Averna Italian Steakhouse owner Sami Ametaj with his son Nick in front of a photo of his adoptive home.
By Tom McDermott
Maybe it was the lingering craving, the result of watching six episodes of Stanley Tucci’s “Searching for Italy”, or it could simply have been a reporter’s curiosity: Why open an Italian steakhouse on Purdy Avenue just now?
So, there we were, my wife and I, sitting upstairs in the newly renovated, elegant yet informal main dining area of Averna Italian Steakhouse, indulging in our appetizers, including thickly cut, mildly smoked Applewood bacon, Clams Casino. The topper was Risotto Averna – wild mushrooms, shrimp, pecorino Romano, and a “drizzle” of truffle oil. “Oh my God,” as Tucci could not stop saying on his series. Any lingering doubt about owner Sami Ametaj’s timing and location was answered within the first few bites.
At age 17, Ametaj arrived in New York from Belgrade, which was then part of Yugoslavia, to study. “But I ran out of money and had to return home,” he recalled. “I had no idea how much New York would cost.”
Four years later he was back, working at an Italian restaurant near Wall Street, later moving on to Marchi’s on East 31st Street where he became a captain. He became a U.S. citizen in 1985.
In 1989, he made the leap to Brooklyn’s Peter Luger’s, the Holy-of-Holies for steak, especially porterhouse. “But there were so many waiters there, I could only work three days,” said Ametaj.
Averna’s proud owner hails from Montenegro, across the Adriatic Sea from southern Italy. He opened his first restaurant near Arthur Avenue with his cousin, and then Blackstone’s Steakhouse, first in Mount Kisco, now in Greenwich. Averna, named for the Italian liqueur, is the first restaurant he’s owned by himself, although it’s still a family business with son Nick and nephews Timmy and Nino helping manage, tending bar, serving tables, whatever it takes. Many of the photos on the walls were taken by his daughter and son. Ametaj designed the new space himself.
“Rye is the perfect location,” according to Ametaj. “It’s a food town, close to Greenwich, and it draws from other towns.”
Asked if having so many restaurants in downtown Rye is risky, his response is immediate, “I wish there was another restaurant next door. I know what I do; we have the best prime meat, aged 28 days, and I love my customers. It’s not about getting rich.”
Besides a full array of aged, marinated steaks and a complete raw bar, don’t neglect the “Italian”. Entrees include Chicken Arrosto and Scarpariello, Berkshire Pork Chop Campagnola, Lamb Chops Scottadito as well as Chilean Sea Bass, Salmon, and Sesame-Encrusted Tuna.
Asked what he and Chef Lionel consider the signature dish, Ametaj chooses homemade rigatoni Bolognese. “We make it with four different cuts of beef — New York strip, filet mignon, porterhouse, and ribeye — and mix it in our own sauce.”
“Italian Steakhouse” is not an oxymoron. Some of the world’s best beef, from Chianina steers, becomes Bistecca alla Fiorentina as seasoned travelers to Italy know.
Averna makes their own steak sauce, which bears a close resemblance to the original Peter Luger recipe. Purists, however, may rest assured, the steaks need no adornment.
The wine list includes a dozen California Cabernet Sauvignons to accompany beef or pasta, if that is your taste. We chose a well-balanced Brunello Di Montalcino from Tuscany over a Barbaresco “Reyna” from Piedmont. A Comte Lafond Sancerre and a Craggy Range New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc are available to accompany oysters, as well as a full complement of Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs to accompany fish.
Lunch at Averna is on the lighter side: carpaccio, salads, a prime Averna burger, quesadillas. But, if you insist, they offer steak sandwich, pasta, and chicken, veal, and salmon entrees.
Lest we forget: dessert. My advice, ask for a toffee pudding. Then, cue Tucci: “Oh, my God.”
<Averna Italian Steakhouse, 17 Purdy Avenue, 305-5330. Online ordering is available, as well as takeout.>