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El Divino

1702 Chrisler Ave., Schenectady, 374-7711. Serving dinner 5-10 Tue-Sat. AE, D, MC, V..

Cuisine: classic Italian

Sandwich price range: $10 (pasta with meatballs or sausage) to $29 (filet mignon)

Ambiance: intimate, sometimes loud

Scratch as Scratch Can

By B. A. Nilsson

My long-cherished image of Schenectady as a city teeming with Italian restaurants needs revision. As the neighborhoods have changed or vanished over the years, the old-school places also have disappeared. Albany now has more Italian eateries, but Schenectady continues to hold its own. The six-year-old El Divino (long I on the second syllable) already is a stalwart.

Housed in a storefront on a strip mall, El Divino stands at the intersection of Chrisler and Altamont avenues, not far from exit 6 on I-890. There are many diverse stores in this plaza, but this is the only one thatís busy in the evening. Because the bar is popular, the sidewalk was teeming with smokers when we arrived.

Large portions and familiar menu items reinforce the restaurantís image of Italian family dining. There are Italianesque chains that attempt to feel homey by surrounding guests with cans of crushed tomatoes, jars of peppers and macaroni, or posters of Mastroianni and Loren, but nothing works like a small sketch of Frank Sinatra: something youíll find on the El Divino wall.

Chef Chip Morrisonís make-it-from-scratch policy begins with the first helping of bread. Itís a big hunk from an Italian loaf, served alongside a dipping sauce so popular that the restaurant bottles and sells it (along with a prized marinara).

Black-clad servers hurried good-sized plates to and from tables. Ours paused to describe specials and discuss the menu. Because we paid a midweek visit, we were eligible for the Tuesday-through-Thursday $10 special, which gets you chicken or eggplant parmigiana, vodka rigatoni, or pasta with meatballs or sausage.

Many entrťes have a soup or salad option, and so it was with salads that most of my party began the meal. Fresh, chilled greens and homemade dressings made them better than average. If you donít get a salad with the meal, itís $6; you can order a Caesar salad for $9, or a large, cheese-and-pepper enhanced Italian salad for $10.

Appetizers include shrimp, either with cocktail sauce or wrapped in prosciutto, fried calamari, clams casino, and sausage-stuffed mushrooms ($10-$13). Thereís a selection of soup and salads, including a bowl of greens and beans thatís made to order ($9 or $12).

The offer of greens and beans with the option for homemade sausage pushed me over the edge. ďWe make this from scratch when itís ordered,Ē warned the server. That was fine by me, and I asked for the smaller of the two sizes. What emerged post-salads was the larger serving. This was not exactly a hardship, because any dish with the garlic presence this one sported is impossible to stop eating.

The soup of the day was an old, reliable vegetable beef, but it bore the unusual characteristics of a thin, beefy stock with plenty of mushrooms. The flavor enveloped the palate nicely.

We sat near a ceiling-mounted speaker that was blasting a radio station when we came in, but, before I could complain, a staffer decreased the volume to talk-over level. Shortly thereafter, he inexplicably raised it again. Then he lowered it again. He eventually achieved the audible level he sought, but the journey was annoying. Music aside, the restaurant generated enough conviviality with the people assembled therein. No one was hollering from table to table, but each party seemed to be having a good enough time that conversation was flowing, and this forced ours to take no exception.

Dining out requires my family not only to come to terms with an array of menu items but also to enjoy our time together. At the end of a busy day, when we canít have a peaceful evening meal at the home dinner table, dining out allows us to catch up and make plans. Sometimes, too, the conversational subjects at home and at a restaurant are surprisingly similar.

ďYouíre not planning to eat all of that?Ē my wife says, and so Iím forced to confront my portion size. In the case of my chicken parmigiana, it would not have been too much had in not been preceded by salad, fresh bread, and beans and greens. It was a classic cutlet, breaded and fried, topped with sauce and melted cheese, served alongside a large nest of angel hair pasta.

My wife Susanís entrťe was a special: stuffed sole ($18). The stuffing included a generous helping of shrimp in with the breading, and the accompanying vegetables (a delicious combo of Brussels sprouts and squash) were the tip-off that this was handmade stuff.

My daughter knows by now that thereís no buzz potential in a dish called vodka rigatoni; I often add spirits to the meal at home and call her into the kitchen to witness the resultant flame-show. She enjoyed the unfamiliar (to her) combination of cream and tomato that gives the sauce its color and flavor. It was, again, a classic and nicely done.

Other dishes include linguine with clam sauce ($18), tortellini and chicken Alfredo ($18), chicken or veal Milanese or Marsala ($16 or $18), lasagna ($14), filet mignon ($29) a NY strip steak ($24) and seafood scampi or Fra Diavolo ($26 each).

Then there are specials. When I spoke with Morrison a couple of days after our visit, he was preparing Cornish game hen stuffed with sausage and cranberries, and osso buco in a port wine reduction.

Scratch kitchens have become rare, thus making El Divino all the more unique. You wonít pay a fortune and there will be leftovers; itís what dining at home is supposed to be about.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Saratoga Springs offers waterside, wood-fired pizza at the newly opened Harvest & Hearth (251 County Route 67) on Fish Creek. Saratoga residents Peter and Gina Michelin have reopened the former Chameleon on the Lake, now with a menu of handcrafted pizzas, salads and desserts, with an emphasis on the oven and fresh ingredients. The oven is custom-built of clay and stone, following a classic Roman design. The restaurant is open 4:30-9 Tue-Thu, 4:30-10 Fri-Sat, and noon-9 Sun. You can call them at 587-1900 or check out harvestandhearth.com. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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