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PHOTO: Joe Putrock

Wine Flight

A glass of Chianti, a conversation, perhaps a momentary illusion of being somewhere else: Welcome to Antica Enoteca


By Stephen Leon

‘I know Rome better than I know Schenectady,” says Mark Smith, not quite joking (and not referring to the Rome a few exits down the Thruway from Schenectady).

Smith can be forgiven for his international biases (if such biases even require forgiving): He’s a flight attendant for Delta, and by his estimation, he’s traveled to Europe and South America at least 500 times. But he’s also a local barkeep, of sorts: He owns and operates Antica Enoteca, an “Old World wine bar” at 200 Lark Street in Albany.

And when he was able to buy the two side-by-side buildings he had been eyeing, he already had a pretty good idea what he wanted in the bar, which now encompasses the basement level of both buildings: something that would make people feel like they’re in another country.

Capturing the essence of what he remembered from European and South American wine bars required a lot of work, most of which Smith did himself. The results include beautifully finished blond wood on the bar, ceiling and other surfaces, classy, old-style lanterns, a couple of floor-to-ceiling wine shelves, and that brick. Smith is so proud of the walls’ finished brickwork, several times during our conversation, he caresses it lovingly with his hand.

“It was rough, unartistic brick” when he first took over the building, Smith says. First he hit it with masonry primer, then went over it with a vinyl spackling compound to fill in every nook and cranny. He finished with a coat of cream-colored paint, then a second coat to add an accent of light brown; he describes the result as “almost a sunshine feel. . . . It has a relaxed brightness to it.”

Smith’s description of the brick segues with another of his themes: that “wine should be a relaxing experience.” And from the ambience to the large selection of well-cared-for wines (vacuum-sealed, with air pumped out of the bottle after every glass is poured), to the small but interesting tapas menu (prepared in the kitchen upstairs) to the clientele drawn by the combination, Smith seems to have achieved his goal: a wine bar where people can relax, enjoy good wine and engage in interesting conversation, either with friends or strangers who gather at the 7-foot bar and often merge into one communal discussion.

All the while, of course, feeling like they’re in another country.

It’s Saturday evening, and Antica Enoteca is packed. There are relatively few people out in the back courtyard, although in nice weather, the several tables outside fill up quickly with groups of people; others wander in and out of the courtyard to smoke. Inside, the front room is full; the several seats at the bar are taken, as are the side bar seats and the two front tables; several people stand, talking and sipping wine, in the middle of the room. The second room, in the adjacent building (Smith blasted out an entrance to join the two) is cut up into more private tables, including what the staff refer to as “the make-out corner.” Smith insists that even the music should enhance the café’s international flavor, and sure enough, Argentinean tango music is playing (“Love that accordion,” one patron says enthusiastically).

Often, the bartenders’ music selections themselves start conversations, as with a CD by Gotan Project featuring Depeche Mode and New Order covers in GP’s curious tango/electronica style; the bartenders and patrons agree that the vary familiar songs (English-music fans abound in the bar tonight) somehow work, even with the . . . (here it is again) accordion. On another night, Serge Gainsbourg’s sexually provocative “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus,” which he recorded in 1969 with his lover Jane Birkin (an earlier recording with Brigitte Bardot was shelved upon her husband’s protests), leads to a discussion of the rumors surrounding the circumstances of the session (let’s just say that the recording is rather breathy).

Books, British music, food and restaurants, pedestrian-friendly cities, the need for liberal religious leaders to make themselves heard: All have been recent topics of conversation at the wine bar. But more important than the actual topics, say Smith and his staff, is that the space just seems to draw people together to talk. “There are people who come in here at 7 o’clock,” says Smith, “and say they’re here for one drink, and stay till closing.” And, he adds, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re getting drunk—just lingering. “They stay for the conversation.”

On a recent night, a former Albanian is back in town after a few years away, marveling at the wine bar and the new dimension it has added to Lark Street. At the bar, two women are asking for suggestions on their next glasses of wine: One wants “big and fruity” and the other wants “tannic and structured.” “Big and fruity” is immediately satisfied by a Californian blend called Incognito. Her companion is harder to please; Trapiche malbec doesn’t cut it, and the bartender doesn’t have the Bordeaux he thinks would fit her request. At the end of the bar, a young couple share a bottle of white wine; their conversation is close and hushed, and occasionally they lean in a few inches closer and kiss.

Many of the patrons live in or near the neighborhood, but Smith says he does see people from father away—sometimes, much farther away. “Europeans come in here and they feel like they’re back home,” he beams.

And what of us mere mortal Americans? According to Smith, local customers occasionally say the bar reminds them of Spain or Tuscany, or they just say, “I feel like I’m on vacation.”

And that’s something. After all, we can’t all be flight attendants.

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