Amici’s East Coast Pizzeria
3958 Fifth Ave. (Hillcrest)
Prices: Salads, appetizers and pasta dishes, $3.75 to $30.75; pizzas, $8.50 to $27.75
Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
The New York and Boston natives who started Amici’s East Coast Pizzeria in the Bay Area are helping to end the incessant whining from fellow Southern California transplants about the “flaws” of West Coast pizza. Based on the success of their first San Diego location in La Jolla, they just opened a second local kitchen in Hillcrest, complete with a scorching brick oven that cooks the pie crusts to a crispy, dark finish.
From their San Mateo headquarters, Mike Forter and Peter Cooperstein have expanded Amici’s to a dozen locations throughout California. Unraveling the back-East secrets to dough making was their number one priority when launching the business in the mid-1980s.
Despite the fact that nobody in the company will reveal them, a New Jersey native in our group declared after biting into a sausage-garlic pizza, “This crust is exactly like what I grew up eating in pizzerias back home.”
Having acquired my pizza snobbery in Buffalo, N.Y., where the crusts are generally a tad thicker and cooked on pizza tins at 550 degrees rather than directly on oven floors at 720 degrees, the Amici’s recipe nonetheless hit some of my own critical benchmarks in terms of flavor and texture.
Present were the yeasty undertones that sadly go missing in so many California pizzerias, even in those claiming New York roots. Also, the crust was chewy instead of cracker-like while still breaking down easily in the mouth, a telling clue that the dough receives extra kneeding compared to what Left Coast pizza makers give it. And this includes spin stretching it into the air by the masters in Amici’s exhibition kitchen.
Bright, house-made red sauce and whole-milk mozzarella are among the classic foundations as well. In terms of quality and price, these pizzas aren’t cheap. A mini seven-inch with pepperoni costs $9.50, graduating to $23.25 for a large 15-incher. The size scale also encompasses 10-inch smalls and 13-inch mediums on both customer-crafted and specialty pies.
Tender, fried eggplant graced the “Boston,” which didn’t disappoint. We also ordered a pizza with mozzarella, Provolone, roasted garlic and Italian sausage. Red pepper flakes lurking beneath the cheese added a lively spark. It was excellent. Both pizzas were 10-inches, which sated this foursome but without leaving us overly filled as we sometimes like to feel when it comes to good pizza.
Other choices include the “Philly” with peppers, onions and hot or mild sausage; a veggie pizza with roasted green peppers, mushrooms, onions and black olives; and the “Manhattan” with clams and garlic. Several of the specialty pizzas are sauceless, such as the “Pollo” with chicken breast and baby spinach or the “Greek Isle” crowned with feta, mozzarella, artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes.
Among the starters we tried, a trio of all-beef meatballs was my favorite — tender, lean and nurturing. Gnocchi in butter and Parmesan didn’t reveal any butter, although we liked the slightly crispy sear on the dumplings.
As beautiful salads passed our table, we caved to the artichoke panzanella bread salad featuring a garden’s worth of fresh veggies and Tuscan-style bread cubes dressed in very light vinaigrette. Our only complaints were that we felt it needed mozzarella to tie everything together. And fresh, grilled artichokes rather than brined would have made it sensational.
Amici’s remodel to what was Freebirds World Burrito is bright and open, with a soothing color palette of gray, soft brown and white. The fiery brick oven at the center of the stainless-steel kitchen is always in eyeshot.