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photo:B.A. Nilsson

Feels Like Home
By B.A. Nilsson

Santino’s Italian-American Restaurant

183 Troy-Schenectady Road, Latham, 220-9900. Serving dinner Tue-Thu, Sun 3-10; Fri-Sat 3-11. AE, D, DC, MC, V

Cuisine: traditionally American Italian-American

Entrée price range: 8 (pasta with pomodoro sauce) to $21 (filet mignon)

Ambiance: large tables; Sinatra songs

 

Shelley Francella has been in the restaurant business in the area for 30 years, noting the foibles and pitfalls of other people’s eateries. When she decided to open her own restaurant—an event that took place last December—her ambition was to get as far from the chain joints as possible.

“I want to have a place where people know your name,” she explains. “Where you can come in and feel like home.” So she places an unusual (for the area) emphasis on service, even as she has put together a menu featuring items made with fresh food obtained, when and where possible, from local purveyors.

“I want this to be a mom-and-pop place,” she says of Santino’s Italian-American Restaurant. “Something that helps the little people.”

You’ll find the deceptively small-looking place on a rise overlooking Troy Schenectady Road in Latham, beside the moribund Kmart.

The menu stays on very safe ground, letting you start with the usual barside appetizers and then offering two or three preparations apiece of chicken, veal, beef or vegetarian fare ($14-$21). A few more seafood and pasta dishes round things out ($8-$19). There’s also a listing of burgers (cooked to your specification, $7) and sandwiches ($7-$10) for smaller- commitment meals, and all-around favorites like fish and chips ($13) or a hot meatball sandwich ($7).

What do you get? Some very nice choices of preparation and presentation. We started, as we often do, with the Soup Test. Does the minestra del giorno show the personal touches that distinguish it from the run-of-the-mill?

The bean-based soup we sampled ($3) was thick and enriched with the flavor of pancetta, as well as evidence of greens. With not a lot of salt, its very nice flavor results from a skilled combination of the other ingredients.

When the fried calamari ($9) arrived, we were pleasantly surprised to see that it lacked the batter coating that so often makes this dish indistinguishable from, say, fried clams. Instead, the rings are breaded—sparingly—and sautéed, then served on a bed of spinach, with the flavors of olive oil and hot peppers peeking through. Even the chicken-wings fan at my table, who’d been lamenting my refusal to order yet another damn dish of those things (but they’re $8 for a dozen), was won over by the little flavor surprises the calamari imparted.

Salads are served with any entrée order. They’re fresh and sport a pleasant variety of ingredients, with a garlic-based house dressing that I’d be happy to have at home.

Penne, linguine and cappellini are the available pastas, and your choice can be topped with a simple pomodoro (tomato and basil, $8), or fleshed out with meatballs or sausage ($10). To get fancier, try the pasta Florentine ($12), which adds spinach and cheese to the tomato; if you want to add chicken or shrimp to that addition, you’ll pay $4 or $6 more, respectively.

Broccoli Alfredo ($12) has the appeal of taking a rich-with-cream and bad-for-the-arteries classic and dressing it up with a façade of healthful respectability by adding everybody’s favorite green vegetable. We enjoyed the result, although we longed for more cheese in the recipe to give it a thicker sauce (I don’t believe any egg yolks went in there, as they do in a traditional Alfredo), or at least a container of freshly grated cheese on the table. This is another dish you can chicken- or shrimp-enhance for the fee noted above.

What won me over on the plate of bourbon-glazed sirloin ($20), believe it or not, was the stack of grilled squash. Fat circlets of the yellow and green varieties bore the marks and flavor of a quick sear over high heat, and gave me psychological assurance that the meat, too, would be tasty.

It was, and it was cooked to the most perfect state of medium rareness I’ve seen in a long time. Ac companying it were chunky mashed potatoes that bore the fancy swirl of a trip through a pastry bag, although how they managed this without clogging the serrated tip beats me.

You know the standard presentation of Italian-themed meat dishes: You get a plate with the meat and possibly a vegetable on the side; you get a bowl of accompanying pasta. Chicken marsala ($15) was presented differently. The fat chunks of meat, sautéed and finished in the sweet wine of its moniker, were served right on top of the pasta (cappellini, in this case, which we chose in order to more fully integrate noodles and sauce with one another). So instead of tomato sauce, we had the marsala flavor in and around the whole dish, which was a pleasant change from routine.

The servers are young and there are many of them, assuring that you’ll be greeted when you enter and well-minded once you sit. Although it’s a fairly straightforward station-based system, our waiter was helped by others when necessary. We knocked him off routine by having a latecomer during a visit, but he recovered quickly and got us back on track, getting some elusive salads out quickly when he discovered his error.

Although we declined desserts, there’s something called Big Fat Chocolate Cake that sells for $7.50 and looks like something that mutates in the moonlight. No doubt I will fall victim to a craving that will return me some day for a portion of it.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

“Truly hip” and “south of the Mason-Dixon line” aren’t usually overlapping concepts, but the South has us beat where barbecue is concerned. But there are signs of hope, the latest being the addition of barbecue to the menu at the Van Dyck Restaurant (237 Union St., Schenectady), which you can enjoy alongside the restaurant’s newly reinstalled home-brewed beer. Look for slow-smoked beef brisket, pork ribs and pulled pork, among other barbecue classics, along with blackened salmon, seafood gumbo and steaks from aged sirloin. The items are also available from the restaurant’s to-go menu. In addition to the barbecue items, many of the Van Dyck menu favorites remain, with fine-dining and tavern-fare options. Call the restaurant at 381-1111 for more info. . . . Nicole’s Bistro (Quackenbush House, Broadway and Clinton, Albany) celebrates its 21st anniversary with a special dinner at 6 PM on Thursday, Nov. 10. The courses will be paired with appropriate wine, and include tartlet au fruit de mer (a quiche of lobster, scallops and shrimp); grilled milk-fed veal chops with butternut squash risotto cakes; and a dessert of individual Paris-Brest. Music will be provided by Ed Clifford, and the price is $100 per person, all inclusive. Reserve seats by calling the restaurant at 465-1111. . . . 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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