In a world where upscale Italian bistros charge 20 bucks for a bowl of risotto and the Olive Garden touts its Tuscan cooking school, an old red-sauce Italian restaurant that isn't trying to put on airs is rather refreshing.
The restaurant in this case is Amalfi's, a newcomer to Mt. Pleasant's Belle Hall Shopping Center, though it's not actually a new business. Formerly inside the Best Western hotel downtown on Spring Street, it closed after a fire in 2010 and ended up outside the I-526 loop.
Amalfi's menu is about as straight down the middle as it comes. There's a selection of pizza and calzones, sandwiches and subs, and lots of pasta and Italian-American entrées.
The meal opens on a bright note with a basket of fresh-baked bread. The rolls are fat, fist-sized diamonds, crusty on the outside and chewy in the center. They're served with a little plate of olive oil that's laced with a tangy balsamic vinaigrette, making for a delicious dip. If you're not careful, you'll plow right through a second basket and fill yourself up before the meal comes.
Most of the pasta dishes are of the red sauce variety, in substantial portions. The stuffed shells ($9) have five large pasta shells filled with an herby ricotta and spinach blend, topped with a meatless red sauce, sprinkled with lots of mozzarella, and baked till the cheese is melted and brown. The tomato sauce is fresh and bright; the cheesy pasta gooey and satisfying.
The ravioli ($9) is equally big and filling. The pasta squares are thick but tender, with a smooth beef filling inside and a bunch of meaty red sauce over the top, along with a generous dusting of grated parmesan.
I found the red sauce dishes to be the better of the pastas. The fettuccine alfredo ($9.95) has tender, wide noodles, and the creamy white sauce is rich but rather bland, though once you stir in some salt and grated parmesan it becomes passable.
The salad that comes with each of the pasta and specialty entrées reflects the theme of basic fare with some endearing touches. In the salad's case, it's a standard plate of chopped green leaf lettuce with slices of red onion and roma tomatoes, but the pink sliced radishes add a nice twist, and the homemade balsamic vinaigrette (the same vinaigrette that livens up the plate of olive oil served with the bread) with little bits of finely diced and marinated onion, peppers, and other veggies is miles ahead of your typical Italian dressing.
If you're not up for a big pasta meal, Amalfi's slate of a dozen subs offers plenty of choices, ranging from ham and cheese and Italian cold cuts to hot sandwiches like meatball and Italian sausage. The chicken parm sub ($5.75 for 8", $7.50 for 12") comes on a nice toasted hoagie roll with lots of gooey mozzarella cheese, and the chicken is thick and tender and covered with plenty of that bright tomato sauce, too.
The only real let down for me at Amalfi's is the pizza, and that's largely because of the crust. It's hand-tossed (you can see the guys tossing it up in the air through the arced window that separates the kitchen from the dining room), but somehow it comes off a little plain and bready without that firm chewiness that makes for a great pizza foundation. The sauce is pleasant, and the mozzarella laid on with a generous hand, but it's not worth passing up a big plate of pasta for.
There are a few challenges with the location, too. If ever there was a restaurant you would describe as "tucked away in a strip mall," Amalfi's would be it, for it is truly hidden away in the back corner of the Belle Hall Shopping Center where passersby are unlikely to stumble upon it.
Once you manage to find the place and step inside, the interior seems a little odd. The narrow storefront space is two stories, giving it one small dining area downstairs with a tremendous high ceiling soaring above five booths and one table. Up a long, high flight of stairs, there's a secondary dining area with a few more tables and booths.
The proprietors have done what they can to make it more welcoming. The walls are painted a cheery yellow, and a few paintings of Italian landscapes join baskets and fake grapes on the sparsely decorated walls. From the sound system, Italian music mingles with Dino and Frank classics, and the occasional opera aria adds a touch of old-school atmosphere to the still-new interior. Once you settle into the booth and tuck into the warm, crispy nuggets of bread, the place begins to grow on you.
If this restaurant was trying to be an "upscale Italian bistro" or some such rot, sticking $18 and $19 price tags on the entrées, I would judge them differently. But Amalfi's serves tasty and filling fare at very reasonable prices. All of the pasta dishes are under 10 bucks, and that includes a salad. The lunch menu is an even better deal. With 11 pasta dishes (including salad and drink) at $7.25 and a dozen subs (with chips and drink, too) for $5.75, you can easily have a sit-down lunch for two and walk out having paid less than 20 bucks, tax and tip included.
If enough people can track down the little yellow-walled restaurant way in the back of Belle Hall, that seems like a good formula for success.