Known for its eponymous blue-collar Italian restaurants and Banchetti banquet center, the Rizzo family aimed higher last year, and opened Rizotto Ristorante. ¶ The fine dining Italian operation, nestled in the well-appointed former Verbena/Daffodils space on Maple Road in Amherst, has a high-ceilinged bar and about 120 seats all told. They’re scattered through several rooms and some cozy corners, with solid tables, real chairs and lots of dark wood trim, radiating a luxe vibe before you even sit down. ¶ We were recognized, but the tour of the antipasto bar we got was standard fare for diners, owner Michael Rizzo said. A cook was working on a neatly arranged display of vegetables, seafood, meat and cheese that can be ordered singly or in combinations.
Our guide noted that Rizotto makes its own bread, pasta, mozzarella and desserts.
Bread arrived warm in two flavors, a classic airy, moist-crumbed crusty Italian loaf and a denser rosemary-scented cousin. Three spreads – olive tapenade, cheesy roasted red pepper and rich white bean puree – beat butter.
We consulted the written specials and asked for pork belly over greens and beans ($9), three-pepper gorgonzola arancini ($8.50), artichokes au gratin ($9), insalata abraci, with squash and melon ($5.50), half-orders of macaroncini and orechiette pastas ($8 each), and one entree, scarlet snapper with pea risotto ($19).
The antipasto bar is an easy way to explore the kitchen’s sensibilities, so we hit a pick-six ($12.95). We got milky house-made mozzarella and decent tomato, for March; shaved fried zucchini, darkly delicious but oily; tender meatballs of beef, veal and pork in fruity marinara; and a tender grain called farro with crunchy diced grilled vegetables. The tough core remained in chewy caramelized fennel.
The surprise favorite was seafood couscous: tender squid pieces, tentacles and scallops in a light herb-flecked dressing, Moroccan pasta grains and celery for crunch and astringency. Simple but satisfying.
By that point, we’d already encountered the insalata abraci, a lightly dressed green salad hosting chunks of roasted butternut squash, pickled red onions and watermelon, dusted with salty shreds of ricotta salata cheese. Braced for a collision, I found myself enjoying the ride, the unexpected pleasure of sweet juicy crunch against salty cheese and earthy squash. (May Chef Carlo Tonelli be blessed with local watermelon this fall.)
Artichokes gratin were two medium-sized, stem-on specimens, split open, crumbed and baked with gorgonzola cheese on a bed of radicchio. Tasty, but I wanted more browning from either the light crumb coat or the broiler.
A foursome of arancini (fried rice balls) arrived on more fruity marinara. A stouter crust would have kept the spheres from cracking under their own weight and oozing molten cheese. No quibbles about the flavor, though, or the rice, which remained distinct grains instead of mush. They were dispatched without mercy, leaving behind only the garnish of greasy fried basil leaves, which, as I learned, are not so nice to eat.
Pork belly was meltingly tender under its crisped, peppery surface, with much of the fat cooked out but still dangerously rich. Underneath were garlicky white beans and greens that hadn’t been boiled textureless. With a squeeze of grilled lemon brightening up the heavy flavors, I could have eaten it all, but I wanted to enjoy it again for lunch, so I stopped.
The macaroncini, like jumbo elbow pasta, came in a creamy meat sauce with major mushroom aroma, from fresh fungi and a restrained drop of truffle oil. The pasta was chewier than what I consider al dente, however.
The orecchiette, little ears, held its tomatoey meat ragu well, and I would get the full order next time.
Red snapper arrived on risotto green from mashed peas, topped with a toque of pickled julienned bell pepper, carrot and celery. The fish was browned but moist and flaky, and the sourness of the vegetables perked up its mild character.
The cannoli trio, with thrillingly crunchy house-made shells ($6.50), and apple tart ($6) were both satisfying and skillful.
Rizotto transcends its blue-collar roots to earn its Italian fine dining label.
Rizotto Ristorante: 8 plates (Out of 10)
Surprises and satisfaction abound at Rizzo family’s upscale establishment.
WHERE: 930 Maple Road, Amherst (204-4455, rizottoristorante.com)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday brunch and 2 to 9 p.m. Sunday dinner.
PRICE RANGE: Antipasti, $2.95-$18.95; appetizers, $7.50-$12.50; pizzas and pastas, $7-$26; entrees, $18-$38.
PARKING: In the lot.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.