From the vantage of an automobile hurtling by on Transit Road, Amaretto Bistro looks quite ordinary, the sort of place where you can get acceptable spaghetti and meatballs but think twice about gambling on the "homemade" ravioli.
Walk in, and that impression won't be challenged much by the stock Italian posters on the walls and the small collection of tables. There are a few outside too, if you want to get closer to the Transit Road hubbub.
But from the table out, however, Amaretto Bistro was a welcome surprise. The first thing to land on the white paper-covered tablecloth was an amuse bouche, a bit of creme fraiche and caviar on a cold potato slice.
Then came the basket of crusty, fresh, housemade bread, with a carafe of olive oil with herbs and garlic cloves. Also poking out of the basket were shards of a paper-thin, addictively crispy wafer that the server called lavash. I thought lavash was soft, but whatever its name, it was welcome.
The regular menu was short but showed some signs of ambition. There were six options for appetizers, including ricotta gnocchi in summer squash tomato broth ($9.95), lamb meatballs with blackberry demi-glace ($8.95) and scallops in Amaretto cream ($10.95). We chose the gnocchi and a "wild game sausage" of venison, over black bean and corn salsa ($7.95).
There were five pastas, including linguine and clams ($19.95) and a "veal Oscar" of raviolis stufffed with veal and crab in a Bearnaise sauce ($26.95).
The six entrees included a pork porterhouse with apricot rosemary demi-glace ($21.95), New York strip with sauteed mushrooms and a grilled onion foam ($33.95), and salmon in a pesto beurre blanc ($22.95). We ordered the pork and grilled shrimp with sweet pea risotto ($24.95).
The ricotta gnocchi gave the game away: pillowy instead of doughy, browned but still tender, in a tomato sauce that emphasized freshness and lightness over volume. They were, as so many good things are, gone too fast. Firm cubes of squash added needed texture.
The housemade wild game sausage offered a mild gamy flavor that went well with the husky black beans and corn. The skinless meat torpedo was subtly spiced, with just enough moisture to remain pleasant.
Our arugula, strawberry and blue cheese salad ($8.95) was a bracing combination of peppery greens and funky cheese. Somehow the macerated strawberries won through and had the greens and cheese cooperating nicely, though more berries wouldn't have hurt.
My pork porterhouse's arrival elicited a small gasp. Seared to a caramel brown and napped with a buttery, jammy apricot sauce, it was cooked white throughout while remaining juicy, an admirable feat. "Spectacular," said Cat.
The whipped potatoes and firm asparagus that came alongside were enjoyable.
Cat got five large shrimp on a pile of slightly al dente risotto studded with peas. The encircling tomato bisque was creamy and soothing, like an adult version of cream of tomato soup.
Desserts included a chocolate cheesecake with hazelnut crust, Cat's choice, and a "peanut butter and jelly" dessert built on brioche ($7), which I chose because I haven't seen it on every other menu in town. (There was creme brulee and tiramisu for playing it safe.)
The cheesecake was a delicious little sugar grenade, with crunchy hazelnuts in the crust to mix up the chocolate coma delivered by the mousselike filling.
Alas, the peanut butter and jelly dessert fell short. The brioche was sweet and fluffy and the raspberry sauce was fruity, but there was a sour, vinegary component to the peanut butter mousse that was more Thai noodles than dessert.
Our server was swift with information, keeping our meal moving and water glasses filled even though at one point she was practically working the room solo while male staffers were out front admiring a sports car.
All in all, we enjoyed careful cooking in unremarkable surroundings, and would like to return to see what else the chef has in mind.
DESCRIPTION: Little touches elevate dinner in unassuming Transit Road location.
WHERE: 7170 Transit Road, Williamsville (635-4750).
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, salads $5.95-$10.95; entrees $16.95-$33.95
PARKING: In the lot.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.