to Piedmont and Sardinia.

Price: Main courses, $11.95 to $20.95. Dinner for two, about $50.

Service: Attentive and warm. Host Roberto Deias exudes the charm and good humor Italians are known for.

Wine: Most bottles under $35, with a handful of reds and whites available by the glass.

Bottom Line: Great for the neighborhood, great for suburban Maryland and DC.