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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Traditional Italian, Defined

By B.A. Nilsson

Appian Way Restaurant

1839 Van Vranken Ave., Schenectady, 393-8460. Serving dinner 5-close Wed-Sun. AE, MC, V.

Cuisine: homemade southern Italian

Entrée price range: $8.50 (fettuccini al filetto di pomodori) to $27 (seafood platter)

Ambiance: welcoming

It’s no surprise that Gina and Anna Montova, passionate chef-owners of Schenectady’s Appian Way Restaurant, have been right all along. During their 30-plus-year legacy running the city’s finest source of traditional Italian fare, they’ve stressed the freshness of everything possible, to the point of baking their own bread and rolling their own pasta. And making their own gelato.

By the time I wrote my first review of the place, in 1987, the restaurant had expanded by buying the former Via Veneto next door and merging the buildings. Now they’d be just as happy to unload the extra building (it’s up for sale) because the taxes are too prohibitive—which seems to be the unfortunate price of doing business here. Twice they retired and passed the business to others; both times the successor ended up going under. Appian Way’s most recent return was five years ago, and I’m delighted to report that a recent visit proves not much has changed.

Since they still own the adjoining building, that’s where you enter. The dining room itself sports a fireplace that was cutting the autumn chill during my early-evening arrival. As is usually the case, Gina’s niece, Maria, was there to welcome my party and tend to our meal. “Unassuming” hardly describes this place. The dining room is simple, pleasant, appointed in easygoing whites, decorated with occasional artwork. Family photos line the mantelpiece. Italian tenor arias play in the background.

Try to resist the bread basket that soon hits the table. Although you may share my sense of fool’s virtue by dipping it in the seasoned olive oil instead of slathering it with butter, it’s still bread (homemade, I repeat), and it’s still going to fill you.

Most of the entrées include the house salad, which is served family-style, tossed in a gentle vinaigrette. This is the form in which salad makes the most sense.

In the early days there wasn’t much of a menu. You could learn the offerings from your server’s recitation. Eventually, a photocopied page appeared; now it’s a laminated fold-over menu. Some menu prices have crept up since my last visit, but the fettuccine al filetto di pomodoro is still $8.50. And it’s homemade fettuccine. That alone would be reason enough to visit.

Of the six listed appetizers, which include fresh mozzarella and tomatoes ($8.50), fried eggplant stuffed with mozzarella ($7.50), and mussels in marinara ($9.50), I find the antipasto ($8.50) irresistible. You could share it, but then you’re giving up unfettered access to the prosciutto slices they cure themselves. Combine it with a slice of the cantaloupe that’s included and you have a classic starter right there. The roasted eggplant and peppers, marinated mushrooms, and slices of aromatic provolone are what push this over the edge. And no lettuce! That’s in the salad.

If you want to go beyond lettuce, there’s a salad of orange slices (insalata di arancia, $6.50) that gives a much different taste of the fruit, seasoned as it is with garlic and pepper.

Fettuccine dominates the pasta selections, available with shrimp and asparagus, sausage and ricotta, prosciutto and broccoli or mushrooms ($12.50 to $19.50)—and, of course, Alfredo ($12.50), in which the traditional cream sauce, made correctly with a tremendously engaging flavor of cream and cheese, is enhanced with bits of prosciutto.

Sautéed chicken and mushrooms ($17) begins the meat-dish selections; you can get your chicken Cordon Bleu, Francaise, Bolognese and cacciatore ($15.50 to $19.50). There was a time when no beef dishes were on the menu; now there’s a brief selection running from a $21 strip steak to filet mignon alla pizzaiola ($24.50). Veal and seafood have long been the specialties, so we sampled one of each. Passing the piccatta, the Milanese, the Sorrentino ($16.50 to $19)—most of which I’ve enjoyed on past visits—we chose veal Campagnola ($19), yet another opportunity to score some prosciutto, which mixes with eggplant in a marinara sauce touched with a bit of mozzarella.

The shrimp gracing the shrimp marsala ($19) were extraordinarily large, buttery and tender, but it was the sauce, invading the many mushrooms that also decorated the plate, that gave this dish its amazing flavor. There’s shrimp all over the place: stuffed, in garlic butter, with chicken, grilled, even alla parmigiana ($18.50-$22). And there are clams ($19), calamari ($19), and an all-inclusive seafood platter ($27) to satisfy your ocean-based needs.

I visited once in the company of an Italian chef who declared, “This type of cooking is insane,” upon being served the side dish of pasta—homemade spaghetti with marinara, deliciously over the top. This time it was something I could barely find room to taste, opting to hold out enough room for gelato. Fig gelato, in fact—light, rich, and crunchy with fig seeds. We also sampled tiramisu gelato and finished with espresso from a stovetop percolator, which many purists insist is the best way to produce the strong coffee.

Appian Way remains unchallenged as the area’s best source of traditional Italian fare. Insane? Perhaps. But the food makes it worth it.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Join chefs Michael and Carm LoPorto and Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe’s Scott Bendett for a special cigar night at LoPorto Ristorante Caffé (85 4th St., Troy) at 6 PM on Monday (Oct. 26). The meal includes antipasto, beef tenderloin, chicken cacciatore, an abundance of pasta and more. You’ll also get four cigars from CAO (Soprano, Italia, Gold and MX2) and one hand-rolled cigar assembled right on the premises. It’s $100 per person, including tax and gratuity; call 690-2222 for more info and reservations. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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