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PHOTO: B.A. Nilsson

Here to Please

Giovanni’s

1733 Van Vranken Ave., Schenectady, 344-7077. Serving Mon-Fri 11-10, Sat-Sun 4-10. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Italian

Entrée price range: $10 (pasta with choice of sauce) to $17 (veal parmesan)

Ambiance: comfortably casual

 

By B.A. Nilsson

There can be little doubt that the most popular comfort food in America is Italian. There’s a pizza joint in every community I know, and places with full-range menus crowd the downtowns and back streets. Typical Italian restaurants aren’t geared for the special-occasion, once-a-year diner: They have prices and portions that encourage more frequent returns.

“We want you to come back,” says Juan Presti. “We try to serve the best food at the most affordable prices. Are you going to come back?”

He’s the owner of just-opened Giovanni’s, on Schenectady’s Van Vranken Avenue.

It’s an attractive place, and the staff, chef and owner couldn’t be more accommodating.

I didn’t determine how names were passed along in the family, but the eponymous Giovanni is grandfather to Juan, as well as the scion of a pizza-making family that has had restaurants in the area for decades, eventually settling into a space across from the Scotia high school.

Giovanni’s chef Victor Clavell brings experience from that and many other restaurants, and invites you to sample the menu he offers or suggest something else he might prepare for you.

Six “chef’s dishes” are the menu’s centerpiece. These items, served daily from 4 to 10 PM, range from a $13 eggplant rollatini to veal marsala for $17 (chicken marsala is available for $14). Shrimp scampi, ziti alla vodka, pasta primavera—it’s a good sampling of classic Southern Italian fare.

You may find it confusing to see a dinner menu alongside. Here’s where the parmesans are ($14 to $17), the lasagna ($12), the baked ziti ($11). And other pasta dishes a-plenty, ranging from a $10 choice of your favorite pasta with meat sauce, marinara, garlic butter, or Alfredo sauce. As with all entrées, salad or soup is included, and the bread basket mixes garlic foccacia with slices from a homemade loaf. So that’s a complete dinner for 10 bucks, and the portion is huge.

This isn’t your childhood red-sauce place. Antipasto, for instance, features a wonderful presentation of meats and cheese (salami, pepperoni, capicola, provolone) rolled together and sliced, served atop the traditional lettuce bed with accompanying veggies. The $5.50 portion is enough for two; I’m sure the $11 plate could feed a family.

No calamari for my squid-loving daughter that night, so she made do with mozzarella sticks ($5), which were just as expected. We also sampled the Italian Wedding soup, one of two homemade varieties ($4 and $6), and appreciated the hand-chopped mix of vegetables and meats within.

Other appetizers include wings, brus chetta, steamed clams and more, and you can get lighter-fare sandwiches of grilled chicken or burgers.

Salads are crisp and fresh, served with good house creamy Italian unless you otherwise specify. That and the bread basket easily can destroy you for the entrée itself.

It did so with us. Too many Italian-restaurant meals, too many bad habits. Like finishing all the ancillary courses.

We thought there’d been a mistake when Susan’s chicken parmesan arrived. This $15 dish appeared on a serve-the-family platter, with a huge cutlet (well dressed in its breading, sauce and cheese) alongside a monster pile of sauce-topped angel hair pasta.

But Lily’s manicotti ($11) was following close behind, and it was another outsized platter decorated with the large pasta tubes oozing ricotta, bubbling under its sauce and mozzarella. The child regarded it with silent awe for a moment, then consumed exactly one of those tubes before surrendering.

If you know the Scotia Giovanni’s, you know the pizza. It’s been a mainstay for decades, and now it’s here. A six-cut pie is $8; add $1.75 for each topping. Eight- and 16-cut pizzas are $10 and $15, respectively, with an increase in the topping price as well. I like to crowd as much as possible onto the pizza’s inviting palette, but I’m also a sucker for pizza suggestions. Our server, who couldn’t have been more helpful, steered me toward the chicken-wing pizza ($14 for an 8-cut) and promised to make sure it was spicy enough.

Although I still find it a gimmicky pizza idea, it works. I had to stop after one piece because I, too, was full. The take-home bags piled up like skyscrapers. Too late did I discover that half-portions often are available.

A lunch menu (served until 2 PM) offers burgers and subs in addition to the regular menu. A kids’ menu puts a couple of pasta dishes alongside the fast food-inspired selections. Homemade desserts include canoli ($4) and cheesecake ($6).

Toward the end of our meal, Clavell stopped by the table to make sure we were pleased. He was soon joined by Presti. They wanted to know (with no idea why I was there) what we thought, what we’d change. Instant market research. Now that they’re open, they want you to be pleased, and they figure—quite rightly—that you’re the best spokesman for your culinary well-being. When you visit, you may have some thoughts on the matter. I didn’t. I was too full and happy.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Do you have any idea how much corn we consume? The Sanctuary for Independent Media, the Honest Weight Food Co-op, and Roots and Wisdom are sponsoring the area premiere of the film documentary King Corn at the Sanctuary for Independent Media, 3361 6th Ave., Troy, at 6 PM tomorrow (Friday, Feb. 15). Entrance is by donation: $10 is suggested or $5 for students or low-income others. King Corn examines the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation by following the experience of a group of college friends who grow and harvest (with help from genetically modified seeds and powerful herbicides) a bumper corn crop on an acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat—and how we farm. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (food at banilsson.com).



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