You walk into a restaurant on what’s supposed to be a slow night and spot two eight-tops who have yet to order as well as some scattered deuces and you’re tempted to turn on your heel, an impulse countered by the chill of the night air and the amount of time it took to find a parking space.
Yet, as our dinner at Carmine’s restaurant progressed, we not only were well attended but also watched, impressed, as the three waiters and hostess stepped up their tempo to accommodate the influx of more and more.
“We weren’t expecting it,” our waiter said, “but we’ll take it.”
Carmine’s Restaurant is the latest eatery to feature the culinary stylings of one of the area’s most dynamic and voluble chefs, Carmine Sprio, who first established himself on an uptown stretch of Central Avenue. In 1996, he took over the Albany location of what had been Alteri’s. That version of “Carmine’s” lasted 14 years, during which time he also had success as an engaging TV cooking show host who tied in food with community activity. (And I’ll confess that I once was a guest on the program, when my hair was many shades darker.)
Carmine’ next venture was a churrascaria on Sheridan Avenue, just off North Pearl Street, across from Capital Rep. It was an excellent steakhouse in the Brazilian style, but it lasted only 11 months, my suspicion being that the price point was too high for the Capital Region’s cheapskate crowd.
In a breathtaking presto-change-o, Carmine closed the place, retooled kitchen and floor, and re-opened four days later in its present form. That was just over a year ago. He’s back serving the Italian fare that made his reputation, and he’s doing it with a creativity and sureness of touch that made my experience there as satisfying and memorable as such meals can be.
The dining room has a charmingly rustic look, with un-linened wooden tables and deep-red napery. It reminds me of the kind of place I’ve enjoyed on Mulberry Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy, but with lower prices, friendlier service, much more space between tables—and nobody on the sidewalk waving a menu in your face.
Carmine’s menu has been distilled from his favorite preparations from menus past along with innovative takes on classic dishes. “I didn’t want to go the spaghetti-and-meatballs route,” he says, “but we do offer chicken parm and it’s a steady seller. But I try to imagine what else I can do with an item.” In the case of salmon ($20), for example, it’s a coating of crushed pistachios and, to complement the crunch, a flattened ball of seafood arancini beneath it. Traditionally a ball of crumbs-coated rice, its name reflecting its orange color, this take on arancini gives a tasty reinforcement to the flavor of the salmon. And it’s served over a white wine sauce touched with just enough vanilla to give the sauce a surprisingly cheerful edge.
Appetizers include traditional items like beans and greens ($11) and fried calamari ($13), the latter available with a blood orange sauce if you wish a marinara alternative. And the seafood arancini is available as a $12 starter. We sampled the day’s bruschetta ($8.50), in this case a threesome, with impressively contrasting flavors setting apart this over-offered dish. On one bread slice: black beans with bacon. The next: artichokes with roasted red peppers. Beside it: a sausage compote. Never an easy dish to consume politely, we took a manners-be-damned approach and let the toppings fall where they might.
Pasta e fagioli ($6), another tiresomely ubiquitous dish, got just what it needed to make it (as far as I’m concerned) more desirable: more pasta and beans than broth, and a touch of heat. You’d think adding sambuca to a dish that already sports chopped fennel would be too much, and you’d be wrong. The PEI mussels ($10) are wonderfully enriched by the combination, with a very light tomato broth keeping the flavors intact for the inevitable swipes of bread.
Among the half-dozen pasta dishes are old friends like Phil’s Pasta ($19.50), which we had during a visit to the Central Avenue restaurant that I wrote about in 2001 (rigatoni, sausage and meatballs). This time we discovered another liqueur-livened combo: limoncello shrimp ($21), served over pasta, the sweetness of the limoncello a contrast to the spinach that’s also included. And the shrimp, of course, remain typically uninvolved in it all—but what a great vehicle!
Lamb ragout is served over fresh tagliatelle ($20), the wide noodles helping gather the essence of ground-roasted lamb shoulder in the lightest of sauces, hints of tomato sweetening it. There’s a style at work here of keeping each dish light and broadening its flavor range to hit sweet as often as it heads into umami.
Amazingly (especially with my wife beside me), we completely avoided the chicken items, which include saltimbocca ($21, prosciutto and smoked mozzarella) and scarpariello ($19, sausage, pepperoncini). But oh my goodness the pork brasciole ($20), which bids fair to sway Susan away from poultry. The cutlet is rolled around prosciutto and smoked mozzarella, with broccoli rabe for good measure, served over skin-intact garlic mashed potatoes, topped with a rosemary-scented white-wine sauce, its release of flavors symphonic in complexity.
Our appetites flagged; the takeout containers accumulated. A surprise dessert: a sweet panini. Pound cake, actually, two slices between which flowed nutella and marshmallow sauce, ice cream to moderate its intensity. We outlasted the eight-tops. We finished with a profound and somewhat overstuffed sense of well-being.
“I think some people have a wrong idea about this part of Albany,” Carmine says, “but if there’s one problem I always hear about, it’s the challenge of parking. So we’re going to find a way to validate those tickets if you have to pay to park.” Making it all the easier to lure me back.
Carmine’s Restaurant, 4 Sheridan Ave., Albany, 729-4477, carminesrestaurant.com. Serving lunch 11:30-2 Tue-Fri, dinner 4:30-close Mon-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: gourmet Italian
Entrée price range: $18 (chicken parmigiana) to $26 (zuppa di pesce)
Ambiance: elegantly rustic