La Dolce Vita
At Beacon’s CafÃ© Amarcord, owner Rifo Murtovic and chef Michael Deberick celebrate Italian cuisine with a few side trips to more exotic locales
By Jorge S. Arango
Amarcord, the 1973 movie, was Federico Fellini’s tribute to Rimini, the town in the Northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna where he was raised. It had all his usual trademarks: an impressionistic sense of time and place, an insider’s portrayal of local customs and rituals, celebrations of sexuality, a carnival of eccentric characters, and great humanity.
CafÃ© Amarcord, the restaurant, which Rifo Murtovic opened last January with chef Michael Deberick on Beacon’s main drag, certainly has its Fellini-esque moments. It also happens to have fabulous fare, though some of it strays far from anything you’d associate with the cooking of Emilia-Romagna. Murtovic is from Montenegro, just across the Adriatic, and Deberick is a Hudson Valley boy. Both hail from Danny Meyer’s famed Union Square CafÃ© in New York, so they came to Beacon with an appreciation of global cuisines and a desire to expand the Italian concept beyond red sauce staples (a noble idea, to be sure).
We were greeted by a statuesque hostess with a whispery, pillow-talk voice and legs down to there who was dressed in the shortest of short skirts. Fellini’s celebration of sexuality? Check. She sat us across from a boisterous middle-aged woman with tall lacquered hair and an imperious attitude who seemed intent on commandeering the attention of the entire dining room with her booming alto. She was more frightening than the big-breasted tobacconist in the movie. The man we took to be her henpecked husband barely said a word all night. Fellini’s carnival of characters? Check.
The dining room’s attractive ochre-colored plaster walls, dark wood furnishings, and crisp linens were bathed in a warm amber glow, like something you might find in a Northern Italian city. Our very friendly waitress handled the usual preliminaries in oddly scrambled order: first came a wine list, then an explanation of specials, then the menus. A Fellini-style impressionistic sense of time and place? Hard to say. It might have had more to do with the large party sitting nearby, whose entrÃ©es the entire (and somewhat flummoxed) staff seemed to be helping to serve. Or it might actually be a pitch-perfect portrait of Beacon (that is, a place certainly on the rise, though not quite arrived).
We perused the very reasonable wine list, the bulk of whose international offerings were eminently reasonable (low $20s to about $70, with only a sprinkling of bottles over $100). We chose a 2002 Ocone Aglianico, made further down the Italian boot in Campania. For a wine that hadn’t had contact with fresh air in five years, it was a little harsh at first blush. But like a country bumpkin arriving in a new city, it eventually became properly socialized, finally adopting a full-bodied, though more discreet demeanor.
Scene One of our Amarcord experience was wonderful. A pasta special of homemade quattro formaggio ravioli came bathed in a hearty tomato-based sauce with finely minced hot and sweet Italian sausage and peas, a gorgeous variation on Emilia-Romagna’s famous Bolognese sauce that surely would have been served at Titta’s (Fellini’s boyhood alter ego) home. The seared foie gras with cranberry-apple chutney and toasted crostini was pure Hudson Valley and exquisitely cooked.
Scene Two: After the rich pasta, a shaved fennel salad with picholine olives and paper-thin shaved Pecorino Romano was just what I needed to lighten me up, its citrus vinaigrette and sprinkle of parsley bringing my pleasantly overloaded taste buds back to life. But the tempura green beans with herb aioli and baby arugula were exactly the opposite, and inaccurately described. Deberick says it’s a staple dish here, but the batter — egg and water mixed with about equal portions of flour and Parmesan — is far heavier than tempura should ever be. And as long as you’re serving it with garlicky aioli instead of ginger-laced soy sauce, why call it tempura at all? I encourage Amarcord to dub them Parmesan batter-fried green beans and be done with it.
Fade to Scene Three (set direction: Harridan at next table leaves — sigh —and is replaced by swooning young couple very much in love, then out come the entrÃ©es): A pan-roasted duck special arrived lightly glazed in a citrus reduction spiked with balsamic vinegar. Called a gastrique, this sauce is a classic French device, but the citrus gave it a Moorish or Middle Eastern twist. Here, the exotic foray was a smashing success, imparting a perfectly tart sweetness to a breast delicately crisped under the broiler at the last minute. The Parmesan-encrusted free-range chicken breast with mushroom, escarole, and tomato ragu grounded us back in Italy. Accompanied by polenta fluffed up with mascarpone, its flavors were rich, solid and earthy (even reheated the day after).
The denouement of our meal at Amarcord was more gentle and sweet than that of Amarcord the movie, which ends with Titta on a lonely pier symbolically bidding a melancholy “arrivederci” to his youth. There was no sadness — on the contrary, only unmitigated joy — in the fig gelato, which was creamy and homemade with the luxuriously concentrated flavor of dried figs. And the Semifreddo al Torroncino was a buoyant and fluffy custard manifestation of the staple Sicilian sweet, torrone.
Unlike Titta, I don’t intend to say goodbye to this youthful newbie, I plan to return again and again.
CafÃ© Amarcord Open Tues.-Sun. Lunch is served 12-3 p.m., dinner from 5-10 p.m. (until 11 p.m. Sat.-Sun.). At lunch, soups, salads and appetizers are $7-$10; pastas and entrÃ©es are $11-$15; desserts $6.50-$7.50. At dinner, soups, salads and appetizers are $7-$12; pastas and entrÃ©es are $15-$28; desserts are $6.50-$7.50. 276 Main St., Beacon. 845-440-0050.