Amis Trattoria, which opened in Westport in 2017, got a shot of culinary adrenaline over the summer when Jes Bengtson took over the kitchen as executive chef. Bengtson is also the executive chef at Terrain Cafe in Westport, which is owned by the same company. I’d previously been impressed with Bengtson’s creations at Terrain and was positively wowed by my meal at Amis.
Bengtson has accentuated what was working about Amis, a Roman-Italian restaurant, while also adding new dishes. She aims to bring “the same culinary ethos that I love at Terrain, which is farm to table, community, a little bit more plant based. It’s taking all those things that are really important to me and kind of infusing them into Amis.”
She is succeeding.
Classic pasta dishes like paccheri and rigatoni Bolognese shine. Each features housemade pasta served al dente. The paccheri is topped with a red pesto sauce made with broccoli rabe and some of the best sausage I’ve had in a while, and it too is made in house. Another classic dish that works wonders is Sal’s old-school meatballs appetizer. Many of us can make meatballs that are better than what is offered at most restaurants or have a family member who can. But I don’t know anyone who makes better meatballs than these, and even at the risk of never being invited to my parents’ house again, I have to say it: They are better than my mom’s.
Another appetizer, the eggplant caponata bruschetta, a dip made with roasted eggplant sprinkled with golden raisins and pine nuts, holds its own against the meatballs. My wife and I planned to save some of it for the next day but couldn’t resist finishing it off.
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There are also ample meatless and gluten-free dishes. These include one of the restaurant’s bestsellers, the sweet potato lasagna, with cashew cheese and a sweet potato noodle substitute. It creates the classic flavors of the dish while avoiding the laboratory-designed, plant-based foods that are popular of late.
“When you’re making plant-based foods, the most important thing to me is that it really is plant based, and you can speak to what’s in it,” Bengtson says.
Whether meat or plant based, there’s a lightness to the dishes which add to their appeal. This is by design, Bengtson says, and has to do with fresh ingredients — meat products, for instance, come into the restaurant and are prepared and sold within 48 hours — and keeping recipes straightforward. Bengtson says that each dish is “exactly what it says it is. It should be really clean, really fresh.”
Dishes I look forward to trying on future visits include the spinach and ricotta “meatballs,” a meat-free alternative that outsells the actual meatballs, as well as the chickpea flatbread, Bengtson’s favorite dish.
The restaurant’s physical space is an elegant but casual L-shape dining spot, with exposed bricks, large windows and a New York City-esque feel. One part of the L has a counter in front of an open kitchen, and the other wing has a bar. Both areas have sleek, polished-wood tables in addition to the counter seating. The cocktail list features some cool barrel-aged offerings, including a sazerac. The cannoli and rice pudding are both good, if a bit sweet for my taste.
Amis Trattoria has a more complicated backstory than most restaurants. The original Amis was opened by James Beard award-winning chef Marc Vetri. In 2015, Vetri sold the restaurant to URBN, which owns Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and Terrain, among other stores. Vetri worked for URBN as the Amis brand expanded to new locations in Westport and Pennsylvania. Last year Vetri left URBN and the flagship Amis Trattoria in Philadelphia closed.
This sounds like a sure-fire recipe for a soulless corporate restaurant, but Westport’s Amis is far from that. It seems Vetri’s departure from the company paved the way for the Connecticut eatery to forge its own identity. Bengtson is as locally focused and community driven as any chef I’m aware of in the state. She began her tenure at Amis by hosting a weekly series of dining events featuring other elite Connecticut chefs. On March 2, Bengtson and CTBites.com are hosting “It’s a Woman’s World” at Terrain Cafe. It’s a celebration of the trailblazing females in the Connecticut culinary world.
Bengtson, a native of Danbury, says when she first took the job with URBN at Terrain, she was a bit disillusioned with the industry and decided “if this corporate gig doesn’t work out, I’m kind of over this restaurant thing.”
It’s safe to say it has worked out.
“I love working for Urban Outfitters,” she says. “It’s the best of both worlds. I get all the corporate structure and support while getting all the advantages of running your own restaurant. I make my own menus. I get to invite anyone I want to come hang out and cook with me.”
1 Church Lane, Westport
Price range: To share $9-$15, salads and soups $8-$13, pasta $15-$19, mains $24-$30.
Hours: Sun.-Thu. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight
Ambiance: A modern and elegant layout with high windows that maintains a casual feel. It’s perfect for date night.
Food: A winning mix of Italian classics and housemade pastas with compelling meatless and gluten-free options. Everything we had was clean tasting, light and delicious.
Service: Laid back and excellent. Our server was attentive and made several spot-on recommendations including the paccheri sausage dish.