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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Just Plain Italian

By B.A. Nilsson

Tesoro

2080 Western Ave. (20 Mall), Guilderland, 456-8242. Serving lunch 11:30-2:30 Mon-Fri, dinner 4-9 Mon-Thu, 4-10 Fri-Sat, 4-9 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Italian

Entrée price range: $13.50 (pasta with garlic and oil) to $27.50 (zuppa di pesce)

Ambiance: pleasantly casual

The table we were shown to was fine, both in its understated look (yellow cloth, pleasing array of glassware and place settings) and its location (a comfortable distance from the couple of other early-dining parties). So why did I feel unsettled?

The other diners were clearly happy, laughing among themselves, exchanging niceties with the servers; the bar, on the other side of a windowed dividing wall, was busy with folks whose easygoing manner suggested they were regulars. Although this was my first visit, I’d been greeted warmly enough. I was dining with my daughter, which is always pleasant, and, now that she’s nearly 13, she has an adventurous culinary spirit and thus is a valuable review companion. So what was the problem?

I needed several days to figure it out, and it says more about me than the restaurant. There’s a keen, instant sense of belonging that at taches to a certain type of restaurant, typified by the neighborhood Italian joint. It’s the extended family further ex tended, consanguinity unrequired. And I was feeling left out.

Oh, don’t go weeping for me. Or at least not much. The ritual of dining in the company of others will itself lead to a sense of togetherness, even if you never engage the adjacent party. And once our server got our dinners underway, smooth-talking Conrad (channeling Stanley Tucci in Big Night) never made us feel less than special. I’m sure that, should I return any time soon, he’ll remember my menu preferences and choice of wine.

Tesoro, open for about a year, replaced Nicole’s in the 20 Mall, but carries on the tradition of good Italian fare, now under the aegis of chef-owner Raffaele Sainato, formerly of Lombardo’s and Michele da Verona. Being in a well-trafficked strip mall makes it a natural lunch destination; the afternoon menu offers a mix of scaled-down dinner items along with sandwiches ($8 range) and what’s termed “specialty lunches,” complete meals in the $9 range built around shrimp, chicken or veal, any of which is offered in a parmigiana version.

The dinner menu offers the classic Italian primo-secondo course structure, with such pre-primo selections for starters as the expected range of antipasti and soup. Look for many preparations of shrimp, clams, calamari, mussels and more, and even scaled-down fettuccine entrées, priced from $6 to $11.

Soup selections include minestrone, tortellini in broth, pasta e fagioli and zuppa fantasia ($4.25 to $4.75), the last-named a compote of tortellini and egg in a hot chicken broth, promising a satisfying range of flavors. It’s a rambunctious-looking dish, the cooked egg floating atop the bowl in an ambiguous, yellowish mass, crying out for a more colorful garnish. And it would have been pleasant to taste something other than salt as the flavor’s finish.

While that was the only dish we sampled with any flavor problems, almost everything else we were served suffered from a bland appearance. Lily’s antipasto caldo ($8.50), sporting an array of hot clams casino, roasted peppers and artichoke hearts and more, looked like the plate I’d haphazardly assemble from a buffet. Salads were simple but attractive, and the house Italian dressing was a far better complement than the run-of-the-mill blue cheese. Bread is served with butter patties and a ramekin of very garlicky oil that easily became our preference.

On to the primi piatti. Your basic pasta—linguine, spaghetti, penne or fettuccine—is available with your choice of marinara, garlic and oil, meat sauce, sausage or meatballs, each in the $14 range. More complicated items like gnocchi, ravioli, stuffed shells or lasagna also come with a choice of sauce, heading toward $15. The pasta specialties, priced from $16.50 to $21, are where you’ll find your cream sauces, more complicated combos like lobster ravioli, classics like rigatoni alla vodka and a combo like pasta della massaia, which puts lasagna, tortellini and a portion of fettuccine Alfredo on your plate.

Capellini primavera seemed a good representative example, putting an array of fresh vegetables with thin spaghetti in a cheese-rich cream sauce, and it certainly fulfilled those expectations with a hearty flavor and a large-enough portion to warrant a take-home container. But here’s the contextual dilemma I discovered. Had this dish been served alongside another, more colorful, more complicated entrée, it would have looked fine. Served alongside the entrée I ordered, which was pollo rustico ($19), it reinforced the latter’s surprising plainness. Rustic chicken is described on the menu as “chicken and Italian sausage cut into pieces, sautéed in butter and white wine sauce,” and, indeed it was. And that’s all it was. A plate of chicken and sausages pieces, the surrounding sauce brown and thick. Not a hint of garnish. A side of pasta served separately. Excellent flavor, but where’s the visual artistry?

Other secondi choices include 15 seafood items, including shrimp parmigiana, baked whitefish, shrimp rolled in prosciutto with mozzarella, and the classic all-in-one zuppa di pesce. Chicken can be prepared alla cacciatora, Francese, alla Marsala and more, and veal dishes also cover the classic bases, with the entrées running from $18 to $22, except for the price-topping zuppa di pesce at $27.50.

We fared better in the looks department with a dessert of homemade almond cake topped with pistachio gelato and a drizzle of amaretto. We finished and left as more and more tables filled and began dinner, so the sense of community no doubt was complete.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Take a Taste of Madison from 11 to 3 on Saturday (Oct. 3), as a number of businesses and restaurants share their bounty. Among the eateries: the Muddy Cup, Dunkin’ Donuts, Xing Long, Variety Pizza, Curry House, Junior’s and Mahar’s. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the event. There also will be music, games, a bookmobile, and what promises to be a challenging Waiters’ Race awarding $250 in prize money to the fleetest. It’s not just speed: The contestants will have to navigate a 500-foot course carrying—with one hand!—a tray with a water bottle and serving glasses. They can’t break a walk (not to mention any of the stuff being carried), can’t behave badly to the other contestants, and will have to serve water to the judges at the end. Among the obstacles: enough tables and chairs to ensure the track isn’t straight, and a couple of dozen volunteers from a nearby sorority who’ll wander the course talking on cell phones. In other words, just like a real restaurant. For advance tickets and more info, call Steamer No.10 Theatre at 438-5503. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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