While I had been somewhat familiar with Italy’s Amalfi coast, it was not until after watching CNN’s “Searching for Italy” with the brilliant Stanley Tucci that I fully appreciated this fantastic place known for its beautiful coastline. It is definitely on my short list of places to visit.
So, when I was reminded there was a restaurant on Lake San Marcos called Amalfi Cucina Italiana, run by a team of four Italian friends and former leaders of the Buona Forchetta group, including chef Marcello Avitabile, a five-time world champion pizza maker, my interest was piqued.
And while Lake San Marcos is not quite the Amalfi coast — it’s a manufactured body of water with a fountain, pontoon boats and gondola rides — let’s focus on the world-class team, sizable and stylish restaurant, and delicious food.
A quick Google search will pull up its fascinating history for those interested in the history of this “lake” and the surrounding community.
I wrote about Buona Forchetta when it opened in Leucadia, and Amalfi feels like its sizable, multi-level cousin scaled up to feed a much larger crowd. It even has one of its signature pizza ovens, a custom Stefano Ferrara (sometimes referred to as the Ferrari of pizza ovens) built in Naples.
The wood-burning oven, covered in unmistakable golden tile, is designed to quickly cook a perfect pizza with temperatures ranging from 700 to 1,000 degrees. It’s thin-crusted, lightly charred, and offered with ingredients imported from places in Italy that only restaurateurs of this higher caliber know to source from.
Let’s segue into the team behind this high-performance, smooth-running Italian machine. Let’s start with the former executive chef of the Buona Forchetta group, chef Marcello Avitabile. Marcello’s longtime friend Joseph Serra is also a renowned pizza chef and part of the culinary team. Finally, general manager Giuseppe Annunziata and partner Emiliano Muslija round out this culinary dream team.
As mentioned, the space is enormous, with two levels, each with its distinctive feel and offering a full bar in addition to the dining options. The first level is a casual, covered outdoor dining area that can fit 200 who can enjoy the closeness of the lake. The menu in the lower outdoor space, in addition to the pizzas, includes sandwiches, burgers, and daily specials from Marcello.
The second floor offers a more elegant, fine-dining atmosphere with 100 seats overlooking the lake. Again, the gold Stefano Ferrara oven is the focus, and the chef curates a more gourmet menu of homemade pasta and entrees.
As a huge fan and one-time grower of artichokes, they were the first thing that jumped off the menu at me. Carciofi All Romana is Amalfi’s pan-fried version and I loved it. Artichoke stalks, hearts and tender leaves are lightly pan-fried in olive oil and served on a bed of arugula and shards of Grana Padano, and the entire artichoke is edible.
The dish is so simple, but it’s incredibly delicious. Amalfi imports the artichokes from Civitavecchia, Rome, where artichokes are highly regarded.
Next was the Ragu Napoletano with ground beef and pork sausage with a San Marzano sauce. I loved this hearty and flavorful dish, which was suggested to be served with pappardelle. At Amalfi, eight pasta varieties are available to pair with 10 sauces.
It’s good to know that the culinary team grinds the beef in-house for the restaurant’s polpette (meatballs) before immersing them in a San Marzano sauce for hours resulting in heavenly balls of meat. And speaking of preparation, Amalfi takes two days to create its Bolognese, and we all know the best sauces take time.
The ribeye was offered on the Amalfi’s special menu, and we needed to offset our past carb load with my favorite cut of meat. The Ribeye Tagliata was 16oz and sliced to medium rare perfection, served with arugula salad, shaved parmesan cheese and lemon-marinated fresh artichokes. It was a flavorful piece of juicy protein and accomplished our goal of not overindulging in pasta, which would be easy to do at Amalfi…in the best possible way.
A serious bar also features cocktails, Italian wines and beer of all stripes. The Amalfi Spritz (Aperol, Solerno blood orange liqueur, Prosecco, soda water) was suggested for our next visit. I kept it simple with an Italian white by the glass.
We rounded out the memorable evening with a decadent dessert of Tiramisu that melted in our mouths.
Besides the fabulous food, the people-watching at Amalfi is also first-rate. There is a bar scene with a younger crowd and a restaurant that attracts folks of all ages. Unfortunately, it was packed on a recent Tuesday night, so I’m thinking weekends at Amalfi completely go off.
Either way, it’s worth a trip to this slice of coastal Italy in San Marcos.
www.amalficucinaitaliana.com Amalfi Cucina Italiana, 1035 La Bonita Drive, San Marcos, (760) 653-3230