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Dining Review: Amalfi Cucina Italiana

The latest link the group's noted portfolio arrives in The Village at Pacific Highlands Ranch in Carmel Valley

Amalfi Cucina Italiana’s authentic Italian menu features Neapolitan pizza, homemade pasta, fresh seafood, and more
Image Credits Vincent Knakal

After refining their individualistic approach to traditional Italian cuisine at a trio of eateries in San Marcos, four hospitality veterans have transported their current concept, Amalfi Cucina Italiana, to Carmel Valley. Installed in a corner spot in The Village at Pacific Highlands Ranch, the restaurant’s contemporary aspects of its brown-brick interiors — slate-hued leather seats, crystal chandeliers — are tempered by framed photos of Italian cinematic stars of yesteryear and olden ad artwork for Campari and Aperol. The latter is apt, given the ubiquity of those popular aperitifs across Amalfi’s cocktail list.

Brown-brick interiors with slate-hued leather seats and crystal chandeliers are complemented by framed photos of Italian cinematic stars of yesteryear

Spritzes and multiple takes on Negronis (gin, bourbon, mezcal) are available, along with the “Kentuckiano.” A modern concoction blending Woodford Reserve bourbon, Amaro Nonino, Aperol, and Peychaud’s and black-walnut bitters, its upfront oak and caramel notes are balanced by the sweetness of the amaro and tonic-like bitterness of the Aperol. It is perfectly in tune with today’s cocktail enthusiasts — a brilliant marriage of American and Italian elements leaning on of-the-moment liqueurs.

Amalfi Cucina Italiana
Amalfi Cucina Italiana

Guests can also build their own Old Fashioned by choosing from one of five spirits (bourbon, rye, mezcal, Scotch, aged rum), specialty bitters, and house-made mixers incorporating Nigerian hibiscus, Oaxacan honey, rosemary, and more. The beverage program is further bolstered by a lengthy but digestible list of Italian, French, Californian, and Southern Hemisphere wines (pulled from a glowing azure mezzanine-level bottle depository), plus private-label sips produced by San Clemente’s Delahunt Brewing. 

Amalfi’s extensive menu features wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, and items flown in from Italy. Not always available, but a must-have when it’s on is a grand-scale form of burrata called zizzona di Battipaglia. Imported from Campagna, it’s sheet-white and resembles a beggar’s purse or cow’s udder. Slicing into it reveals small, bocconcini-like curds bathed in salty cream. It’s cheese on cheese on cheese, and served with prosciutto di Parma, fresh basil, thick slices of heirloom tomatoes, and a disc of well-browned focaccia, making it perfect for sharing with a large group.

Paccheri al Tonno e Gamberoni Argentini
Paccheri al Tonno e Gamberoni Argentini

A trio of focaccia preps (à la carte, Caprese, smoked salmon and stracciata cheese) join pan-fried artichokes, a marinara-dressed meatball, meat and cheese board, and a half-dozen salads like shrimp with lemon-mint dressing, beet and blue cheese, and grilled Romaine with burrata and truffle dressing, as starters. From there, options truly abound.

As with the aforementioned DIY Old Fashioned, diners may choose from a variety of pasta (as well as gnocchi or the daily gluten-free pasta option), then select from eight condiments and preparations, including cacio e pepe, Bolognese, arrabbiata, and puttanesca. Entrees such as pistachio-crusted salmon, seafood stew, lasagna, and eggplant Parmigiana are also available, or there’s the specialty of the house: pizza.

A misty eye-level window running the length of the dining room’s west wall provides a peek at a Stefano Ferrara wood-fired oven brought over from Naples. That gold-tiled apparatus pumps out piping-hot, blistered Neapolitan-style pies prepared to the exacting specifications of five-time World Pizza Champion Marcello Avitabile. Thin and malleable in the center, yet bordered by a bubble-terrained, chewy outer ring, they are things of beauty and remarkably affordable as sharables or a main course for one.

Amalfi Cucina Italiana Co-Founder Emiliano Muslija and Chef Marcello Avitabile
Amalfi Cucina Italiana Co-Founder Emiliano Muslija and Chef Marcello Avitabile

A dectet of red-sauced rosso pizzas stick mostly to traditional vegetables, cured meats, and sausage, while pesto- and oil-dressed bianche options push beyond the parlor. Examples include the Nonnina, which is topped with mushrooms, prosciutto, arugula, and truffle oil; and the Valtellina, marrying unlikely bedfellows speck, provola di agerola cheese, brie, sausage, and caramelized onions. The sweet onions and herbaceous sausage are brilliant foils for one another while the funk of the brie adds a fun and unique element that can’t be found elsewhere. A trio of calzones are also on the menu. 

But wait…there’s more. If Amalfi’s everyday menu is the restaurant’s blueprint, its specials menu, a one-page assortment of chef’s-whim dishes that changes every two weeks, is its sketchpad. Specialty pizzas, pastas, plates, and even drinks are available. A recent visit turned up seabass carpaccio with mango, lobster ravioli, tender veal ossobuco, and risotto with scallops and pistachio pesto. 

Risotto Scallops, Pistachio Pesto & Burrata
Risotto Scallops, Pistachio Pesto & Burrata

All the above can be savored against an aural backdrop of hustling wait staff, boisterous Pacific Highlands Ranchers and, come evening, live crooning set to keys, bass, and a brushed snare. Amalfi delivers a well-rounded experience built on familiar, well-established foundational cornerstones of stateside Italian dining while still providing welcome touches of the exotic and unexpected.

Golden Forks

Service: 4
Timeliness: 3
Ambience: 3.5
Culinary Innovation: 4
Food Quality: 4.5
Cocktail Program: 4
Wine List: 4
Beer List: 3.5
Value: 4.5


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