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The Comfort of Family

by B.A. Nilsson on December 8, 2011

Minissale’s Wine Cellar Café, 1 14th St, Troy, 274-6225, minissaleswinecellarcafe.com. Serving dinner 5-9 Wed-Thu, 5-10 Fri-Sat, 4-9 Sun. D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Italian

Entrée price range: $7 (small cheese pizza) to $20 (veal Marsala)

Ambiance: your mom’s dining room

There’s this pizza that’s been eluding me. It’s the one I share with my family, in an alternate universe in which my wife embraces pepperoni for the life-giving substance it is, and my daughter sees the thick, white-wheat crust as similarly salubrious.

We were daughter-free on our visit to Minissale’s, and half a menu page temptingly described the special pizzas they offer. The Augustus Caesar ($12/$18.75) promised the pepperoni, along with salami and garlic. Although my wife would never go for the Enrico Fermi ($8.20/$12.90), with its promise of “atomic” hot-pepper sauce and plenty of hot peppers besides, perhaps the Dante ($9.45/$14.85), tempering hot peppers with their sweet brethren, would work. There’d be no problem with sausage-and-sweet-pepper strewn Dean Martin ($9.45/$14.85), and there’s always the build-your-own option, laden with choices.

Then we looked at the rest of the menu, heard the specials, and went off in completely different directions. Pork ossobuco sang but one of the siren songs.

Minissale’s has been at the edge of Troy’s 14th Street, not far from the RPI campus, since 1978. Philip and Agnes Minissale started it with their sons, Phil and Ted, bringing to it a legacy of Sicilian cooking that crossed the water a generation before. The sons now own and run the place with their wives and families, but not without some parental help: You’ll find Philip and Agnes still working there on Fridays.

“Phil and I love the business,” says Ted. “Our wives love the business. And I love to cook. It’s hard work, but it’s not like work, especially when you have your whole family around you.” He has no regularly scheduled days off. Mondays and Tuesdays, when the restaurant is closed, he makes the tomato sauces that Minissale’s sells in the dining room—a sauce sold locally in Price Chopper and the Deli Warehouse, and which is also finding sales outlets around the country. It’s made on the premises thanks to a recent expansion, allowing them to build a specially purposed room. This is in addition to the refurbishment that took place seven years ago, when the bar and another dining room were added. The original building dates from 1848, and you can see the original brick, cleaned and repointed, in a dining room that once served as the kitchen.

Yet there’s nothing of the cookie-cutter, trying-to-look-like-a-chain-restaurant appearance about the place. It’s welcoming and cozy. You feel like you’ve been there before. We were seated in the room with the old bricks, near a party of eight, each member of which was known by name to our server, Donna—whom, we later were told, also makes the lasagna and, a customer confided, a spectacular eggplant parm ($15).

The two-page menu spends a lot of time on pasta, leading off with pasta Palermo ($11), featuring the homemade Sicilian-style sauce, and Pasta Capone ($14), featuring the spicy arrabbiata, an “angry” sauce livened with chili peppers, which is the other for-sale sauce. At the bottom of the list of 10 such items was Pasta Minissale ($16), a realization of a traditional Sicilian Sunday supper, which is why it’s available only on Sundays.

Sunday it was, and that’s what I ordered. You get a soup or salad as well, and the surprising option for the former was chili. I’ve addled my purism with enough realism not to expect a full-bore bowl of Texas-style beanless spicy beef, and therefore enjoyed the serving of what I privately term New England Beef and Kidney Bean Stew.

Meanwhile, Susan was served a salad, which is a large bowl of good mixed greens with croutons, red onion and even peas among its repertoire—although why she chose to douse it with Russian dressing baffles me. Vinaigrettes are so much kinder to the greenery.

Entrées arrived for the party of eight, including a large pizza. “Half pepperoni, half sausage,” Donna announced, and I looked on with envy.

Then: my Sunday pasta. A large portion, as promised. Linguine as my choice of vehicle. And a hearty, hearty sauce that’s prepared with chunks of beef rendered tender over the long cooking time, a big homemade meatball, moist and tasty, and homemade sausage, giving a nice contrast to all the meat flavors. And a hardboiled egg, because why not. Tradition is tradition, and my dinner was the richer for it.

But this is not to overlook the pork ossobuco that Susan enjoyed. So accustomed am I to the veal and lamb versions that I never thought to prepare a pork shank this way, but it’s yet another excellent candidate for the intense braising that brings out and enhances its natural juices. She chose a side of potato and veg, and those, too—carrots, squash and string beans, roasted potatoes—were cooked with care.

Donna facilitated it all with the effortless skill, attending the adjacent eight as if we were in her own living room. Which, when you get down to it, is what it’s all about here. That’s why almost everything is homemade, including the tiramisu we finished with, which is served as a small bowl of sweetened and flavored mascarpone surrounded by ladyfingers.

There’s still more to choose from, including an array of seafood dishes, which are mainstays of Sicilian fare, steaks, veal and chicken dishes, and such appetizers as calamari ($10) and antipasto ($11/$18). But when I get back there, I’m going straight for the pizza.