Cella Bistro, 2015 Rosa Road, Schenectady, 381-2080, cellabistro.com. Serving dinner 5-9 Tue-Thu, 5-10 Fri-Sat. AE, MC, V.
Cuisine: Italian-flavored continental
Entrée price range: $20 (pasta Bolognese) to $28 (duck breast), plus lower-priced tapas
Ambiance: casual and intimate
The two extremes of restaurant management seem to be Corporate and Family. Corporate gives us the chain units, committee-designed and market-researched, in which the server trains from a handbook. Family is driven by a sense of shared mission, and the server is trained by guilt and parental coercion.
The corporate version reflects an absentee sensibility; family restaurants are part of a community, and thrive in direct response to that community’s needs. They’re in a better position to support local purveyors and the money that accrues flows within the community.
When I last wrote about Cella Bistro, shortly after the restaurant opened in 2006, it already was establishing itself as a worthy successor to the Italian restaurant that had spent three decades at that location. Chef Michael Cella was making his own pasta (he still does) and offering creative, attractive preparations of chicken and duck and beef and such.
In addition, a tapas menu was offered in the bar area, which consists of the bar itself and a small room of casual tables. My foursome settled at one of those tables and studied the many small-plate offerings.
There’s a blackboard tapas menu, which promised olives for $2 and giardiniera for $4, along with familiar barside offerings like nachos for $5 (add beef for a buck) and chicken wings for $7 and slightly more exotic fare such as tater tots with chipotle ketchup ($6) and toasted flatbread with tomato sauce, muenster cheese and pepperoni ($6). A small, table-distributed tapas menu added items like barbecued beef rib ($5), white anchovy filets with lemon and parsley ($6), shrimp in rice paper with sweet chili sauce ($9), fried chickpeas ($3) and grilled artichokes with caper aioli ($7).
We ordered a selection for the table. I asked the chef to choose the cheese for the fondue ($7); he selected a goat cheese, served in a bowl ringed with bread. No fancy fondue pot, but it’s not needed for a small portion that disappears quickly. Stir-fried sugar snap peas with sesame oil ($4) had an appealing sweetness and crunch, even if the preparation left it a bit too oily, but the roasted asparagus with a fried egg and grated cheese ($7) showed how nicely disparate-seeming items can combine. The star of the show was the fontina bread pudding ($4), looking like a small soufflé, the savory cheese flavor flowing into all corners of the well-textured dish.
A single-page menu covers the bases efficiently, with six appetizers, four salads and seven entrées. A small specials menu distributes six more possibilities across those categories. For example, among the appetizers are artichoke-goat cheese spring rolls ($7), pâté campagne ($11) and pan-seared scallops ($14). Added daily-special apps when we visited were escargots O’Sullivan (something I sampled during my first review of the place) and mussels in green coconut curry.
Soup of the day was minestra maritata ($6)—a mix of meatballs and escarole in a rich, rich base that deserves meal-in-itself status.
Entrées include duck breast in pomegranate wine sauce ($28), steak frites (another longtime favorite, $27) and roasted poblano peppers stuffed with rice, tomatoes and jalapenos ($21). But the specials list added slow-cooked pork shank ($28), and my friend Howard, who was dining with us, insisted that this was a dish like no other.
And so it proved. That shank is massive, for starters, and the whiskey-laced barbecue sauce that glazes it makes it too easy to keep on eating (fear not, physician: I toted much of it home). It’s served atop excellent mashed potatoes and a hunk of maple-butter anointed corn bread (with jalapenos and cheddar within) sits alongside.
We hadn’t much room for more, but our friend Beth squeezed in an order of the pasta Bolognese ($20), made with a beef-and-pork ragu that boasts the complicated flavor of a long, slow cooking time. The fact that it’s served over homemade pasta is merely a bonus.
“We’re going to be phasing in a summer menu,” Julia Cella told me. Michael is her husband, “and he’s in the process of narrowing down the selections.”
What has happened to Cella Bistro since 2006? Not much—but, in the restaurant business, that means everything. All aspects of the operation have been streamlined. The sprawling tapas array aside, the menu focuses on what’s proved to be Cella’s strengths (and, no coincidence, customer favorites) while the service remains efficient and dedicated. And there’s no better testament to a fine floor staff than the fact that, as Julia explained, most of them have been with the restaurant since the beginning.
But you’re going to see this for yourself when you check the place out—keeping only two possible problems in mind. Parking gets tricky when the restaurant is busy, and the place is sure to be busy this weekend, because Union College’s graduation is taking place. But after that, this is a place where you’ll come for the tapas and stay for the shank of the evening.