Go to Ti Amo Ristorante Italiano any night you choose and join the crowd at the cozy horseshoe bar. Perhaps order an orangecello – a flavorful, orange liqueur, brewed in-house for a month – and look across the grand, spacious dining room. Chances are you see a tall, debonair man winding his way from table to table as he greets diners like family.
“It’s our first time here,” a customer tells the owner, Mehdi Khezri.
“Oh no,” he replies. “I saw you here one time before, in 2011.”
And he’s right. Most of the guests have dined here many times; some have come every week for almost 30 years.
“It means a lot to me – these regulars,” Khezri says. “Some of my best friends I first met at the restaurant. I could name a dozen right off the bat.”
Meanwhile, a stream of dishes pours forth from the kitchen. Looking at these delicious plates, you see one reason why people keep coming back. Diners can enjoy thick, juicy, bone-in ribeyes, filets and lamb chops; spaghetti pescatore in a light olive oil and pesto sauce, studded with big shrimp, clams and scallops; lobster macaroni and cheese; veal cutlets topped with shrimp and served with Alfredo; manicotti, baked ziti and any other pasta you can imagine, including authentic spaghetti carbonara (more on that later).
You probably won’t see the man behind this cuisine – he’s often too shy, or too busy, to greet diners.
Executive chef Aziz Metalloui came to this profession not by choice but by necessity. In 1991, he worked three jobs in Muskogee, including a graveyard shift, to support his four young children. A friend of a friend – Khezri – offered Metalloui a job in the Ti Amo kitchen that would pay as much as all three gigs combined. He entered Khezri’s restaurant on South Sheridan Road at the lowest level … and loved it. Quickly becoming fascinated by every aspect of cooking, Metalloui spent all of his spare time devouring cookbook after cookbook.
“Mehdi let me experiment,” Metalloui says. “He gave me carte blanche.”
After years of toil, Metalloui became executive chef and he’s never left. He’s not the only longtime employee.
“On average, the kitchen staff has been here 10 years,” Khezri says, “and two or three since 1998. I believe in treating each employee like a star. You’re only as good as your employees.”
Khezri also helps with the menu.
“Nobody served carbonara correctly,” Khezri says, “so when I was in Italy a few years ago, I ate carbonara in restaurants every day for a week. Then I picked the best and got the recipe.”
The carbonara at Ti Amo has pancetta, not bacon, and is made without cream but with an egg cooked by the heat of the pasta … just like you find in Italy.
Khezri also takes pride in what happened 10 years ago – the opening of Ti Amo Downtown. You go under a canopy and down some narrow stairs into a brick-lined space, a lot like those Italian eateries in Greenwich Village from 1940s movies. The same delicious menu is found here.
Khezri is a born restaurateur.
“I’ve always loved food,” he says, “and when I was a child, there were always guests for dinner. My mother was a great cook and I enjoyed watching her cook. And perhaps that’s why what I do isn’t work. It’s fun. Sometimes by the end of the week I’m tired, but the minute I start greeting guests I come alive.
“Just last weekend there was a young couple, and I went to their table and we talked for a while. Later on, the wife came up to me and said, ‘We’re usually ignored at restaurants because we are young and we don’t look rich, but you made us feel welcome. God bless you.’ And that’s why I do what I do. I enjoy making people feel happy and I want them to leave with a smile.”