Amused plays on classic dishes

Mar 17 2015 | 10:48 AM

It’s not hard to miss Amused, a new restaurant on West 83rd Street. The small, 30-seat spot near the American Museum of Natural History doesn’t have a big sign outside, and, with 30 seats, it features just a modest dining room. But if the space—exposed brick, chalkboard menus, communal table—is cozy and familiar, the food flips convention on its head.

“We have fun with foods and we come up with funny fusions,” said Stella Ballarini, who opened Amused with her husband Gianluca. The pair first opened a restaurant in the same space in 2012, a grilled cheese spot called Say Cheese. And while they kept their sandwiches on the menu, like a French onion soup sandwich – caramelized onions, gruyere and Swiss cheese on sourdough bread (“we want to keep the same clientele,” Stella said) – the full dinner and brunch menus are distinguished by decidedly creative takes on traditional recipes.

The couple’s goal has always been to make twists on conventional dishes. Their ramen noodle carbonara is made with pork belly and served in a Styrofoam container, and bite-size kosher hot dogs inside a pretzel bun with house made, mesquite-smoked chunky mustard update pigs in a blanket. General Zoe’s Cauliflower, a vegetarian take on the Chinese takeout favorite, is named after the couple’s 12-year-old daughter.

Gianluca worked in the jewelry business and Stella worked as a restaurant consultant before they started their catering and event-production company, Scoozi Events NYC, which they’ve operated for 18 years. True to its catering roots, Amused hosts private dinners and pop-up events Monday through Thursday, and turns into a full service restaurant on weekends.

“Catering is the main part of our business, but we needed a space for a tasting room,” Stella said. “The original thought was to have something very simple, but with high-quality food.”

A dish might take up to six months to perfect before it’s put on the menu, Stella said; others will be test-made just three or four times.

“The food is really delicious with very fresh ingredients,” said Brian Bates, a neighborhood resident and regular customer since Say Cheese opened. He’s particularly fond of the General Zoe’s Cauliflower and the grilled cheese sandwiches. He’s notice Amused getting more and more crowded seemingly each day.

For the couple, balancing the work is not so difficult. Stella and Gianluca have 18 staff members in house and employ about 75 servers. Still, the pair is always in the restaurant.

“Our catering is very labor intense,” Gianluca said. “Customers that have a positive experience always come back, so it means that we are doing something right.