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Revisiting a restaurant I’ve loved is a tricky business. If I make a big deal about a place, recalling each dish over the months, then I set myself up for disappointment the second time around. So I resisted going back to Amelia Ristorante in Bay Ridge for almost a year.

"Would it be as mind-blowing as the first time?" I wondered.

In some ways, the sequel was even better. At his one-year-anniversary as owner and chef, Ken Deiner is at the top of his form. His large, simply plated dishes still pack a wallop visually, and they’re just as boldly flavored and carefully balanced as I remembered.

Deiner recently expanded his eight-table dining room to include a large, secluded outdoor space with seating for 65 and a raw bar that seats six. The shaded patio is conducive to lingering as the evening cools down. From Thursday to Sunday, Deiner serves impeccably fresh seafood on the deck. (He offers the same menu on Tuesday and Wednesday via the kitchen.)

The cold, seawater brininess of Blue Point oysters and Little Neck clams are an ideal palate primer to Deiner’s opulent dishes. They also do a good job of taking the sting out of a miserably hot summer day.

Deiner works hard to ensure patrons will have a memorable meal, and "memorable" is his word. There are plenty of good-enough Italian restaurants in Bay Ridge; he aims to create an experience that’s closer to event dining.

Until recently, when he hired a sous chef, Deiner was a one-man-show. With his large menu and attention to detail, going solo wasn’t easy. He makes his own mozzarella, and it’s creamy and subtly nutty tasting with a delicate, milky aroma. His pasta is housemade, and you can taste it in the silkiness of the noodles and the way the sauce clings to the strands. And he’s as good in the pastry station as he is on the savory side.

For instance, Deiner’s flourless chocolate cake - too often served like dense, dull fudge in other eateries - is more like a rich souffle, intensely cocoa flavored, with a rewarding layer of crusty top. He splashes the pastry with B & B whisky that cuts the sweetness while adding a pleasantly bitter edge.

He’s wise, too. Deiner knows he can kill himself kneading dough and never turn out anything as good as the loaves from Royal Crown Pastry Shop in Bensonhurst, so he leaves the bread baking to them. Slices of the seven-grain and country Italian breads arrive slightly warm and ready to be slathered with a mild, roasted garlic and sun-dried tomato butter.

The "mozzarella di Amelia" and the "mozzarella fresca," appetizers that employ the housemade cheese, are delectable: The first starts with a thick slice of the cheese, lightly dusted with breadcrumbs and gently sauteed. The crisp, buttery square serves as a pillow for a bit of fresh plum tomatoes, a few torn basil leaves and slivers of prosciutto. A touch of chunky tomato sauce with just a bit of cream joins the elements together.

There’s nothing unique about the "fresca," a towering, layered creation of humble ingredients: mozzarella, beefsteak tomatoes, and grilled zucchini, but the cheese and the perfect vegetables drizzled with fruity olive oil and mellow, aged balsamic vinegar, add up to a dish that epitomizes summer.

I loved the simplicity of Deiner’s baby octopus hot off the grill, their smokiness amplified with a drizzle of lemony, garlicky vinaigrette. I found just one flaw in an order of grilled soft-shell crabs: the mashed potatoes they teamed up with were too strongly flavored with white pepper. Pesto, made with sundried tomatoes, and a mound of slightly over-salted broccoli rabe played up the sweet muskiness of the shellfish.

Deiner makes a classic Caesar salad - something few restaurants manage to pull off - with a twist. The difference is a thick, inky swirl of reduced balsamic vinegar that sits on the edge of the plate. You swipe a bit of the greens through the dark puddle, and it’s as if an electric switch was thrown on the ingredients: The Parmesan becomes sharper; the anchovies in the slightly creamy dressing more saline; the romaine subtly grassy.

"Petto di pollo al mattone," an entree of chicken breast with a simple toss of vegetables, makes great summertime eating. The meat is grilled beneath a brick ("mattone"), so its skin is brittle and the meat is juicy. Cubes of ripe tomatoes, cucumbers and bits of red onion, tossed with basil-infused vinaigrette, moisten the hen. The only detraction from the dish was a too large mound of overly peppery mashed potatoes.

The standouts of the dinner were the "vitello e granchino alla Madeira" and "tagliatelle alla Bolognese." The "tagliatelle," or thick noodles, were topped with a rich meat sauce made with veal, pork, beef and pancetta. The mix of meats give the dish a complexity not found in single meat sauces; white wine lends to the aroma; and a touch of cream creates a lush binder.

The "vitello," or veal, was wildly delicious. Its thin, delicate medallions were sauteed briefly, then dressed with thin asparagus spears and crabmeat cooked in a light Madeira-enhanced sauce. The fish lends a delicate, winy note to the meat; the vegetable adds freshness and crunch; and the Madeira cuts the richness of the ingredients with its subtly bitter note.

Happy first birthday Amelia Ristorante! I’m looking forward to many happy returns.


Amelia Ristorante (8305 Third Ave. between 83rd and 84th streets in Bay Ridge) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Pasta: $14.95-$17.95; entrees: $15.95-$39.95. Dinner is available Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays. For reservations, call (718) 680-4650.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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