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Mansion Hill Makeover

by B.A. Nilsson on May 22, 2013


Betty Boop’s Diner, 115 Philip St., Albany, 545-5396, bettyboopsalbany.com. Serving 8-9 Tue-Sat, 8-3 Sun. D, MC, V.

Cuisine: diner fare

Entrée price range: $6 (turkey burger) to $13 (pork chops dinner)

Ambiance: casual and friendly

“My wife was wearing her Betty Boop pajamas,” says chef-owner Joe Marino. “That gave me the idea. We’re in an out-of-the-way place, so I knew we needed a catchy name.”

Not surprisingly, the decor at Betty Boop’s Diner features dozens of tchotchkes bearing the character’s familiar wide-eyed visage. “Most of them came from our customers,” says Teresa Marino, Joe’s wife, who singlehandedly was working the floor during my recent visit. She acknowledged the many Betty dolls and paraphernalia on a mantlepiece with a sweep of the hand, adding, “Since the day we opened last August, they’ve been bringing it in.”

My last sight of the dining room, several years ago, was when it was a place to enjoy the high-toned fare of the Mansion Hill Inn. Now it’s a place of glass-topped tables sporting checkerboard cloths below, with an overall color scheme of red and black. The corner location lets in a lot of light. A TV plays annoyingly at one side of the room. I met my wife there for an early dinner. A few tables already were filled, and people seemed to know each other across the tables. There were kids. It seemed like a gathering of neighborhood folk, which Joe later acknowledged is often the case.

“I looked at the neighborhood,” he said, “and realized that it really needed a diner.” He put together a breakfast menu of the usual suspects and a lunch-and-dinner menu of sandwiches, salads, pasta dishes and selected entrées—and, if that’s not enough, the breakfast items are available throughout the day.

The most expensive breakfast item is an $11 plate of steak and eggs. A plain omelette is $3.79. The fancier ones average $5.50 and feature mushrooms or bacon or feta or ham, and all of them come with toast and home fries. Pancakes are $3.49 unless you add ham, bacon or sausage ($4.79). Corned beef hash and eggs is $7. A plate of two eggs any style, with meat, home fries, toast, juice and coffee is $5.49. It doesn’t get much more reasonable.

The first thing that jumped out at me on the dinner menu was meatloaf ($9), but that seemed too easy a choice. What about the roasted chicken ($11) or chicken parm ($11) or the pork chops any style ($13)? Or, for that matter, one of the pasta dishes? Spaghetti and meatballs runs $10, linguini with clam sauce is $13, chicken infernale (pepperoncini, onions, mushrooms in a “blush sauce”) is $12 and greens and beans sneaks into that column for $11.

The sandwiches, each of them under $8, include Philly steak, Italian sub, corned beef or turkey Reuben, grilled chicken breast and burgers. The salads—but I rarely consult that part of the page.

“I’ll have a salad,” my wife announced. “Which one?” There’s an antipasto for $8, chef’s for $9, spinach with bacon and cranberries for $7 and the Oop-a-Doop Salad ($8) gets you romaine lettuce tossed with strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and cranberries under a berry-rich dressing. But it’s chicken, always chicken, that draws her eye. The sesame chicken salad ($7.25) promises mixed greens, mandarin oranges and walnuts in addition to the meat. Although she was dismayed to find iceberg the sole leaf, the bonus of cranberries, tomatoes and hard-boiled egg slices and the fact that the chicken is served warm, in a warm ginger dressing, more than redeemed the item. Not to mention that it was a large enough portion to provide a later lunch.

And so I had the meatloaf, which was revelatory. Not only is it freshly made—“I make it every day,” says Joe. “I try to make enough of everything I’ll need for just that day”—it also sports a delicious flavor unsullied by oversalting. Same with the accompanying mashed potatoes. The flavors seemed almost discreet based on my fearful expectations, but it’s not at all bland.

“He’s very conscious of that,” says Teresa. “He tries to make it healthy and he always makes it good.”

The dinners come with soup or salad; I had the crab bisque, an unexpectedly large portion, creamily rich, its component seafood actually the more economical kamaboko, or crab flakes, a whitefish-based product. Which is exactly what I expected at these prices, and it was fine.

Unbelievably, this is a retirement job for Joe and Teresa. He has been cooking in the Capital Region for more than 25 years. His last place was Carappolis Family Restaurant in Delaware Plaza—and in the New York City area at places like the Russian Tea Room, Tavern on the Green and the Garden City Hotel.

“I like cooking,” he says simply. “At this point in my life, I’m not doing it for the paycheck. Having this place is like having my own dining room, a place for the neighborhood, so I try to keep the food good and the prices low.”

He had ducked out of the kitchen when I was there, but acknowledges his kitchen partner, Harry King, “as someone who cooks just the same as I do. We’ve been working together for over 30 years, so it means you’ll get the same food no matter which one of us is cooking.

“By the way,” he adds, “have you had breakfast here?” I confess that I haven’t. “You have to come back for breakfast,” he says. “You know what makes it special? The potatoes. Most of the time you go to a diner, the potatoes are dry. I use only red potatoes, which taste better. Come back and try the potatoes.”