SEA BRIGHT: AMA TAKES IT TO THE BEACH


Chef Chuck Lesbirel (left) gets some assistance from Pat Trama prepping artichokes and baby beets for Friday night’s opening of Ama Ristorante in Sea Bright. (Photo by Stacie Fanelli. Click to enlarge.)

By STACIE FANELLI

Pat Trama wasn’t surprised to see one of his regulars, pregnant and craving his signature mussels, standing at the bottom of the stairs to his new, yet-to-open restaurant with a pan, begging him to get cooking.

He’s been getting a lot of demand since Ama Ristorante Tuscana closed its doors in Atlantic Highlands three months ago to relocate to a bigger, better version at the Driftwood Cabana Club in Sea Bright.

The new location will open for dinner Friday after a summerlong wait for loyal customers.

“There’s probably 90 of those people out there saying, ‘I’m dying for the mussels. I jonesing for it’,” said Trama, Ama’s chef and co-owner.

The move was just an idea back in May, but when the chef in charge of the Driftwood’s snack bar and banquets quit weeks before the summer season, the Stavola family, which owns the club, got the ball rolling.

“They called me up and said, ‘Listen, can we get you here sooner rather than later?,’ and I thought ‘Hell, I could help them out and I could oversee everything’,” Trama said.

Ama was outgrowing its Atlantic Highlands space, which seated only 30 and had a kitchen barely bigger than a closet, And Trama had been disappointed by the amount of business the town had to offer: only five percent of customers were from town, and the seven-month Oceanic Bridge closure had driven profits down nearly 30 percent, he said.

“Most of our clientele was from Rumson, Fair Haven, Little Silver. They just, for some reason, would not drive” the long detour necessitate by the bridge closing, he said. “That hurt us a lot in a tough economy to begin with.”

So he jumped at the Stavola’s offer to set up at the oceanside club, where he expects his clientele to expand dramatically. He’s now working with four times his former kitchen space, which he designed to suit his desire for more creativity and a larger menu. The dining room has quadrupled as well, now with a capacity of 130 guests.

The view of the ocean is another plus. And Trama thinks the move gives his business greater geographic reach. “We can target a little bit more south,” he said. “The farthest south we were able to really draw from in Atlantic Highlands was Monmouth Beach, so here I think we’ll be able to go all the way down to Avon.”

But what sealed the deal was the Driftwood’s liquor license. Ama had always been a BYO, which Trama said his customers loved, but he knew creating his own wine list, comprising both affordable and reserve selections, would bring significantly greater profit, and the correct pairings would maximize the quality of his food.

Even though Ama is reopening at the end of the busy summer, when many of the nearby beach clubs are shuttered, Trama expects returning regulars and curious locals to carry him through the off-season.

“Why Sea Bright? I hope it’s not just a beach destination anymore. It’s a culinary destination,” he said.

Competition is steeper among Sea Bright restaurants, but Trama welcomes it.

“You got a lot of staples,” he said, referencing Woody’s Ocean Grille, Angelica’s and Harry’s Lobster House. “We hope to be a piece of fabric in the community.”

With the goal of a seamless transition in mind, the entire menu from Atlantic Highlands is heading to Sea Bright. Trama said he’d “have a mutiny” if he removed anything because customers are devoted to Ama’s mussels, rigatoni and distinctive bread, which is baked in a Brooklyn coal oven that’s been lit for 80 years.

A few new dishes to be debuted include fettuccini Bolognese, Maine sea scallops and dolce Gorgonzola.

One of the first things Trama discussed with the Stavolas was the importance of keeping the image Ama has always had. The expanded dining room, designed by Andrea Stavola, is meant to have the same “Tuscan, farmhouse rustic” atmosphere as the old restaurant, “from the barn doors… all the way down to the flowers you’ll see in Tuscany,” he said.

Trama lived in an apartment upstairs in his old restaurant, and moved to Little Silver when it closed. He never took a sick day, cooked through injuries and had a hand in every dish that left the kitchen. But even now, going from a staff of five to 22, he says his personal involvement will not waver.

“Quality and consistency is a huge thing of mine,” he said. “That’s what makes for the longevity of a restaurant.”