Chef-owner Alex A. Daku has a new home for his beloved Italian restaurant in the historic Cherry Hill farmhouse where many favorite South Jersey restaurants have left their mark.
The 1859 Colonial farmhouse has been home to favorites like the former Denim BYOB, which got its start at the farmhouse. It also briefly housed The Farmhouse. And most famously, it had been home to La Campagne.
The restaurant’s move to 312 Kresson Road was announced in December 2019. And after two years of renovations, Daku officially opened on Sept. 1.
Having vacated Amici Ristorante’s former home of nine years 306 Kresson Road, Daku has transformed that location into Bella Festa Private Events by Amici, a private party and events banquet hall. Guests can celebrate weddings, anniversaries, host parties, and more. The events venue will offer catering from the restaurant, but guests also can opt to use an outside caterer or bring their own food.
It was a goal of the Albanian-born chef to acquire property someday where he could share his Italian dishes in a restaurant designed to fit his vision – and now he’s made that dream a reality in the historic farmhouse.
“Every chef in the world out there would love to create a kitchen the way they want to and a building the way they want,” Daku said. “It’s [the farmhouse] a landmark of Cherry Hill and I’m very proud of renovating and putting a lot of dedication [into it].”
Daku grew up in the food industry with a father who owned a restaurant, butcher shop, convenience store and vegetable shop in Tirana, Albania.
Chef honed his craft in Torino, in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy while in college. Then in 2001, he emigrated to the United States, landing in New York to launch his culinary career.
Prior to opening Amici, he was a veteran of Le Jardin in Edgewater, Bergen County. Previously, he worked in The Brownstone catering hall in Paterson and the former One c.p.s. at The Plaza Hotel and the former Aqua Blue in Manhattan.
So, what’s on the menu?
Daku said he features all 21 regions of Italy on his menu.
Amici’s offerings at the farmhouse will stay relatively the same as at the first location, with some trims to give Daku space to focus on seasonal specials. With supply shortages due to the pandemic, Daku also plans to work with what’s readily available.
“If something is working, don’t break it – is what they saying, the expression,” Daku explained about keeping the dishes his customers love best.
To start, guests can find appetizers like Calamari Fritti (fried calamari) served with spicy tomato sauce and stuffed mushroom Florentine; salads like Insalata di Cesare (Caesar salad) and Burrata & Prosciutto, and soups like Zuppa di Cipolle (onion soup).
For the main course, there are pastas like Penne alla Vodka (with prosciutto), and Fettuccine con Frutti di Mare (tossed with shrimp, calamari, mussels and clams in a light tomato sauce); chicken dishes like Pollo alla Romana (chicken breast topped with prosciutto, roasted peppers, fresh mozzarella in a Cognac demi-glaze); veal dishes like Vitello Piccata (sautéed veal medallions with capers in a white wine lemon sauce).
Guests can also choose from steak and burgers, or fish dishes like Salmone San Marino (grilled Norwegian Salmon with a lemon dill sauce), and sides such as roasted potatoes or sautéed spinach.
“It’s something of the regions of Italy like you get from north to south – [a little bit of] everything,” Daku said.
A classic, modern Italian restaurant
Along with Italian cuisine, guests will find the renovated space to be authentic.
“Absolutely amazing space, great location, great area,” expressed David Murray, owner of the former Denim BYOB and now Crumb in Haddonfield. “The work Alex has done to the space is unbelievable.”
“I think that it’s fantastic that the restaurant is gonna be there because, number one, he already has the following,” Murray observed. “And besides having the following, Cherry Hill needed something in that space that was going to be worthy, and he definitely was the perfect fit.”
In what was a $1.6 million project, Daku renovated the 162-year-old farmhouse from studs to beams, building it into his dream restaurant while preserving the building’s history.
His family came from Italy to help with the Venetian plaster and woodwork for the restaurant, he said. He refreshed the building with the plaster incorporated into stone and wood walls for “this beautiful, natural look,” Daku described.
The layout also changed. Previously, there were four smaller rooms on the first floor and now it’s a large dining space. The second floor is a private dining room for weekend overflow.
The exterior space and landscaping were freshened up as well, and a new sign with the Amici logo welcomes guests to come in and dine.
“It’s perfect,” Daku said. “It’s not overdone, but it’s classic. It’s modern. It has everything in it.”
Daku said the dining rooms during La Campagne’s time in the farmhouse had high noise levels, with guests’ conversations overtaking the ambiance. His main focus after the structural renovations was to reduce the noise level for guests to dine and converse easily.
“We did all the acoustics from the installation to carpeting to padding chairs, all that stuff,” Daku said. “Everything, it’s friendly for that emphasis.”
The kitchen also was built from the ground up, bringing to life Daku’s dream workspace after 25 years of working in the restaurant business: The former kitchen was 300-to-400 square feet, and now it is 1700 square feet.
‘A nightmare for everybody in our industry’
The pandemic is hard on everyone in the restaurant industry, as they continue to cope with delays, supply shortages and more.
But it also meant personal loss for Daku.
“I lost my father because of this back in April, so I had to stop construction for like six months,” Daku said. “It’s been a very tough month, a tough year for me – going through the death in the family, as well as building the location.”
The chef created a nonprofit last year through which he could provide free food to hospitals, police stations and people infected with COVID-19.
“Anybody can come in to get food without no question asked,” Daku explained. “We are very proud of this – by the quality and being human, and how we supported the community because they supported us for 10 years.”
Daku said he was “very lucky” and, through the non-profit, was able to keep all his staff employed. They have moved with him to the new location.
Despite the delays and loss, Daku is looking forward to sharing his food with the Cherry Hill community and beyond from his new home.
“I hope that everybody gonna enjoy what I did over there,” he said. “It’s a landmark that everybody can’t wait to see.”
If you go
312 Kresson Road, 856-354-1500; amicinj.com Reservations by phone are highly recommended.
*Article courtesy of Courier-Post
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