Katrinella’s Bistro, 123 ½ Madison Ave., Albany, 512-5116, katrinellasbistro.com. Serving lunch 11-1:30 Mon-Fri, dinner 4:30-9:30 Mon-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: classic Italian
Entrée price range: $9 (pasta marinara) to $19 (salmon piccata)
“Lombardo’s is just down the street, and we also have V & R and Café Capriccio in the neighborhood,” says Katrinella’s chef-owner Joe Rogers. “I think it’s a good thing.” He and his wife, Katrina, opened the restaurant three and a half years ago in a space that’s seen previous upheaval. “Seven restaurants in the past eight years, or something like that,” says Rogers.
What have Katrina and Joe done differently enough to keep them not only open but also successful for this long? The unlikely answer is that they offer classic Italian fare: red-sauce favorites that have long defined the cuisine for American consumers.
So what, therefore, makes it special? The dining room is small enough to promise a personalized experience, and the menu promises a low-priced and familiar lineup of choices. The sound system promises an evening of Sinatra, but will admit a few other singerly incursions during the course of your meal. And your meal will prove to be prepared and served exceptionally well.
Add more elements to the unlikeliness of the place: Rogers is a worked-through-the-ranks kind of chef. This is his first restaurant. There’s not even a nonna lurking in his background. “I went to college and studied a few different things,” he explains, “but I was always working in restaurants. So it made sense to stay with something I loved.”
Despite the best efforts of the eateries named at the top of this piece, among others, Italian cookery has been co-opted by the chains, so that most of the places along strip-mall street have at least a selection of pastas and parms unless, like the odious Olive Garden, they’ve gone all out. And they’ve trained us that the food is bland, unless livened by salt. That it is virtually textureless, its meats little different from its sauces. That it’s presented in committee-designed dining rooms by unfortunate automatons.
Visiting a place like Katrinella’s requires forethought (and a reservation) and possibly a GPS to steer you away from shopping districts and toward this actual neighborhood. The entrance is a side door that takes you past the kitchen and into a dark dining area where your table already has been chosen. One of the things that makes service here work so well is the schedule of seatings. The first shot is between 5:30 and 6; after that, you’re looking at 7:30 to 8. Your last chance is 9:30. Which means that a fresh round of guests cycles in every couple of hours, their arrival times close enough to allow the server—Mike was the friendly, articulate fellow who guided our way—to make a logical sequence out of the cumulative customer requirements. I was more than impressed to see how well he handled the room.
Also lurking in this unlikely spot is one of the best dinner deals in the area—a three-course prix fixe for $20. It began during a Restaurant Week three years ago and proved popular enough to continue. And there’s no stinting here. Your starter is a choice of soup (pasta fagiole or Italian wedding), shrimp cocktail, tossed salad or a tomato-basil-mozzarella combo. My wife selected the last-named, which was the evening’s only disappointment, and that was because the tomatoes were what you find in markets this time of year. We’re champing at the bit for the truly fresh.
The entrée choices include three preparations of chicken or veal. “Pesto” adds eggplant and mozzarella to the garlic-basil combo; “Sorrento” swaps marinara for pesto and adds penne, and “Tindari” lands in a brown sauce with mushrooms and roasted red peppers. Or choose salmon sautéed with spinach and artichoke hearts; shrimp with artichoke hearts and capers and spinach over penne, or, as my wife received, a hillock of eggplant slices—thin, battered, juicy—layered with spinach and riccota, broccoli and roasted red peppers, finished in marinara and served over penne. Here we found the skill of the chef intricately woven into those layers, as they worked off one another to provide a shifting array of flavor combinations. And there was enough of a portion to allow further study at home.
Your parms live on the other side of the menu, in the form of eggplant ($14), chicken ($13) or veal ($14). Again there’s this confluence of chicken and veal preparations, although differently priced, with piccata (lemon-butter sauce, $14/$15), Marsala ($14/$15) and pizzaiola ($14/$15) among them.
The usual suspects lurk in the starters list: calamari ($8), bruschetta ($8), fried mozzarella ($5), and a new-to-me (but classic in its own right) item called spedini ($8), which has fried, bread-slice-coated mozzarella in its midst, with mushrooms and capers and roasted red peppers and a rich brown sauce. I ordered this one, and it was a lively mixture of crunch and cheese with the flavor of prosciutto adding to the rampage.
Although I’m a sucker for good ravioli (here for $11) and could sure enjoy the shrimp Francaise ($17), I decided that a namesake item would be a good test of the place, and the veal alla Katrinella ($17) exceeded expectations. You won’t be surprised by now to learn that spinach, roasted red peppers and mozzarella figure into this sautéed dish, but the finish—a tomato-laced gorgonzola sauce—over penne drove my palate crazy with happiness.
The lunch menu offers many of the same items at reduced prices, and there’s a $10 two-course lunch menu as well. You’ll leave with bags of leftovers; you’ll return as friends of the family.