Is blood thicker than red sauce?
Arvada has its Amici's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria (see review), and Westminster has the fifteen-year-old Amici's Italian Ristorante. But both spots are very quick to disavow any connection -- now. The fact is, the Westminster Amici's was opened fifteen years ago by one of Bernie and Beverly Fanelli's daughters and her husband, in partnership with the current owners, Tony and Diana Domenico. Five months into the restaurant's operation, however, the two couples had a "messy" parting of the ways.
"We just don't even talk about it anymore," says Beverly Fanelli, the matriarch at the original Amici's. "The bottom line is that they are a completely different restaurant, and there's no association with us in any way."
Even so, the menus are almost identical at the two places, and the dishes taste nearly the same -- although they cost about a buck more at the Westminster Amici's. And this Amici's is smaller, with chairs and tables that give it a bit of a bingo-parlor look (the photos of babies slurping pasta hanging on the walls are kind of cute, though). As at the original, the main draw at this Amici's is the pizza. Here the crust was slightly thicker but had the same crispy edges and solid center; a bit more cheese was piled on the plain ($9.50 for a fourteen-inch).
But where the sweet red sauce at the Arvada Amici's was boring, the red sauce at the Westminster Amici's was just plain bad. It was like watered-down tomato paste, with no discernible herbs or seasonings, and had a gluey texture that we could almost see seeping into the pasta. The sauce certainly didn't do justice to the homemade spaghetti noodles ($7.95), which were thick and impeccably cooked al dente. Also impeccable was the meatball, which consisted of ground meat and very little else smashed into an asymmetrical sphere.
The red sauce was also the only disappointment with the baked ravioli ($9.95), a rich, creamy and filling pile of cheese-filled pasta pillows layered with mozzarella and Romano. And the extras that came with the meals -- thick-sliced, butter-drenched garlic bread; a simple salad with housemade dressing; a strangely appealing, salty minestrone choking with canned vegetables -- were standouts, too. We also tried a to-die-for dessert, which was invented at the original Amici's and named for it: the D'Amici ($3.50), a sundae glass filled with vanilla ice cream and strawberry purée, topped with four cinnamon-coated pastries that were fried to order.
But while the Arvada Amici's boasted very good service, it was flawless in Westminster. Although the servers were all seemingly high school age, they were quick and sharp, and their cheerfulness coupled with their willingness to help each other out -- not one walked past another server's table without checking to see if there were any tasks they could perform -- made for a seamless experience. The servers had obviously been empowered to make things happen for diners: When we asked if the dessert came with chocolate syrup, without a moment of hesitation, or saying that she had to check first, or mentioning that it might cost more, our server said she could make it happen.
Too bad the two Amici's are enemies: They're certainly friends to any Denver pizza lover.
Dough nuts: Father Dominic Garramone, the Benedictine monk/cooking-show host whose family opened the first Amici's, says that bread brings people together. And because pizza is based on dough, it also contributes to the greater good. "Remember," he says often during his shows, "it's bread. It's going to forgive you."
One of the most forgiving pizza doughs I've ever worked with is Father Dom's recipe from his book Breaking Bread with Father Dominic 2 ($19.95, published by KETC/Channel 9 in St. Louis). Pizza dough has a tendency to get tough, and at higher altitudes, some dough recipes created at sea level turn hard and too crusty on the edges long before the center of the pie is done. This recipe, though, made a bready, Chicago-style deep-dish pizza crust that I was able to turn crispier on the bottom by following Father Dom's suggestion to bake the prepared pizza at 450 degrees for fifteen minutes, then lower the heat to 375 and bake about twenty minutes longer. Since Fleischmann's and Hodgson Mill are sponsors of Father Dom's show, he uses them in his recipes, but I used a locally produced high-altitude flour with excellent results.
Father Dom's Deep-dish Pizza Dough
(reprinted with permission)
1 cup warm water
1 package Fleischmann's Active Dry Yeast
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 cup warm milk
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup Hodgson Mill Yellow Corn Meal
4 1/2 to 5 cups Hodgson Mill
Naturally White Flour, divided
Combine warm water, yeast and sugar in large mixing bowl; stir to dissolve. Let stand 5 minutes. Add warm milk, olive oil, salt, cornmeal and 3 cups of the flour; stir until well-blended. Add 1 cup of the flour; mix with your hands until the flour is thoroughly incorporated. Add remaining 1/2 to 1 cup flour, about 1/4 cup at a time, mixing after each addition, until a soft dough is formed that pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
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Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead 6 to 8 minutes, adding small amounts of flour as needed to keep dough manageable. When finished, the dough should be slightly soft but should spring back when pushed. Lightly oil the surface of the dough and put in the rinsed mixing bowl. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place 60 to 90 minutes, or until doubled.
Punch down dough. Knead about 1 minute. Oil the surface again and place back in bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place for 60 minutes. (Or let rise in refrigerator for several hours. Let the dough stand at room temperature 30 minutes before proceeding.)
Punch down dough. Briefly knead. Divide dough in half for two 14-inch deep-dish pizzas or into quarters for four 8- to 10-inch pizzas.
To make the pizzas, lightly grease the pans and roll out dough to a circle about 1 inch wider than the pan. Place dough in pan and let rest 15 to 20 minutes. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Add the sauce (1 cup), toppings and cheese (about two cups grated), and bake 35 to 40 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the top is melted and starting to brown. Remove and let stand 5 to 10 minutes before serving.