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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Time-Honored

By B.A. Nilsson

John Riccitello Restaurant

1687 Foster Ave., Schenectady, 374-1574. Serving lunch 11-2 Wed-Fri; dinner 4:30-10 Wed-Fri, 4-10 Sat, 4-9 Sun.. D, MC, V.

Cuisine: classic Italian

Entrée price range: $8.50 (pasta with garlic and oil) to $20 (New York strip steak)

Ambiance: paneled den

Here’s why the John Riccitello Restaurant has thrived for so many decades on its Schenectady backstreet: I’d only ever visited the place one other time in 21 years, but it felt as if I’d been there last week. The staff didn’t know me from any other infrequent customer, but they treated me as if the success of the place depended on the success of this particular meal.

When you take the long view of a business, one meal does matter. A chef with whom I once worked observed, “You’re going to make this dish hundreds of times. The customer’s only going to see it once. Make it special.”

At Riccitello’s, you don’t get fanfares and speeches; you get careful attention and terrific food.

Both times I visited (in 1987 and just the other night), Lewis Riccitello was behind the bar. This has been the case since 1968 when he found time around his teaching schedule and agreed to help his mother with the restaurant after his dad passed away. “It’s still a family business,” he said. “My son, John, is in the kitchen now.”

The room is decorated with a couple decades worth of Travers Stakes posters, along with family memorabilia, including framed portraits of Lewis’ parents, John and Mary, the restaurant’s founders.

Seating is comfortable, and the menu is straightforward and inviting.

Nothing is priced over $10 on the lunch menu, which includes hot and cold deli sandwiches, burgers, pasta, seafood, and the parmigiana trio: eggplant, chicken or veal. 21 years ago, nothing was priced over $10 on the dinner menu, but now it goes as high as $20 for a strip steak. Chicken parmigiana is $15, seafood ranges from $15.50 for haddock or frog’s legs to $16.25 for shrimp (scampi, marinara or deep fried).

House specialties include chicken livers sautéed with mushrooms and onions ($12.75), veal or shrimp francaise ($18), linguine with clams or mussels ($15.25) and seafood fra diablo ($18.25). On the evening I visited, an osso buco special was available in two sizes ($18 and $34).

Appetizers include clams and shrimp, soup and fried stuff available in the $4-to-$9 range. Sautéed calamari can be ordered ($8.50), and there are smaller portions of entrées like fettuccine Alfredo ($8) and penne with rappini and sun-dried tomatoes ($8.50).

But the dinner comes with plenty on the side. There’s an Italian loaf and butter served as you sit (or waiting, as ours was, if you reserve a table). Most entrées come with soup or salad before the meal and pasta or a potato and vegetable with it; an order of pasta, of course, only gets you the side of soup or salad.

Back in 1987, antipasto was “a large plate on which greens mixed with spiced ham, prosciutto, salami, provolone, pimentos, olives and anchovies.” The serving for two hasn’t changed ($11, and is available for one at $7), except that the anchovies have disappeared (or, at least, I didn’t think to ask for any).

Minestra is a regular menu item. The soup of the day was corn chowder, which most of my party opted to try; not surprisingly, it was very traditional, creamy and thick, drawing much of its flavor from chicken stock.

We compared two chicken-based entrées. Breast of chicken Riccitello is a house special ($15.75), and combines long strips of sautéed chicken with prosciutto, topped with Swiss cheese and presented in a marinara flecked with herbs and cream. The combination of prosciutto and Swiss cheese is both sour and salty, and complements the tomato sauce.

By contrast, the chicken cacciatore ($15) has a more straightforward marinara, which is fine. The flavor comes from a combination of chicken, peppers and mushrooms in a classic throw-it-all-in-a-pot recipe that benefits from careful handling.

Side dishes included a choice of asparagus or eggplant parmigiana; my wife persuaded our server to give her both in lieu of a potato. (She’s on an annoying anti-starch kick that I’m sure will pass by Thanksgiving). This, however, allowed for a glimpse of the eggplant dish. Guess what: It’s classic, and simply consists of breaded eggplant, tomato sauce and cheese. A full order is $12.

While we’re on the subject of classics, consider macaroni and cheese. Here’s a concept Kraft turned into an artificially colored horror that you should be ashamed to consume after adolescence (unless, of course, you’re drunk and crunching on it right out of the box). The grown-up version is fettuccine Alfredo, with egg yolks, cream and parmesan cheese clinging to steaming noodles. A large, well-seasoned portion, it’s a $12 bargain that you really shouldn’t finish but will find irresistible.

Sautéed baby beef liver is offered with bacon or onions; our server had no trouble offering the $13 dish with both. The bacon was perfect; the onions, though, which should be sweet with caramelization, had received only a perfunctory trip through the sautée pan. But the liver itself was a wonderful return for me to a childhood favorite. Cooked with a pink center, its flavor was quite unique.

Several varieties of homemade pie are offered for dessert, but we went with ice cream: a bocce ball-like tartufo ($5.75), sliced open and served with whipped cream, and a classic dish of spumoni ($5.75). The ice cream and wine put me in the mood to give voice to some canzone Napoletana favorites, but my family hustled me out before I could embarrass them.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

We’re in the midst of a weeklong self-guided Garden of Eating driving tour of some of the best independent local farms and restaurants in Albany, Rensselaer and Columbia counties. Through this Sunday (Sept. 21), you’re invited to follow a trail of artisan cheese, vegetables and fruit, meat, bread, wine, beer and many specialty dishes. Also, take advantage of the chance to pick your own produce and shop at country stores for an array of honey, maple syrup, baked goods and more. Full information, with farm and restaurant listings, maps, suggested itineraries and even lodging suggestions, are at gardenofeatingtour.com. . . . Ever sample garlic cotton candy? The annual Hudson Valley Garlic Festival takes place at Cantine Field in Saugerties on Sept. 27 from 10-6 and Sept. 28 from 10-5. It’s a nonstop party of lectures, workshops, music, entertainment and plenty of pungent food. Learn the secrets of growing great garlic from Rose Valley Farms’ David Stern, sample Ric Orlando’s pan-blackened string beans and roasted-garlic bread pudding, dance to the Zydeco Moshers, and make yourself unsuitable for the company of any but fellow stinking-rose enthusiasts. USA Today named this one of the top 10 regional food festivals in the country. Tickets are $7 at the door. You can get schedules and more info at hvgf.org. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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