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photo: Shannon DeCelle

Keeping It in the Family
By B.A. Nilsson

Villa Valenti

369 West Sand Lake Road, Wynantskill, 283-1291. Serving dinner Tue-Sat 3-9. AE, D, DC, MC, V.

Cuisine: classic Italian

Entrée price range: $11 (spaghetti or ziti) to $21 (filet mignon)

Ambiance: genuinely old-fashioned

Villa Valenti is very old-fashioned. Turn a team of market analysts loose on this place and I’m sure the recommendations would be many: Replace the booths and tables, lose the salad bar, install a plethora of TVs, hang gewgaws from the walls and get rid of the fresh pasta.

Yet it’s every one of those undisturbed features that makes dinner at this restaurant such a pleasure. It’s a formula that works, and has been working pretty much the same way in the 15 years since I last wrote about it—and the 55 years that the restaurant has been in business.

Nothing fancy is going on here, but you’re in a world of comfort as soon as you’re seated, with friendly, knowledgeable servers and a menu of solid Italian fare that is surprising only insofar as the food is so consistently good.

If you spend $13 on the seafood-rich hot antipasto, you’ve hit the highest price on the appetizers menu, where everything else is under $10. With the small but nicely appointed salad bar as part of most dinner orders, the cold antipasto ($10) is a bit superfluous but does offer the cold meats and sharp cheeses you expect from such a platter.

Stuffed mushrooms, stuffed artichoke hearts ($8 apiece), pasta e fagioli and minestre ($7 apiece) highlight the list; we sampled the fried calamari ($8) and found the fish to be wonderfully tender and the finish crunchy and well-served by the accompanying marinara.

Which is as good a time as any to remind you that Villa Valenti’s most popular sauces (traditional, primavera and hot and spicy) are bottled and sold in local supermarkets, with proceeds all going to Prevent Child Abuse America.

Leading the entrée section of the menu is, unsurprisingly, pasta, with lasagna ($15), ravioli ($14) and baked ziti ($12) among the offerings. And there’s fresh, homemade pasta that can be substituted, for a small charge, into a dish; we had tortellini ($2.75) and gnocchi ($2.50) with our entrées, and gloried in the texture. The gnocchi had the consistency, like a thick custard, that makes their little potato dumplings such a treat.

“Our employees make most of the pasta,” manager Ralph Valenti explains, “and I farm out some of it. Basically, if I find someone who makes an excellent product, I’ll use it.” He credits part of his success to a lack of the overhead that plagues other restaurateurs. “This building is paid for, so I have my parents to thank for that. That means I have the budget to spend on the best ingredients I can get.” Which includes the hundreds of pounds of semolina the restaurant uses each week in its pasta making.

Want to go traditional? Dress an order of spaghetti or ziti ($11) with your choice of accompaniment, including peppers, onions, sausage or, as we sampled, meatballs, which are hearty, not too bready, and impressively large.

I passed up a page of chicken-based entrées to try a beef specialty: braciole ($18), in which thin-sliced steak is rolled around a stuffing of herbs and cheese with plenty of garlic to set off the flavor. Topped with tomato sauce, it’s one of the better examples I’ve tasted of this simple but artful dish. (And it’s available in a smaller version as an appetizer, for $8.)

Among the half-dozen veal dishes, the Valenti version of parmigiana ($17) offered no surprise but certainly was no disappointment. It was precisely the dish we expected, with a bonus of the mouth-filling flavor of the tomato sauce over both the veal and the neighboring pasta.

Part of my challenge in visiting restaurants is to put together meals that are representative of what the place has to offer, and this allows me not only to take command of what everybody orders but also to taste their dishes as well. The only person I can’t control as much as I’d like is my daughter, the veal parm fan, so it was with regret that we forewent the veal Rosina ($17), in which medallions of the meat are served in a sherry-laced cream sauce. Next time.

Of course there’s linguine with red or white clam sauce ($17) among the many seafood offerings, but I recommend the pescatore ($21), also available with a red or white sauce. It’s a simmering broth of lobster and crab, shrimp and scallops served over linguine, and the sauce itself is out of this world. The white version mixes white wine and cream, garlicked just to the right notch of flavor.

All of which is a testament to keeping a formula that works well for you. The original Valenti-family restaurant was the Volcano, opened in Troy in 1908 and run for 70 years. During my 1990 visit to Villa Valenti, I spoke with Ralph’s father, now retired. “But we’re keeping it in the family,” he said. “I’m the third generation, and I’m hoping my son, who’s now in high school, will take it over after me.”

He laments the restaurant’s location, which is another thing those market-analyst types would reject, but notes that it’s very difficult to get a table there on weekends. As the many fans of the restaurant already know, it’s worth the drive. We’re trained to throw over the old-fashioned in favor of whatever technology hands us; here’s a good reason to question that dangerous approach to life.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Enjoy the royalty of bubblies at the Veuve Clicquot Champagne Dinner at Provence (Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany) at 7 PM on March 16. Chef Scott Krause will prepare a five-course dinner paired with selected champagnes from this venerable house, and the event will be hosted by the winery’s Guillame Boisvert. Among the courses: belon oyster with cracked pepper granita and osetra caviar; diver scallops meunier with cauliflower purée, kumquats and capers; roasted veal tenderloin with almond mascarpone polenta cake; braised rainbow chard with golden raisins and thyme jus. The cost is $90 per person, not including tax and gratuity, and space is limited, so call the restaurant at 689-7777 for reservations. . . . BFS Restaurant (1736 Western Ave., Albany) is celebrating its 15th year in business with a new 14-page menu and a new website (bfsrestaurant.com). The menu includes many new and old Mediter ranean favorites, as well as an expanded selection of wraps and vegetarian items. BFS has been named a heart healthy restaurant by the Center For Preventive Medicine and Cardiovascular Health of the Primary Care Physicians, P.C. For more info and to make reservations, phone 452-6342. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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