GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Good friends still find a place to gather on the top of the hill at Buon Amici.
Buon Amici fills plates C&C left behind
For restaurant regulars, change is scary. After you've found all your favorite dishes on a menu, change often means starting the hunt for food all over again, just when you've begun to feel comfortable. It's sort of like walking into someone's home for a dinner party, plopping yourself into a nice cushy sofa, then being told the party has moved a few miles away.
Isn't the reason humankind settled into villages due to a longing for permanence of place? Well, we left the plains and savannas eons ago. No wonder we're loathe to resume the hunt.
It's one thing when an unpopular restaurant closes, but quite another when a restaurant insinuates itself into your life, as did C&C Pasta for many a Kaimuki dweller. We might not all be fortunate enough to keep second homes, but a good restaurant can serve as a "second kitchen," a retreat where you can expect to be pampered as well as fed.
The idea that Buon Amici would even try to step into the role carved out by C&C was fraught with the sort of peril that greets would-be stepmoms, stepdads and kin, but I have a feeling the bonding is well under way, as the restaurant's name, meaning "good friends," implies. It's hard to get a table on weekends; weekdays are another story, but that has something to do with prices that are higher than what people expect from an Italian restaurant. Can any restaurateur blame us when most of us were weaned on $9 pasta from Auntie Pasto's and Assaggio's?
The difference is that Buon Amici delivers authenticity in the form of handmade pastas cooked al dente by a chef from Tuscany with the help of former C&C staffers, who add a touch of familiarity for old times' sake.
THE restaurant is as claustrophobic as it ever was, with no room to expand thanks to a booming market for commercial space. When it's full, you'll be elbow to eyeball with other guests, but regulars are accustomed to the situation and seem willing to shrink into themselves for the occasion, pulling elbows and shoulders in.
If you're low on cash and just want a quick bite, be courteous and show up early to leave enough time for a second seating, and have the antipasto della casa ($14.95 for two) paired with a salad ($8.95 for a Caesar to $13.95 for butter lettuce and baby frisée tossed with blue crab meat). The antipasto platter delivers all the food groups in a format that's easy to swallow, starting with mozzarella caprese ($9.95 a la carte), slices of prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe, fried calamari ($9.95 a la carte), marinated zucchini and bruschetta.
You can rarely go wrong with caprese or prosciutto and melon, and I also loved the zucchini scapese, sautéed in olive oil before being briefly marinated in a light balsamic vinaigrette. The calamari was not as crisp as it could have been, so better you find out in this sampling than with an entire order. Bruschetta can also be ordered a la carte at $11.95 for two types: one with the usual combination of tomatoes, basil and roasted garlic, with upgrades of prosciutto, baby arugula and shaved Grana Padana parmesan; the other, almost like a breakfast bagel, featuring smoked salmon, crème fraîche, dill and capers.
I wanted to love the cappellacci alla suzette ($21.95), hat-shaped pasta filled with butternut squash, parmesan and chopped walnuts, but the large size of the pasta gave it all the palatability of uncooked wonton pi. It can be done, but it was rather dry and chewy. I loved the squash, but there wasn't enough of the moist filling to compensate for the doughy parts.
The stringier pastas get my vote for being able to hold onto sauce, such as the linguine tossed with mushrooms in a creamy almond pesto mascarpone sauce ($18.95), with four Pacific Northwest singing scallops ringing the plate, still attached to their pretty shells. These were dry, dense and sweet, with the sort of texture you'd associate with smoked scallops.
I love that the sauces never drown the pastas, though I couldn't say the same for the sea bass in a dish of spigola al forno, which had the fish soaking in an ocean of white wine. Many good things went into this soup: artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes, basil, capers and Kalamatas, but on receiving the dish I failed to see how it added up to a $27.95 entree when I could easily make this at home. I've experienced sticker shock a lot this year and figure this simply reflects the new cost of doing business in light of run-ups on rent and utilities.
For dessert, panna cotta is served parfait style in a tall glass and topped with fresh raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. You might also be tempted by another Italian confection of zabaglione served atop a scoop of mango sorbet. Most restaurants tend to serve the hot zabaglione of egg yolks, sugar and Marsala wine whipped to a froth. Be aware that this is the cold version, a sweet sauce that starts with heavy cream.
If the restaurant is not too busy, your zabaglione might also be accompanied by bit of table-side theater involving setting fire to paper. It'll be a long time before any restaurant can top that.