I recently sat down with Cameron Adair, chef at Amici Pizza and Bistro in Northeast Minneapolis, to talk about the restaurant, which celebrates its first anniversary on February 28. The owner, Greg Pratt, and Adair, leading the kitchen, opened last year in the redecorated space formerly occupied by Snap Pizza.
From the start, Pratt knew he wanted an Italian American place; the former Snap space was ideal since it already had pizza ovens. As he and Adair collaborated, they planned Amici as a neighborhood-driven, family-friendly, dine-in restaurant with full service, featuring skillfully prepared food made, as much as possible, from locally sourced foods. The menu would have a variety of starters, pastas, and pizzas, with ingredients for both vegetarians and omnivores. Talking with the chef, I began to think it sounded like they were trying to please all of the people all of the time. Contrary to what the adage says, though, the folks at Amici may well be pulling it off.
Amici is on Johnson Street NE, in the Audubon Park neighborhood, about ten blocks north of the Quarry shopping center. Pratt lives a block from the restaurant. Adair is also a proud resident of Northeast. He grew up just a few blocks from the restaurant, his mother teaches at Pillsbury Elementary School, and he and his siblings went to St. Charles, Northeast Middle School, and Edison High School in Northeast.
The owner and chef's commitment and connection to the neighborhood gave them a strong incentive to create something special in Amici. They wanted a family friendly restaurant, but without the mediocrity the phrase often implies. Though "pizza" is in its name, Amici Pizza and Bistro is much more than a pizza place (though you can order for delivery); it's a full-service restaurant whose cooks work hard to prepare something local and delicious for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch.
On its menu, Amici lists many of its local food partners. Tomatoes are from Living Water Farms. Lettuce and microgreens come mainly from Harold Weber at Midwest Salad, which also provides local honey, and carrots, radishes and cucumbers in the warmer months. Pork is from Tim Fischer, at Fischer Family Farms Pork, and the beef comes from Thousand Hills Cattle Company whenever possible. Eggs and chicken are from Larry Schultz in Owatonna, Minnesota. For coffee, they order from The Coffee Shop Northeast, which gets locally roasted beans from B & W Specialty Coffee on East Hennepin Avenue. Cured meats, like prosciutto, are from La Quercia in Iowa. And ice cream is from Izzy's, in St. Paul.
Last summer and fall, the produce was as local as it gets -- mainly from Adair's large home garden. (The chef created menu items and specials from what was fresh each week.) Adair credits his time at Lucia's, working with long-time local food advocate Lucia Watson, for his increased awareness and appreciation of hometown food. Even before that, though, his grandparents had a hobby farm, and his parents would take him shopping at the original Seward Co-op, so he has long known the benefits of local food.
One of the first times I visited Amici, I noticed the particular care taken with the food. The salad greens were meticulously stemmed and cleaned; there were no mushy lettuce bits clinging to other leaves as in another, more expensive salad I'd eaten at a different restaurant that week. During brunch last Sunday, I had the fork-tender beef brisket along with polenta, poached eggs, and greens. It was a warm, filling dish, perfect for a cold winter morning. Amici's kids selections are simple and affordable. For just $5, they offer pizza or pasta, drink, fruit, and a treat. The pizzas are nicely done, with a dusting of crunchy cornmeal on their thinnish crust, and they have a nicely balanced sauce that's applied with an appropriately sparing hand. Adair is especially excited about the current seasonal pizza: brined, confit-ed (cooked in bacon fat) pulled pork shoulder, with smoked mozzarella, arugula and pickled onions -- an Italian style twist on a carnitas taco.
Since they opened, there's been some tweaking of the menu in addition to adjustments for food in season, but most dishes have proved their staying power. The Hollywood Pizza, with spinach and mozzarella, and the flourless chocolate cake with Izzy's salted caramel ice cream, are their most popular items. But more creative and less traditional fare, like the hearty orrechiette pasta with roasted cauliflower and the earthy, satisfying black barley risotto, also have plenty of fans, especially among vegetarians. Adair and his sous chef Justin have been pleased by the number of people who embrace the more creative menu items, even if they cost a bit more than an entree from a family-friendly chain does.
Amici's first year had its challenges, but they've been well received in the neighborhood and are hopeful it will continue. Looking around on a weeknight, I saw families with young children, people in business suits, and dressed-up couples out for the night. More of a neighborhood spot than a dining destination, Amici wears its local roots proudly and manages the tricky balance of being approachable and affordable while serving well-prepared food made from quality ingredients.
Amici Restaurant, 2831 Johnson Street NE, Minneapolis, 55418, (612) 781-5711. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, and for brunch and dinner on Sunday.
Kristin Boldon is a frequent contributor for Simple, Good and Tasty, who also writes for the Eastside Food Cooperative's newsletter on health and wellness, and for her own blog Girl Detective. Her last post for us was "Feeding the Family: Two Weeknight Winter Suppers."