Marotta’s Bar-Risto, 611 Union St., Schenectady, 377-5100, marottasbar-risto.com. Serving 11:30-10 Mon-Thu, 11:30-11 Fri-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: Italian with pizza
Entrée price range: $11 (pasta with meatballs) to $26 (filet mignon)
Schenectady has a new restaurant row. It’s still fairly nascent, peppered with a ping-pong of openings and closings, but the stretch of Union Street extending from the Stockade to Union College is offering more of a variety of eateries.
Marotta’s Bar-Risto, which opened in April with a menu of Italian favorites and classy pizza, reinvents a core of the city’s dining identity, which in an earlier heyday boasted a slew of good Italian restaurants.
Marotta’s brings a snazzy look to the concept, thanks to a $300,000 makeover of what was once a business office. Now it has a cheerful interior that lets you dine near the bar or farther within the railroad-car space, which brings you nearer to the presentation kitchen where the pizzas are crafted. And there’s the bonus of outdoor dining on a broad patio with festive umbrellas. The evening a friend and I visited, the invisible minestrone of a humid hot air mass hung over the city, so we opted for an air-conditioned interior seat.
Service, we quickly realized, is offered by a mixture of the young and well-intentioned and the older who actually know their way around. Early publicity for the place suggested that you’d be seated at iPad-enhanced tables at which you could menu-study, order and pay. Not so, says manager Joe Leverett, who’s also in charge of the restaurant’s technology. “We don’t want to eliminate the interface between customers and servers,” he explains, which is music to my ears. We’ve already let technology carry us to impersonal extremes, with the likes of Facebook redefining the concept of friend.
The servers, however, can order from their own devices and soon will be able to swipe credit cards tableside. Paper-based menus also are offered, and you can use your table’s iPad to get a view of many of the finished dishes should you need more incentive.
The menu itself sports a bit too much Italian for the feel of the place, and it’s inconsistent. One heading reads “Pesce & Crostaceo Specialita;” a couple of pages later comes “Gourmet Pizza.” I give the same advice to menu designers as I give to patrons: dress comfortably. (You can see the menu at the restaurant’s website, but be warned that the site blasts its goddamn music at you without permission, which should be outlawed.)
Chef Edward Bradt comes to Marotta’s by way of the Van Dyck and has put together a menu that offers plenty of old acquaintances. The starters include hot antipasto ($17 for two), shrimp cocktail ($10), bruschetta ($7), fried mozzarella ($7) and an Italian salad with provolone and roasted peppers ($6), not to be confused with the house salad with tomatoes, cucumbers and olives ($7).
You get a choice of marinara or roasted-pepper remoulade with the fried calamari ($9), so we opted for the latter, and it’s a rich, sweet complement to a crisp tempura-like offering served over greens. In the case of the peppers and olives appetizer ($9), the greens are arugula, always a welcome ingredient, and the unremarkable array also includes provolone cheese. French onion soup ($6) snuck across the border, but there’s also pasta e fagioli ($4/$6) for the nationalists.
Chicken and veal dishes—and there are many—all come in two sizes, from $14/$17 to $16/$19, which are more than reasonable prices considering you get a soup or salad and pasta or vegetables with the entrée. And you have parmigiana, marsala, saltimbocca and more such classic preparations to choose among.
In the seafood realm are similar classics: shrimp sautéed with lemon and garlic over pasta ($18), mixed seafood Fra Diavolo ($21), salmon with capers and artichokes served over risotto ($17) and more. And there are a few beef and pork offerings, including a pork shank ossobuco served with risotto ($18) that I’m going to go back and sample.
What we did have came from the pasta and pizza listings. You can get away with as little as 11 bucks for pasta with meatballs or sausage, and it’s served with soup or salad. Others include tortellini Marotta ($17), which includes eggplant, sausage, broccoli and sun-dried tomatoes, baked ricotta-stuffed rigatoni combined with your choice of meat ($16) and pasta primavera ($15).
Feeling dietarily irreverent, I chose pollo Alfredo ($16), the classic fetuccine dish here fashioned with rigatoni and finished with chicken and peas (you can select broccoli for the green instead). And, while I look for the flavor hello of a pungent parmesan or asiago in the Alfredo, this milder version was acceptable.
The pizza stole the show. It’s a 12-incher baked in a wood oven you can see toiling in the back, and it emerges with excellent crunch and a hint of smoke. The most expensive of the specialty pies is $13, and you can build your own with a $9 cheese base and a per-topping fee of a buck an ingredient, or a buck and a half if you go for fancy items like feta, sun-dried tomatoes, pancetta and such.
Salsiccia and broccoli rabe seemed an odd-enough combo to merit examination, and it proved an excellent one, with the spice of the sausage working with the subdued bitterness of the greens to take the pie to tasty flavor places.
The restaurant got hit with business just as we needed a check to free us for another event. I was about to despair of seeing our server again, but another one came to our aid. That unfortunately doesn’t always happen, and I’m grateful. Chris Marotta’s other area restaurant is a pizzeria east of Schenectady’s downtown. This is a significant step up in both neighborhood and fanciness, and makes a good contribution to both.