Amarcord: The Restaurant
WHEN ITALIAN FILM DIRECTOR Federico Fellini first introduced his work to the United States, Roger Ebert heralded it as “absolutely breathtaking.” Among film buffs, Fellini is considered a top director, recognized for the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality and pervasive symbolism in such classics as La Dolce Vita (1959), 8½ (1963) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965).
Although his craft doesn’t involve boom cameras or mics, Rifo Murtovic, chef-owner of Café Amarcord, in Beacon, believes that the experience of dining at a restaurant should mimic the detail-oriented artistry of a good performance. Café Amarcord, named for Fellini’s 1975 classic Amarcord (“a movie made entirely out of nostalgia and joy,” Ebert notes), aspires to entice customers with warm feelings, good food and service. “I created the restaurant [to be] like a play,” Murtovic explains. “You open the curtains at 5, do a good play and close the curtains at 10—just like a show.” Indeed, the warm glow of the onyx bar—original to the restaurant—sets the stage. From the corner seat, Murtovic expedites dishes from the kitchen, watches over service and greets guests. By evening’s end, he’ll have visited each table. “You can see in their faces if they like something or not, if they will order it again or not,” he says.
Murtovic’s hometown in Montenegro thrived on tourism; his father worked in hotels and Murtovic grew up working every summer as a busboy. With hospitality in his blood, he had no difficulty finding work in restaurants when he moved to New York at age 26. Greenwich Village captured his interest—“The art and movie culture I really liked,” he recalls. He started as a busboy at Il Cantinori, one of the City’s top Italian restaurants, then moved on and up to the downtown cool and Tuscan cuisine of Da Silvano. His meandering career path through Italian eateries, American steakhouses and even the Union Square Café gave him a wide range of experience both in the dining room and kitchens. “I always wanted to be in a position in [a] restaurant where I could really learn something,” he reflects. “I was lucky working with really great chefs. They were people who really wanted to help you if you wanted to learn. I took little bit from everybody.” Murtovic still paints a romantic portrait of the restaurant industry as a collaboration of ideas, techniques and flavors created by a close community of peers and mentors.
“I created the restaurant to be like a play.”
Via family and friends, he eventually migrated upriver and opened in Beacon in 2007—DIA had opened and Main Street was full of promise, but the Dutchess County city was not yet the hip destination it is today. He developed a menu at Café Amarcord that is both sophisticated and approachable. His stern reserve belies a soft, playful side that shows up on the plate. Amidst traditional Italian dishes, you might find polenta served with an organic Hudson Valley duck egg, sardines made light with fennel, orange, lemon and thyme, or an interpretation of carpaccio made with egg yolk rather than raw meat. (A soft pool of yolk is topped with herbed shrimp and then mounded with crispy potatoes. The result is unexpected and profound—the texture at once soft, solid and crunchy.) “You have to take chances,” Murtovic says.
In addition to twists on the traditional, items like lamb skewers, corn chowder and yellowfin tuna make it clear that Café Amarcord is not tied to a single cuisine or region of the world. Murtovic does not claim a specialty. “Finding the heart of the dish, allowing it to come through,” is what it’s all about, he says. “I am not a believer in any single, powerful item on the plate—I’m a believer in all my dishes and that any item you serve you should feel. I don’t believe in killing the items with powerful seasonings or sauces. Yes, there are sauces, but they are complementary sauces.”
The placement of a bright (local) duck egg yolk at the center of a soft polenta and mushroom fricassee, for example, transforms an ordinary dish into something artistic and satisfyingly creamy and rich—separate elements combine and take the dish from “interesting” to “wow.”
The menu is central to the restaurant’s identity, naturally, but Murtovic’s philosophy of “putting on a good show” carries through in all of the restaurant’s details, from the ironed white tablecloths and the crisp blue aprons the wait staff wear to the servers’ knowledge and hospitality. “Opening the curtain involves several things, but mostly the workers’ personality,” he stresses. “How they are going to be to the customer, how they talk to the customer—and their knowledge—is very important. The more knowledge you have, the more in control you can be of the customer’s experience.”
Murtovic considers his employees his partners. He admits to being a very demanding person to work for, but many of the restaurant’s servers and cooks have worked with him since the restaurant opened; the kitchen staff, too, has been there since the beginning. “This is the heart of the restaurant—having the same people who you can believe love to do what they are doing. If I left they would still have knowledge about what to do. This means a lot to me. If they want to be in this business—which is a great business—they can be. They have a basis to go somewhere else and show what they know,” he says.
A broad vision as well as attention to detail—from working with his crew to greeting customers—give Murtovic the ability to create meaningful dining experiences. “The most important things in the restaurant business are the little things,” he says. “The big things—we can fix them. But the little things are very hard to see. People come to restaurants for all different reasons. You have to give them an hour or two that can be enjoyable for them. To ruin them is easy. But if you ruin them, they are gone.”