1/30/2013 03:56:00 PM

Chef Chat: Brad Spence of Amis on Italian Cuisine

Just over three years ago, Brad Spence left the kitchen at Vetri to become partner and executive chef at Amis. The third in Marc Vetri’s stable of Italian restaurants has found great success, building a clientele of devoted regulars, wowing visitors (Anthony Bourdain had dinner there when he was in town) and landing on our list of Hottest Italian Restaurants in the U.S.

We caught up with Spence to find out what makes the restaurant so popular and pick his brain on the evolution of Italian cuisine in Philly. Read on to find out what he cooks on the weekends, his favorite brand of pasta, where he likes to dine and how he gets his dad to enjoy sweetbreads without even knowing it.

Zagat: What led you to open Amis?
Brad Spence: Amis serves the style of food I always wanted to do. I wanted to bring back what I saw people eating in Rome - the quinto quarto, the offal. That’s more my personality than the fancy stuff - this is the food I belong with. I’ll be cooking this for the rest of my career. Simple stuff. It’s who I am. I can’t change it.

Zagat: Is the trend in Italian food toward more casual preparations?
BS: Restaurants in general have become more casual. People don’t want bells and whistles. They want to be able to spend $16-$22 and still get a great dish. Things are more simplified than even 10 years ago. You see less fancy dishware and less formal service, but the quality of the food is still just as high. When you go to Rome, you eat that way - very simple pastas, simple roasted meats and fish.

Zagat: So you serve Roman food?
BS: Not necessarily... I get inspiration from everywhere, including other kinds of restaurants. I had this amazing roast chicken at a Chinese restaurant and came up with a dish based on that. Italian food is all about using what’s around you. For example, when it’s in season, I do a lot with fresh corn from New Jersey. You’ll never see that in Italy, because in Italy corn is just for polenta or feeding the livestock.

Zagat: Is it Italian fusion?
BS: No. It's Italian, but there really is no single “Italian” cuisine; it’s very, very regional. In Italy, food varies crazily from town to town, even from house to house - each person who does a certain dish is the only one who can do it right, and each town has very different food.

Zagat: Is offal the food Amis does right? Your veal tongue is so popular it once had its own Facebook page.
BS: We do a lot with offal, but never for the shock value. You don’t serve a dish just because it’s brains or sweetbreads, it’s gotta be good. Brain is still a bit of a hard sell - some people are a bit scared of it. Just like people used to be scared to eat the veal tongue. When my family comes in for dinner, I serve them those dishes and they have no clue what it is! My dad refuses to eat sweetbreads, but I just send dishes out without telling him what’s in them. Then he eats it and loves it and never knows the difference.

Zagat: You also do a lot of whole animal cooking.
BS: We started the “Beast of Amis” around a year and a half ago. Every day we get a different whole animal and turn it into three specials for the night. It’s been a total success, customers love it. And it’s valuable for the cooks too, since they get to learn how to break down all different kinds of animals. We’ve done goat, tuna, lamb, chicken, veal, fish, you name it.

Zagat: What’s your favorite dish to cook?
BS: At home or at work? I have two small kids and I end up cooking for my family on my days off. My favorite Italian dish is simple - in Italian you'd call it aglio olio e peperoncino. I make it almost every weekend at home. Just a great dried pasta with garlic, chili flakes and Pecorino cheese. It sums up what my cooking philosophy. In the restaurant we make our pastas, but I've been experimenting with bought dried pastas recently, trying all different kinds.

Zagat: What are your favorites so far? 
BS: Giuseppe Cocco and Rustichella, both from Abruzzo. They’re not cheap - up to $5 or so per pound - but in the end that’s pretty inexpensive when you consider it makes a whole family meal.

Zagat: When you do go out, what’s your favorite Italian restaurant, aside from Vetri Family spots?
BS: I like Melograno, in Rittenhouse, and I love going out to the old school Italian restaurants, like Villa de Roma in the Italian Market. They’re not traditional Italian, but they’re traditional to Philly. They’re not setting any trends, not creating any new dishes - it’s stuff they learned from grandma, just home cooking. It’s my soul food.

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