A friend took me to Maxi's in Little Italy last week. She's a regular there. I'd never been- and can't really say why. But now that I have, I know I'll be back.
The small space has a nice intimate feel and an adult, city sense to it. There are a few tables tucked down front near the window where neon lights cast a warm red glow on a dark cold night. More tables, but not a lot of them, line the wall opposite the long bar which stretches almost the length of the of narrow room that ends at the kitchen. Apparently there's some more seating upstairs.
I got a very nice Montepulciano by the glass. On her recommendation, we split an order of calamari. It was really outstanding- sauteed in olive oil rather than fried, lightly dusted with flour instead of the usual thick breading. It was a delicate flavorful preparation that rendered the flesh wonderfully tender. We each had appetizer portions of mussels, another of my friend's favorites, that were huge. They we also tender and equally delicious. The accompanying light garlic wine and butter broth was so good we slurped it up with spoons and sopped up the rest with bread.We also shared a plate of escarole with garlic and Parmesan, served at my companion's request, without the usual tomato sauce, and this dish too was a winner. The rest of the menu's a mix of northern Italian staples- pasta, veal and chicken, and pizzas.
It was quiet when we first arrived around 7, 7:30 but the bar quickly filled up with eaters and drinkers and there ended up being a nice sized crowd for a Monday evening. They gave the place a nice, neighborhood hang out energy. The kitchen is open late which. makes this a great destination for those in need of food after a show, a concert, or a movie in the Heights or down in University Circle.
I was introduced to the chef and owner Ramazan Ameti, known to his friends as Fatmir. He recounted some of the details of his life since coming to the United States from Albania eight years ago. It's a genuine, inspiring and only-in-America rags to riches story. Speaking virtually no English, he earned a living as a dishwasher, often working multiple jobs. That's what he started out doing at Maxi's. His boss was Gilbert Brenot. Soon Ameti was doing prep and learning to cook. He and Brenot became partners and eventually, Ameti, who has spent most of the past few years working 120 hour weeks, bought him out and took over. (Made me feel like a slug and an underachiever listening to him recount this saga). He 's clearly a very hands-on kind of an owner, though he recently has brought in and trained another chef to help him. Even so, he's still almost always at the restaurant. Stop in and see him. He's an interesting person to talk with. Tell him I sent you.