Ama, on the western tip of Soho, is nothing like the Old World Italian restaurants that have dominated this neighborhood for decades. It seems like Ama has landed here almost from another planet: On a recent visit, a stylish Upper East Side crowd packed into Ama’s sleek white dining room on Macdougal Street, just a few doors down from Houston. Suave middle-aged men sauntered in wearing cashmere overcoats, looking like Italian film producers, accompanied by polished-looking matrons in furs and silk throws. They packed themselves in along the banquettes, next to glossy young women dressed in jeans and camisoles, and youths in black turtlenecks. One night, a small boy presided at the end of a long table, as if to say: This place may look chic, but at heart it’s a family restaurant.
And in many respects, it is. Ama is the creation of Donatella Arpaia, owner of Bellini and a partner in David Burke and Donatella. The food here pays homage to Puglia, a region in the South of Italy where her family had a farm. Included on the menu are many of the dishes Ms. Arpaia grew up with, cooked by her grandmother, mother and aunts. Surprisingly, Ama is inexpensive too, with prices ranging from $14 for a plate of pasta to $22 for zuppa di pesce.
On one side of the narrow, low-lit dining room is a line of taupe leather banquettes, caramel-colored mirrors and candle-lit tables covered with white paper cloths. White French doors open onto the street in the front of the restaurant, where there’s a lounge area with white ottomans and a small stone wine bar. The wooden floor is painted white, and the low, white ceiling is patterned with a jaunty fresco of giant red flowers.
The cooking of Puglia has been called cucina povera, since it originates in one of Italy’s poorest areas. “Bread, oil and wine are the three pillars of Apulian diet,” wrote the late Waverley Root in The Food of Italy, adding that between 1.75 and 2.2 pounds of flour are consumed per person per day in the region, most of it in the form of bread. That was 35 years ago, but I wonder if those statistics have changed much.
The principal elements of the cuisine are homemade pasta, grains, wild vegetables and not much meat, but plenty of seafood from the Adriatic and Ionian seas.
Seafood was the choice of two men seated at the table next to me one evening. We were packed in tightly, and when I smelled the aroma that rose up from their plates, it was all I could do to prevent myself from leaning across with my fork and digging in.
One of them was eating zuppa di pesce, a stew made with shellfish in a saffron broth. The other had a bowl of bucatini laced with pieces of octopus in a spicy tomato sauce.
“Is this your first time here?” one of the men asked. Ama is the sort of place where you naturally fall into conversation with your neighbors (many of whom are greeted by Ms. Arpaia like old friends). He’d been here twice in the past week. “And I’m coming back on the weekend!” he said excitedly.
The kitchen is run by an Apulian, Turibio Girardi, who is the co-owner of Ama. You can begin with a platter of airy zucchini fritters or pan-fried baccala with chickpeas, red onion and tomatoes. Buttery grilled baby cuttlefish arrive in a marvelous broth made with clams and porcini; tendrils of charcoal-grilled octopus are perched on a delicious mix of cherry tomatoes and caper berries sprinkled with olive oil.
I have always loved really simple dishes, made with two or three ingredients that speak for themselves. And one of my favorite vegetables is fava beans. They come as a side order, sautéed in olive oil with garlic and topped with pecorino cheese. Great. Favas are also used to make lasagnette, sheets of delicate pasta layered with rock shrimp, oven-dried tomatoes and tarragon. Pan-seared sea bass, sautéed with chicory, arrives on a bed of fava beans whipped into an emerald-green purée.
Ama’s pastas are also exceptional. Cicerchie e tria bianconera, black and white eggless fettuccine, are tossed with flat chickpeas and scallops in a rich seafood broth and topped with ribbons of fried pasta. Caputini (cavatelli), twirled short pasta, get a zesty sauce made with eggplant, tomatoes and ricotta salata forte.
New to me was tiella, a Pugliese specialty that has its origins in Spain and is related to paella, baked in the oven in an earthenware casserole. It’s made with Arborio rice layered with sliced potato, mussels and shrimp, doused with olive oil and topped off with bread crumbs. I also liked the branzino, grilled on the bone with herbs and olive oil-absolutely plain and perfectly cooked.
In contrast, the rabbit, boned, rolled and filled with an herby stuffing made with chestnut and Swiss chard, seemed overwrought. It also came with a dollop of chestnut whipped cream. The Cornish hen is a better choice, juicy and tender under a golden crispy skin, roasted with onions and rosemary.
The wine list (as of this writing, still a work in progress) is exclusively Italian, with a dozen selections from Puglia, which produces hearty reds and light, flowery whites. Some wines by the glass hit the $14 to $16 level, but prices for the bottles are generally low, with many in the $27 to $33 range.
A couple of Ama’s Pugliese desserts seem designedto make sure you fill your quota of flour for the day. The almond sponge cake and crema fritta,baked custard in honey, were too heavy for me. The best dessert is the chocolate tasting, which includes a terrific chocolateice creamand molten chocolate cake. Ms. Arpaia herself makesdelicious almond cookies from her grandmother’s recipe, and they come with sweet almond milk.
Commuting between her two restaurants, Ms. Arpaia’s Upper East side clientele have, not surprisingly, followed her downtown. She greets them like old friends. At her East 61st Street restaurant David Burke and Donatella, a white stretch limousine is permanently parked outside for smokers. I wonder if, in the same spirit, one will soon be parked outside Ama.