Dining in a restaurant housed within a grocery store — a store featuring an animatronic crowing rooster — is an odd sensation. In the span of a few minutes, you can move from dodging grocery carts in the parking lot, to walking by cupcakes decorated to resemble Cookie Monster and Elmo, to being asked if you have a reservation by a well-appointed hostess.
Built to evoke an Italian villa, Amore, the Italian restaurant and wine bar housed within the recently renovated East Avenue Wegmans, is replete with stone work, blonde wood, roughhewn beams, weathered-looking metal, and crystal-accented lights. It feels less like an actual villa and more like a facsimile found in Epcot Center's World Showcase. Sections of the restaurant look out onto the store's Market Cafe, where crowds of people enjoy the lo mein, subs, pizza, and sushi prepared in-store.
Inside Amore, the bar is slick — it retains the metal and crystal, and adds lipstick-red flourishes for good measure. There is a nice selection of more than 40, predominantly Italian, wines to ponder and taste, a handful of which are available in 2 oz. pours, well-suited for tasting flights.
In the main dining area, the focal point is Amore's kitchen, built around a beehive-shaped Neapolitan pizza oven. The kitchen is open to the dining room, and it's entertaining to nibble on appetizers while watching the chefs prepare meals and waiters zip in and out.
The service at Amore is excellent. Servers are prompt, attentive, and courteous, and manage the delicate balance of being at the ready when you require attention without being overly solicitous. Dishes and utensils are whisked away at the appropriate time, mishaps (like a broken dish or spill of wine) are handled quickly and kindly and, if you leave your table for a moment, your napkin will be neatly refolded in your absence.
While some dishes are only served at lunch or dinner, there are a number of items available at both meals, including the warm-from-the-oven rosemary flatbread ($4). Shaped and cut into wedges like a pizza, the flatbread is softer and more yielding, sprinkled with fontinella and served sans sauce. It's well seasoned with rosemary, olive oil, pops of salt and cracks of pepper.
Vegetables are showcased at Amore, garnering their own section of the menu. They're large enough to share as a side, but not overly generous. The roasted asparagus ($8) is fresh and lively, brightened by lemon juice. It gets a salty and rich kick with a pinch (too small of a pinch, unfortunately) of melted parmigiano-reggiano cheese.
The eggplant parmesan ($10) is a staff favorite, according to a Wegmans blog post by Russell Ferguson, executive chef of culinary development. Like Ferguson says, the eggplant is soft and custardy, almost lush on the tongue. But the rest of the dish falls flat, with muted tomato and basil notes.
Pizza also gets its own section on the menu, and runs the gamut from classic Margherita ($12) to pizza topped with a soft-cooked egg, pecorino, speck (a type of cured and smoked pork), and potato ($14). The 11-inch, thin-crusted pizzas are baked at 600 degrees, resulting in a crisp, slightly charred crust. A personal favorite combination, meatball with banana peppers ($11), didn't disappoint. The flavor-rich meatballs were set off by the vinegary astringency of the peppers. While this pizza has been phased out of the menu, I'd nonetheless try asking for it nicely.
Another Italian restaurant standard, ravioli ($12 for a smaller portion/$16 for a larger serving), brings Wegmans Italian Classics product line to the fore, using the store's jumbo ricotta and basil ravioli and topping it with a zucchini tomato sauce, the minty herb nipitella, and a ricotta salata. Basil and nipitella make for a vibrant pairing but, on the whole, the dish tastes less like a chef's innovation and more like something a savvy home cook whipped up using Wegmans products.
The Amore steak ($19), a tender and flavorful sirloin flat steak, is topped with garlic cheese butter. Fat is a beautiful carrier of flavor, making each bite rich and delicious. Paired with Yukon gold potatoes (crispy and rosemary-flecked on the outside, creamy and inherently buttery on the inside) and a simply dressed arugula salad (its bitterness simultaneously softened and set off by olive oil and lemon), this is the not only the most satisfying dish on the menu, but the most delicious steak I've had locally in some time.
Lighter and also delicious is the dinner-only Tuscan cod ($17). Fresh and flaky, the cod has a crispy exterior, flavored with juice from caramelized lemons, and is accompanied by shaved fennel — the light licorice flavor plays off the citrus notes — and sautéed cherry tomatoes.
Found only on the lunch menu are panouzzis; essentially, an oven-baked sandwich. I thought the chicken parmigiana ($10) would be a slam-dunk, but this is another item with underdeveloped flavors. The chicken itself was moist (thigh meat typically is, and it's smart to use that to a dish's advantage), but the breading was dry and dark, and the sauce and cheese seemed overwhelmed by the bread. The side of arugula salad remained fresh and delicious.
What may be challenging for diners going to Amore is figuring out what to expect from the dining experience. Wegmans' press materials position Amore as a spot for a quick bite, casual date, or relaxed meal with a crowd. But, first and foremost, it seems to be a showcase for Wegmans Italian Classics product line — in fact, that is part of the spiel the waitstaff greeted me with during each visit.
If Amore is largely a vehicle to highlight Wegmans products, why is so much thought and time put into the spot-on service — which is better than at a number of other area restaurants? Why are some menu items' price points higher than one would expect? Why is the restaurant architecturally separated from the very space that houses the products it seeks to sell?
If its aim is to provide a more sophisticated and authentic experience than chain restaurants in the style of Carrabba's, Cheesecake Factory, or P.F. Chang's, why do some dishes and the interior design run counter to this? Why is Amore built into the East Avenue Wegmans and not a standalone building like the Next Door Bar & Grill? And why is the bill presented in an empty Wegmans Italian Classics bruschetta jar?
With solid service, numerous wine selections, and a number of simply prepared yet satisfying items, Amore could turn into a long-term relationship. But at this point, it's a confusing Italian lover.