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The Old School Works

by B.A. Nilsson on March 6, 2013

Ralph’s Tavern, 1328 Central Ave., Colonie, 489-8290, ralphstaverninc.com. Serving 11-midnight Mon-Thu, 11 AM-2 AM Fri-Sat, noon-midnight Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Italian-American

Entrée price range: $6 (burger) to $19 (full rack of ribs)

Ambiance: neighborhood tavern

Did we assent to cheese on the broccoli? We did. Did we say, “go ahead” to gravy on the mashed potatoes? Of course. We felt swept along by the unprepossessing energy of the place, where good old bad-for-you fare reinforces a sense of pre-nutritional-guidelines innocence, where prime rib is king and butter is the universal flavor enhancer.

Dare I suggest that a place like this is a treasure? The customers who keep coming back know it. They’re even prepared to wait up to an hour and a half to get a table on a busy Saturday night. We know this; we stopped in a couple of times before and couldn’t even find a parking space, never mind a table. So it was with enthusiastic anticipation that my wife and I got ourselves parked in both outdoor lot and inside table on a recent Sunday, and studied a menu that, like the restaurant itself, harkens to an earlier age.

You’ll find Ralph’s on Central Avenue, a few blocks east of Fuller Road, its very aspect reminiscent of a time when that stretch of the street was far more residential. “It opened 75 years ago,” says current owner Joe Fagan, “and I’ve had it for the past 10.” What did he change when he took over? “Absolutely nothing,” he laughs. “You don’t change something that works.”

The place is bifurcated into bar and dining room, the latter a long stretch flanked with tables, the aisles a constant flow of servers bearing inviting apps and entrées. Our server introduced himself as Brandon, got us beveraged immediately and left us to contemplate an unexpectedly expansive menu. As my wife considered the low prices throughout, she drew an inevitable conclusion: “They’ve long since paid off the building.”

The menu boasts a Metroland award for the chicken wings, and I can’t argue with that verdict. I ordered them hot and crispy (10 for $9) and they satisfied both conditions with surprising plumpness as well. Susan chose stuffed mushrooms to start, a trio of fat, breaded, butter-anointed caps for $6.25 that revealed not much of the promised sausage but didn’t shortchange on the cheese. She wisely ate one and doggie-bagged the others.

Not to discourage your appetizer pursuit, but keep in mind that dinners come with soup or salad and sides, along with a few warm slices of Italian bread.

Here’s what the entrée pricing is like. A six-ounce cheeseburger is $6.50 (add fries for $2), a sausage burger runs $6.75. Torpedo sandwiches are prepared with fillings of steak ($7.25), sausage ($7), meatballs ($6.50), eggplant ($6.25) or many more options. Other hot sandwiches include your meatball ($6.50), your turkey ($8.25), your Reuben ($7) and even your simple hot dog ($2.50). Cold sandwiches include roast beef ($7), turkey ($6.75), ham and cheese ($6.50) and more of the usual deli options.

We saw many a pizza at the tables around us, which start at $8 for a four-slice, two-toppings pie and rises to $9.45 for an ungarnished 10-cut, $16 if you want to throw five toppings on it. Two of the night’s dinner specials were baked stuffed manicotti with meatballs for $11.50 and tortilla-encrusted chipotle lime tilapia ($12). But we were peering further down Menu Street, where the many, many pasta specials appear, where you find seafood, steak, chicken and Ralph’s brand of Italian Favorites.

Choose a pasta (spaghetti, ziti, linguine or, for an extra buck, cavatelli) and dress it with your choice of sauce, which could be marinara, meat sauce, Alfredo, garlic and oil and more, priced from $8 to $10. Add meatballs or sausage for $1.50, broccoli, mushrooms, peppers, anchovies and more for $.75 per selection, and melt some mozzarella on top for another dollar.

Italian favorites include veal parmigiana or veal and peppers for $15, sausage and peppers for $13 and meatballs, peppers and fries for $9.50. Susan found parmigiana nirvana in chicken Sorrento ($15), which starts with a base of red sauce, places a breaded, deep-friend slab of chicken on top, tops that with a couple of similarly prepared eggplant slices and crowns it with melted mozzarella. Her salad was undistinguished, iceberg-based; the chicken was a perfect representation of no-holds-barred fry-it and cheese-it cookery.

There’s a prime rib special available most every night, a 14-ounce cut for $15, but I instead explored the $15 sirloin, also a 14-ouncer. This is what prompted the broccoli offer. This is what gave us the mashed potatoes. It could have been trimmed more closely; it would have benefitted from more creative seasoning. But I can’t cavil about such a bargain-priced cut of beef, which was grilled for me to a perfect medium rare. The homemade spuds were terrific; the broccoli had structural integrity.

Our appetites were bested but a few bites into those entrées, the remains of which joined the take-home bag. Although the efficient Brandon spoke glowingly of the homemade peanut butter pie ($4.50), we were done. It had been a satisfying, relaxing meal, no sense of hurry about it, yet I’m sure our table was turned moments after we left. I suspect that, like so many others, we feel as if we’ve discovered a great area secret. I bet we’ll be recognized when we return.