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Welcome Home

by B.A. Nilsson on February 16, 2011

valente bistro
How you’re treated at the door tells you almost everything about a restaurant. Most chain restaurants, for example, feature a scripted greeting that’s intended to make up for the soullessness of the functionary hired to deliver it. Then there’s the deer-in-the-headlights look of the startled greeter who says only, “Two for dinner?” And peels a pair of menus from a stack before depositing you at the table indicated on the dry-erase map.

A well-known restaurant in downtown Albany offered the greeting “Welcome home!” Corny, but it worked—and I never felt neglected there. And that, I think, is the key: a sense of being home.

My family and I stopped in at Valente’s Restaurant during the recent Super Bowl. It’s a tradition with us: Find a place without TV sets, enjoy a meal in an uncrowded setting. I mention this in light of the handful of Valente’s reviews I found on various websites, which paint a varied but largely enthusiastic picture of the place, and of the fact that I visited on what I assumed would be a slow night. It was. Which carries its own degree of dining risk, because inattentiveness gives rise to the greatest of restaurant sins, neglect.

And so to that good sense of welcome. Our greeting—low-key, pleasant, sincere—promised the experience we went on to enjoy.

Valente’s opened in 1958, with recipes from family doyenne Nadine Valente, preserved today by Jack and Don Valente, her son and grandson. It sits not far from the Armory in Watervliet, and had a long run as Valente’s Rustic Restaurant until a 2003 fire destroyed the place. It reopened a year later, on the same spot, and I’m suspecting it picked up right where it left off, serving a traditional Italian menu and making sure you leave the place with take-home containers.

It began with a cup of vegetable-bean soup as a starter (pasta e fagioli was the other offering, each priced at $3.25/$5.95) that was tasty and unobtrusive. This is a place where reliability trumps innovation.

The deluxe antipasto comes in two sizes ($7.95/$9.95), with the smaller supposedly good for up to two people but, as our server assured us, accommodating enough for three to four. It’s not a fancy affair: A ring of salami slices peek through the edges of a heap of lettuce, among or upon which are cucumber slices, grape tomatoes, provolone, olives, hot cherry peppers and pickled red peppers, nicely dressed with a traditional Italian mix. Which is exactly what I expected, and thus was I pleased.

Other appetizers include chicken wings ($7), mozzarella sticks ($6.25), potato skins ($7), steamed clams ($8.25), fried calamari ($9) and more, and there are some salads big enough to count as entrées, such as an $11 chef’s and a $9 Caesar (add chicken for another $2).

We learned that you can take the parmigiana premise beyond chicken ($14), eggplant ($15) and veal ($17). It’s a breaded, fried cutlet topped with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella, so why not haddock ($17)? This was a special that evening, presenting a generously sized slice of the fish with the requisite toppings, my only quarrel being that I prefer the item to be sautéed rather than deep-fried. But fish works nicely in that context.

Not surprisingly, there’s a multitude of chicken and veal dishes to choose among. You can get either of them layered with eggplant and cheese (di Sorrento, $16/$18), and in various Marsala-enhanced preparations. Veal also is available “alla Dan” ($20), with layers of eggplant, prosciutto and mozzarella; the egg-battered Francaise ($15) and the classic scallopine ($18).

Chicken Bolognese is $16, and some appealing butter-enhanced preparations include alla Caston (sautéed with mushrooms, topped with provolone cheese, $16) and alla Grande (sautéed with rosemary and bay leaf, $15). They even have a $12 fried chicken.

You can grab an inexpensive plate of pasta for $12, choosing from a number of shapes and enjoying the house-made tomato sauce. With meatballs or sausage or marinara it’s $14; meat sauce brings it to $15. Then come the variations: garlic butter with anchovies ($15), with grilled chicken, calamari or mussels in marinara ($15), clam sauce ($16), add shrimp to that ($18), add scallops and mussels to that ($21).

Three-cheese ravioli or ricotta-stuffed manicotti can be ordered with tomato sauce ($13), or with meatballs or sausage ($15). Of course there’s sirloin (10 ounces for $17, 12 ounces for $18) and the Delmonico is $19. Pork chops and the hard-to-find beef liver also are available. And speaking of hard-to-find: When’s the last time you saw frog’s legs ($17) offered?

Which was tempting, but I decided to throw down the critical gauntlet and order lasagna ($15) from their specialties list. And may I say that this is one of the better preparations i’ve ever had? It’s not just the hugeness that swayed me, although the leftovers were good for two more meals. It was the hard-to-achieve balance of meat and cheese, pasta and sauce, with lively flavors of sausage giving snap to the dish. Too often it’s an overbaked afterthought. This was fresh and terrific.

Other specialties are three fettuccini classics: Alfredo ($15), carbonara ($17) and with prosciutto and mushrooms ($19).

On the seafood list are haddock (broiled for $15, fried for $16), any number of shrimp dishes, calamari, scallops and lobster tails. And a $15 salmon filet that—no surprise at this point—was baked to a point that left the interior flaky and moist, and served with a dill-enhanced sauce that completed the classical context.

Not surprisingly, and takeout containers notwithstanding, we were too sated to try a dessert, which is a list of cakes and pies most of which are made elsewhere. A fresh cup of coffee was all I needed to brace me for the drive home, and the memory of Valente’s was maintained for a few at-home meals thereafter.