Last year, Amato's Cafe & Catering was featured on the Food Network's “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives.”
The little restaurant near 64th and Center Streets is neither a diner nor a drive-in.
Owner Sam Amato doesn't kid himself: “It's a dive,” he says, chuckling.
But two recent visits suggest it's a dive of the highest order: the sort with enough flavor and flair to keep people coming back.
The ramshackle, mostly breakfast-and-lunch place has several truly delicious handmade Italian touches on its menu and all the quirks and character that make for an elbows-on-the-table, come-as-you-are neighborhood hangout.
On the weekends, it serves only breakfast. In the fall, winter and spring, it opens Wednesday evenings to serve a handful of dinner specials. If you want an Italian sausage and pepper sandwich, or any of its other deli sandwiches, you'll have to come on a weekday at lunch.
And, whenever it's open, you're likely to find a T-shirt-clad Amato greeting folks by name, pulling up a chair to gab, and occasionally meandering into the collection of shoved-together appliances and counters that serves as a kitchen to shout: “Order up!”
Informally dressed servers pay him little attention and circle the room with pots of hot, weak coffee. Cups are odds-and-ends mugs that customers have donated over the years.
The mug I get one Saturday morning sports a Boys Town logo and the motto: “He ain't heavy, Father. He's my brother.” And the coffee inside it is awful.
The food, however, is another story:
Ricotta-raspberry pancakes are two large sandy-brown rounds with soft puddles of house-made ricotta and fresh, tart fruit. They're served with maple syrup (in another of those mismatched coffee cups) and, in my case, a browned rectangular patty of the house-made Italian sausage, flecked with red bell pepper and fennel seed.
Though I wish the pancakes were a little warmer, I love their creamy, fluffy, tart, sweet interplay. And the Italian sausage is terrific - just the right amount of sweetness and zip.
The Italian steak and eggs are equally as tasty. The “steak” is actually a piece of pork loin (tenderized with a few whacks of a soda-pop bottle) and dipped in homemade garlic-and-Romano bread crumbs before it's fried. A topping of melted mozzarella, chopped roasted red peppers and marinara seals the deal. It's a variation on veal parmesan. And the red peppers - Mancini brand, rinsed and soaked in cold water to firm them up - have terrific sweetness and a nice chewy texture that really makes the dish.
My over-medium eggs arrive with two slices of lightly toasted Italian bread from Omaha's Orsi's Italian Bakery and a pile of skillet potatoes - cubed, boiled and browned on site - that taste fresh but lack seasoning, at least compared to that steak.
Amato dubs one of his lunch sandwiches the “Gut Buster,” but I think that term applies to most things on the menu. We realize we have eaten too much when it is too late, and we're not the only ones stretching uncomfortably when pushing away from the table.
After finding the tiny parking lot packed at lunch, I return early on a Wednesday night to try Amato's once-a-week supper specials.
Though we are welcomed and invited to sit anywhere, it feels a bit like we are crashing dinner at a neighbor's house. The place is peopled almost entirely by regulars, including a well-heeled couple who help themselves to the cheese bread under the warming lamps and try to help the staff keep orders straight.
Our options this night are four going-fast dinner specials: lasagna, Italian meatloaf, cabbage rolls (a server's mom's Croatian recipe) and stuffed peppers.
I opt for the cabbage rolls but later am informed they're all out. I order a stuffed pepper instead and, after a little confusion, I'm told I'll get the very last one.
The salad is forgettable - flat iceberg swimming in a very runny red wine and vinegar dressing on a glass plate, with a slice of Orsi's bread and a packet of butter.
The soup is remarkable, served as it is in a mug that's been dunked right in the pot, with drips all down the side.
Tonight's offering: a pork and olive number that has a light, tomato-tinged broth, ditalini noodles, huge chunks of tender pork shoulder, broken pieces of colossal green Sicilian olives, bits of tomato, pepper and onion and loads of fennel seed. (I count 20 seeds in three spoonfuls.) I love the briny quality of the olives and the bittersweet tang of the fennel. Amato tells me later the dish is really the soup version of his Italian sausage.
The entree I'm lucky enough to get is a whole red bell pepper, roasted, skinned, cored and stuffed with seasoned ground beef, rice and tomato. It's topped with sweet marinara and mozzarella and comes with a slice of cheese bread. The sweet, smoky pepper is phenomenally good and surprisingly filling. Halfway through, I can feel my waistband protesting.
My date's lasagna is one big slice of flat tender noodles layered with chunks of the house Italian sausage and dollops of the house ricotta. It's covered in a spaghetti sauce that has a meatier, baked-in flavor and is seared to the super-hot plate. With two slices of cheese bread, it is pure comfort food.
Though Amato tells me later he sometimes gets pies or cakes from the Chocolate Moose Cafe in Plattsmouth for his Wednesday night dinners, no one offers dessert this particular night. There is no need. We have no room.
With tax and tip, we spend about $25 for two very hearty breakfasts and $32 for two wildly filling suppers.
As with any true dive, lots about Amato's will drive neatniks crazy: The cockeyed prints in the echo chamber that is the east dining room. The grease-caked bric-a-brac in the front windows of the original dining room. The long piece of scrap metal leaning against the kitchen wall with an invitation to Barack Obama's inauguration tacked to it. The customers who wander freely into employee zones to help themselves to more coffee or cheese bread.
My advice to them: Come hungry, come early and keep your eye on the plate.
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