Years ago, fried cheese sticks started hitting appetizer and bar menus everywhere, and while cheese lovers couldn't help but like the thought of what such a thing could have been, the actual product was more like a fish stick than anything else, lacking flavor and texture.
Then came Amerigo's cheese fritter, what all cheese sticks would like to be. About the irregular shape and size of a generous homemade hushpuppy, the fritter is a ball of mixed yellow and white cheeses, battered and breaded. It's deep fried until a substantial crunch is achieved on the outside and the cheese inside becomes a molten ball.
Served with fresh and tangy housemade marinara on one side of the plate and a creamy yet bright honey mustard sauce on the other, this appetizer is a good example of the familiar but elevated menu of the mostly American-Italian dishes at Amerigo.
If you thought Amerigo was a big corporate chain, I can only say that you were in the company of someone who should have known better -- me -- but there was
reason for the confusion, too. It is a chain, albeit a small one, with one restaurant here, the original in Jackson, Miss., and two in Nashville. Co-owner Ben Brock, also co-owner of Interim and former co-owner of Sole, explained it.
Brock started with Amerigo in Jackson about 20 years ago and remained with the company, which also owned another small chain with no Memphis presence, until it was purchased by a former executive with O'Charley's. When the new owner started making changes, Brock left about five years ago and became a partner in Interim.
Two years ago, Amerigo went into receivership, and Brock, along with several original Amerigo investors, purchased the company. Each market has local ownership, and while one of the owners, Paul Schramkowski, is the chef who designs the menu, all restaurants except the one in Jackson are chef-run.
The local chef is Ben Hickey, and each location is committed to local growers; Brock is on the board of the Memphis Farmers Market.
The food at Amerigo is for the most part very good. The large space is casual but refined, with warm gold walls, subdued lighting and red banquettes lining the main walls and seating nooks. White butcher paper on the tables is unfortunate, a pet peeve slightly mitigated when I found out the cost of linen services. Service, at each visit, was efficient and friendly.
Chicken piccata is not just one of my Italian standards, but an all-time favorite dish and a staple at home. It's little more than lightly breaded chicken, pounded thin and pan fried, served with a simple sauce of reduced chicken stock, wine, lemon juice, butter and capers -- and that's generally all it should be. But it's a dish that chefs like to play around with, usually with disappointing results.
At Amerigo, the addition of a few mushrooms and a scattering of lump crabmeat is surprisingly good, but perhaps not in the way intended. The sauce is excellent, tangy with lemon, pepped up with the capers and toned down with butter. Two generous pieces of tender breast meat are served over a mound of (perfectly cooked) angel hair pasta. It would be enough for two meals, but with the crab, it's sort of like three as the crab itself, eaten with the sauce and the pasta, was excellent. As a unified dish, though, well, I don't get it, as the crab neither enhances nor detracts from the chicken, but sort of disappears. Even still, I'd happily order it again.
The scallops Veneto tasted more Cajun than Italian because of the blackened seasoning, but it was another very good dish. Scallops were good quality, large, cooked only until tender, and served over a bed of polenta and topped with a lemon-basil butter sauce. Like the other sauces, this one is made from scratch, and it was excellent.
Sunday brunch was so-so, but I got the feeling the kitchen was a little off its game on the day we were there. An omelet was a bit heavy, and the crab cakes were cooked a tad past browned, though not to the point of burnt. A woman at a nearby table complained that her sauce looked different than it usually does, and I was left with the feeling that there was just something going on that was taking the food down a notch from usual. I can't swear to that, as I just ate brunch there once.
A few days later, we were back for lunch, and the food was up to the standards met at dinner, except for the pizza.
The cheese fritters were even better than the first time we tried them, and the Italian club panini (well, there are two pieces on the plate, though I would still say it's one sandwich and call it a panino) was wonderful. The bread was buttery and crisp, the filling of Italian meats, fontina cheese and roasted onions plentiful and delicious. Both the house salad and the Caesar were fresh and nice.
The pizza was flavorful, but the crust was oddly limp, particularly strange considering it's cooked in a wood-fired oven. But I'll give it another try; I like Amerigo.
-- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223
Address: 1239 Ridgeway.
Telephone: (901) 761-4000.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.
Reviewer's choices: Chicken piccata ($17 at dinner); Italian club panini ($9 with salad at lunch); cheese fritters ($6 and $9 for small and large order; $4 for small order as an Early Bird special, nightly 4-6 p.m.)
Alcohol: Full bar.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars