When Urban Outfitters bought most of the Vetri Family restaurant empire in 2015, many industry observers believed the retail giant had its eye on the pie.
“Urban Outfitters Just Bought A Pizza Restaurant,” was the headline of an article in Fortune.com that November, trying to make sense of the unorthodox, reportedly $20 million deal. The national press zoomed in on the Pizzeria Vetri slice of the Italian restaurant group that seemed to be the most easily scalable, mall-friendly, fast-casual millennial magnet in the portfolio.
Three years later, however, as I sliced into a crispy beef cheek saltimbocca with marsala pears, then twirled my fork through a toothsome pile of cocoa fettuccine with chanterelles at the big new Amis at Devon Yard, Urban Outfitters' multistore "lifestyle complex” on the Main Line, I’ve come to believe those pundits were looking at the wrong restaurant. Is Amis the real star of the deal?
The company’s pizzeria push appears to have stalled at four, sputtering with a false start and do-over at its King of Prussia Mall stand, and even regressing at its standalone Philly flagship locations, where the once-supple dough has lost some magic (trending dry and uniformly burnt at a lunch this week). Marc Vetri and most of the rest of his original management team left the company last year, and they seemingly took the quality control with them. Not only did I risk breaking my teeth on the overly thick chestnut chips scattered atop the current seasonal “porcini” pizza at the Rittenhouse location, I didn’t see any porcini, either, save for a thin gray film of “sauce” layered beneath a visible bunch of supermarket mushrooms for an outrageous $20.
Super-luxe Vetri Ristorante (still a perennial four-beller) was never part of the sale and remains independent. The edgy Alla Spina gastropub concept was short-lived under URBN, which promptly sent its pig’s head and duck wings packing. And ambitious Osteria, which had already failed once as a suburban spin-off in Moorestown, proving too fancy for a mall setting, has been sold back to original chef Jeff Michaud and his new partner, Michael Schulson.
Understated Amis, meanwhile, has sneakily become the Goldilocks concept of the Vetri gang as a more straightforward trattoria — less fancy than Osteria, but more of a dining experience than the pizzeria — with four locations that set just the right balanced tone of upscale quality and laid-back vibe. It suits a novel multistore complex like Devon Yard. There, a well-to-do clientele can dine in casual style between shopping for leopard print coats at Anthropologie, flowing Free People blouses, and designer reindeer moss at the big Terrain, whose massive outdoor garden store oasis flanks Amis’ front door with light-strung trellises, fancy pumpkins, and massive stag lawn ornaments. There’s an appealing cafe restaurant at Terrain, too, that’s become a magnet for private events.
Amis, meanwhile, was conceived for maximum flexibility. The trattoria menu showcases simple combinations of good ingredients, like the signature housemade bucatini with almond pesto tinged with a hit of chili heat. It’s ambitious enough to showcase the virtue of hand-crafted Italian cooking and can step up to $34 porcini-rubbed lamb chops with some serious bottles of Brunello or Nebbiolo. But at heart it’s still a casual place with butcher block tables and a lively industrial-chic ambiance where you can graze on Sal’s old-school meatballs with tomato-kissed potatoes, a standout selection of house-extruded pastas for under $20 a hearty plate, and a couple of dozen very good wines by the glass.
When a meal here goes well, you can taste why the 13th Street original became a hit to begin with in 2010, when Brad Spence moved over from his chef position at Vetri to open the Roman-inspired kitchen. He still oversees the Amis brand for URBN as its culinary director, and this location’s menu is similar to the Center City original but is perhaps more restrained for its suburban audience. The freshly extruded pasta is especially good, with snappy tubes of delicately grooved rigatoni cradling milk-stewed crumbles of veal, beef, and pork piqued with the zesty addition of ground salumi scraps. The rendered fat of house-cured pancetta adds an extra layer of savor to the all’amatriciana sauce that glazes the big hollow loops of paccheri.
Simple food, though, isn’t always easy food. It requires a steady touch. And Amis struggled on my first visit more than I expected from a restaurant run by Spence, who is nonetheless enthusiastic about the stewardship of executive chef Kristina Wisneski when he’s off at the other locations (including one in Westport, Conn., he still visits regularly, and Bar Amis in the Navy Yard).
Ironically, the new pizzas in Devon are my least favorite items, the cookie-cutter rounds of crispy “Roman-style” dough lacking character, with a crackery one-dimensional crunch that’s quite different from the puffy Neapolitans that initially made Pizzeria Vetri famous. The toppings didn’t leave much of a flavor impact, even when promised the “Sunday gravy” kitchen sink. The white pie with fresh figs was an exception, the sweetness of its seasonal fruit playing against the salty pink ribbons of silken prosciutto and tangy scoops of buffalo mozzarella.
In other cases on that first visit, the little details of seasoning made a number of otherwise good dishes taste a shade off register. Not enough acid for the salmon crudo. Not enough sweetness for the agrodolce with the eggplant caponata. Inconsistent cooking of the roasted root vegetable medley left some undercooked and crunchy and others cooked to mush. There was too much thickness in the ricotta ravioli dough paired with roasted pumpkin. And a strange, pokey pacing delivered what would normally be two separate courses — the primi pastas and meatier entrees -- simultaneously at the same moment.
To be sure, there were satisfying moments in that meal, from the moist roast chicken over heirloom carrots to deliciously savory lamb chops whose earthy sunchoke puree was sweetened by a hint of parsnip. A baked crock of oozy, salty young Pecorino glazed with chili-spiced almond honey is a must. The wine service, ably overseen by general manager Jordan Stalsworth, offers a worthy list of mostly Italian selections with some good choices by the glass — a verdicchio form Le Marche, several whites from Alto Adige, and an Antico Fuoco Rosso Veronese -- that went beyond the Chianti norm. An affordable Rocco Nebbiolo d’Alba was a perfect match for the beef cheek saltimbocca, whose tender braised meat was wrapped in crispy prosciutto, then topped with fall fruit and sage brown butter, for one of the menu’s more memorable dishes.
Even so, if cloning a pizzeria and sustaining its consistency is hard for a corporate owner to maintain, you have to wonder in wobbly moments like these whether it’s simply too difficult to translate the more involved concept of a smaller independent city restaurant (about 90 seats) to a super-size version with 180 seats, counting the big noisy bar and a seasonal outdoor patio, with a suburban workforce that might not be as uniformly skilled.
I had no complaints about the dining room staff, which went out of its way to accommodate one of my guest’s gluten-free restrictions and knew the food details well but asked the kitchen when they didn’t. On my return visit, I was also reassured by a more steady food performance that this kitchen is fully capable of delivering a stellar meal more in line with my previous Amis experiences.
This menu is more conservative than its city cousin, catering to the “kale and quinoa” preferences of a more health-conscious Main Line audience that isn’t receptive to the tripe, sweetbreads, and veal tongue of the original Amis downtown. But the food, on the whole, was still delicious, from the fried cauliflower drizzled with a salsa rosa pepper sauce to crispy arancini rice balls tanged with tomato sauce centers set over a creamy wave of buffalo ricotta. Even the vegetarian “meatballs” made with ricotta and spinach were satisfying, at once creamy and firm.
Amis' famous pork chop Parmigiana was one mild disappointment. The big breaded chop dabbed with chunky tomato sauce and spoonfuls of milky buffalo mozzarella was a little too thinly pounded and overfried, not as tender as I recall from previously dreamy versions. The N.Y. strip with roasted mushrooms, charred cippolini onions, and vinegar-tanged parsley salsa verde, on the other hand, was spot-on. And the seafood entrees were even better than that. Big sweet Nantucket scallops evoked the Mediterranean against fregola sarda beads laced with melted fennel and orange zest. A “whole” branzino was missing its head -- another nod to squeamish suburban sensibilities — but it had retained all iis flavor, the herb-stuffed cavity of fish incredibly moist while its skin was cracker-crisp from a turn in the pizza oven beneath a zesty tomato caper sauce.
There’s a nice list of after-dinner drinks to ease into dessert, and it’s worth sticking around, because the traditional sweets are generously portioned and well made. The tiramisu is rich with coffee and fluffy mascarpone. The ricotta cake is creamy and good, once you get beneath that thick crust of cinnamon, alongside white wine-poached pears. Candied hazelnuts accented the delicacy of a special honey graham cake intricately layered with blood orange marmalade and topped with praline buttercream ice cream. My favorite dessert, though, was inevitably that homey Amis classic of “Mom Mom’s” rice pudding made with arborio rice in rich vanilla custard and a sweet drizzle of cherry fig compote on top.
So, Urban Outfitters bought a rice pudding restaurant that also happens to serve great pasta along with its pizzerias? That’s the good news. One can only hope Amis remains true to its earnest, hand-crafted character even as it grows.