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PHOTO: B.A. Nilsson

Intimate Attention

Lanci’s Ristorante

68 Putnam St., Saratoga Springs, 581-1973. Serving dinner Wed-Sun from 5 PM. AE, D, MC. V.

Cuisine: gourmet Italian

Entrée price range: $19 (fettuccine Bolognese)

Ambiance: very intimate

By B.A. Nilsson


With eight tables sharing space with the stoves, Lanci’s fills quickly; with a welcoming, family run ambiance, it tends to stay filled. Having heard many enthusiastic reports about the place, I made a couple of unsuccessful incursions during the preceding months and gave up last August, when it was perpetually full. And then I was in Saratoga one chilly evening earlier this month, looking for a meal, and saw empty tables through Lanci’s window.

In short order, my family was installed at one of them. What turns out to be one of the restaurant’s greatest assets initially proved frustrating: The two servers were so busy with other customers—not only serving them but also chatting with them and, in one case, getting editorial help with some written material—that we were seated and then, it seemed, forgotten.

I wasn’t aggrieved as much as I was jealous, knowing that few can offer snappier pointers than I—but, of course, I was dining anonymously. Which ultimately didn’t matter. Once we fell into the service queue, so to speak, we were never neglected.

And it’s not the kind of place where you maintain much anonymity for long. If you initially aren’t conversing with neighboring tables, you’ll be drawn into it once chef-owner John Lanci emerges to check on the food he prepared for you.

He and his wife, Cathy, opened the place over a year ago as a complete change of career. John learned his craft in the best of all schools: the family kitchen, where a family heritage was celebrated in the daily cuisine. He then enhanced that knowledge with formal training.

Duck around to the other side of a partition at one side of the dining room and you’ll see the “line”: stoves, salamander, prep table. And more likely than not, John wielding skillets or dressing plates.

As it turned out, the servers are siblings, next-generation Lancis: son Matthew, who guided us through our meal, adds a sound knowledge of wine to his familiarity with the cuisine.

The menu changes regularly so it can remain a snapshot of what’s fresh and what’s captured the chef’s imagination. For example: A lamb shank ($22) was offered the night I visited, making its debut in this recipe. Although it had been braised to a fare-thee-well, ossobuco style, it was served dry and with a crust of a variety of herbs. Even better, it perched atop a bed of risotto nicely flavored with parmesan cheese.

You don’t expect to find tender shank meat under that crust, so it’s a delightful and surprising experience working your way through the meat, as tender as it gets but with some flavorful crunch to it. With such rich risotto beneath it, I never missed the sauce that otherwise might have enhanced it.

It wasn’t the entrée I ordered. My daughter often charges me with choosing for her, and I chose ossobuco Milanese ($24) to give her another perspective on veal. But the presentation—again, of braised shanks, this time very much in a sauce—had a kind of Three Mile Island look, with twin towers of veal bone dominating the dish.

And it wasn’t just the unfamiliar appearance. When I pointed out that those bones, topped with a garlicky gremolata, contained marrow she was expected to eat, she pretty much willed my plate of lamb to apparate in front of her.

No complaints from me. Anything cooked that slowly draws in flavor against which the flashier meats can’t compete. Creamy polenta is served alongside; like risotto, it’s not only a treat in itself but also a vehicle for whatever sauce may be near.

With no chicken on the menu, my wife was forced to choose one of a pair of pasta dishes. Penne Norma ($19) adds grilled eggplant to the macaroni tubes, finishing the dish in a simple-seeming tomato sauce (chunks of the fresh stuff) with ricotta adding a bright, sweet finish to the dish.

Any of these would be enough to satisfy a reasonable appetite, a condition with which I remain unfamiliar. A pair of salads is tempting, but we selected three of the four hot appetizers. Contorni ($7) is described as sautéed greens, but it’s one of those deceptive items that turns out to be much more, a good-sized serving of garlic and crunch. Equally simple-seeming is the artichoke dish, carciofi ($7), which presents a trio of big, fresh hearts sautéed with garlic and topped with sage.

How did mother do it? Gnocchia alla Nonna ($9) answers that question with handmade potato dumplings served in a chicken liver-scented tomato sauce. Again, deceptively simple but teeming with unusual and very satisfying flavor.

Cathy Lanci is responsible for those desserts that aren’t imported, and her panna cotta ($7) was a definitive version of the compote that does for cream what flan does for eggs, topped with exquisite chestnut honey. Limoncello tartufo ($6) puts the tangy liquor flavor in the center of a ball of vanilla gelato, itself coated with lemon sprinkles. Both desserts made their way around the table frequently as we quarreled over ownership.

By which time we were on a first-name basis with our server, the chef, and the folks sitting nearby. It’s a social as well as gastronomic commitment to dine here, and it’s well worth it.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Preview the new year with New World Home Cooking Companys 10th annual Champagne Dinner, which takes place at 6:30 PM on Dec. 14. Chef Ric Orlando and Michael Weiss, wine instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, join forces to present a seven-course meal paired with seven wines. Start with a clam foursome—raw littlenecks with mustard sauce, cherrystone ceviche with cilantro, razor clam spicy Asian barbecue, and Manila clam paella with peas and chorizo—and continue through a meal that includes a trio of lamb (lamb filet mignon, sweetbreads with strawberry-chipotle sauce, and crepinettes with tomato jam) and much more. It’s $79 per person, plus tax and tip, and you can reserve seats by calling (845) 246-0900. The restaurant is at 1411 Route 212, Saugerties; check out newworldhomecooking.com for more info. . . . 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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