Times Are New Again
silver diners cling to menus guaranteed to keep the mean age
of the clientele in the low three figures. Quintessence long
ago understood that thriving in downtown Albany required a
more freewheeling approach. Jimmy Scalzo opened the place
in 1982, doing the impossible by offering a panoply of offerings
that shifted with the time of day. Twelve hours after enjoying
an easygoing lunch, you could return (or remain, I suppose)
to a wall-busting dance floor.
This formula held up well until just a few years ago, when
the steel-and-chrome, neon-accented building was shuttered.
It reopened last August after the restaurant was sold to two
former patrons. Joseph Zappone and Patrick Fiore were Albany
Law students when they made Quintessence a regular stop. As
owners, they see it positioned as a revitalization point of
the neighborhood. Their refurbishment was shrewd, maintaining
and, in some cases, improving on the original while being
fiercely loyal to its longtime look and feel.
Noting the success of the several Inferno restaurants in the
area, they tapped Nick and Gennaro Riggione, from the Inferno
family, to actually operate the place, with Gennaro in the
kitchen and his brother supervising the floor.
I visited with my family for dinner a few evenings ago, grumbling
about the challenge of parking on that stretch of New Scotland
Avenue, and discovered not only a nearby space, but also a
free valet parking service now offered by the restaurant.
Kind of a cosmic “so there!”
There’s a sentimental attachment at work here, too. My first
visit took place on July 1, 1983, the day my then-wife chose
to underscore her unhappiness with our marriage by moving
out. My response was to schedule a date for that evening,
forgetting that I had also lost access to the car. I soured
what could have been a pleasant encounter by talking obsessively
about my failed marriage, going on so long that I missed the
last bus from Albany to my home in Schenectady. But I had
a neighbor, radio personality Ellen McKinnon, who was a DJ
at Quintessence, and there I went to beg a ride home. To call
it fortuitous is to put it lightly—you’d otherwise never have
found stodgy me anywhere near such a raucous scene.
I hid from it in the kitchen, where Ellen was installed, and
around 2:30 in the morning I met a young woman named Susan,
a friend of a friend of a friend, herself just back from an
Eric Clapton concert. Two years later we married.
remind me that that was 27 years ago,” said Susan, as we were
seated at one of the tables toward the back of the building.
A row of mahogany booths lines the length of the place, across
from a long bar with classic swivel stools.
The menu, too, is familiar. A collection of time-honored breakfast
items (served until 2)—three-egg omelets, pancakes, waffles,
homemade corned beef hash, fruit, granola—cost from $7 to
$10, with meat-based items like pork chops or sirloin or smoked
salmon with eggs priced higher.
Most of the dinner items have lunch-portion pricing. Burgers
are $9 or $10, club sandwiches $8 or $11. In the burger realm,
a half-dozen varieties include toppings of Swiss cheese, mushrooms
and bacon; barbecue sauce, bacon and American cheese; a Mexican
burger with beans and avocado; and the Cajun burger, which
we sampled, and which had a reasonably lively patty topped
with provolone, served with a big pile of fries.
The turkey club was similarly familiar, the traditional four
triangles of a thick, meat-rich, nicely dressed sandwich with
its own mass of fries.
French onion soup ($5) is another regular offering, and again
hews to tradition with a beefy broth clogged with onions and
soggy croutons, topped by molten Gruyère.
Salad plates are a mix of romaine and leaf lettuce, with grilled
or Cajun-style chicken or tuna in the mix ($7/$10). The Quintessential
Salad ($9) adds a range of veggies with fontinella cheese,
and a fruit and cheese plate ($11) is just that.
Chicken Pataki ($14) is another old friend, invented when
the former governor was elected thanks to a Scalzo wisecrack
that made it into The New York Times. It’s a blackened
chicken breast with a three-bean sauce and melted Brie. Yipes.
Good thing Spitzer wasn’t mentioned.
A number of teriyaki-enhanced dishes also have been longtime
favorites. The sweetened soy marinade gives a bounce to any
meat it encounters, provided they spend some time together,
and Quintessence offers it with chicken, beef, shrimp or a
combo ($14-$16). The chicken version I sampled was wrapped
around a skewer of scallion and carrot, a clever and attractive
idea, but the flavor had to compete with the dryness of the
meat. The old classic side of spinach fettuccine is back,
We saw plates of towering carrot cake go by but resisted the
caloric call, this time at least. Other desserts are cheesecake
and chocolate cake ($5 each).
Other favorite traditions also have returned, such as Wednesday’s
German night and Sunday’s Mexican, and there are trivia contests
on Mondays. A range of entertainment also figures throughout
the week and weekend, and an up-to-date schedule is on the
restaurant’s Web site.
Even without “Beat It” and “She Blinded Me With Science” blasting
through the speaker system, it’s pleasantly nostalgic to revisit
Quintessence. To have lost it forever would have been a shame.
To have it back with so much of its tradition intact is a
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
Day Nursery’s 11th
annual fundraising event, “A Little Bit of Jazz
& More,” will take place from 5:30 to 8 today
(Thursday, April 29) in the Fenimore Gallery at
Proctors Theatre (432 State St., Schenectady).
The “more” part of the proceedings includes a
cornucopia of food, including a carving station
with turkey breast and roast beef, a pasta station,
an hors d’oeuvres display and, if you don’t want
to fetch your food, circulating trays with even
more hors d’oeuvres, including sesame chicken,
a Mediterranean artichoke tart, shrimp Wellington,
spanakopita and more. There will be complimentary
beer and wine and Chocolates by Lindt. The jazz
part is a performance by Colleen Pratt and Friends.
The event includes a benefit drawing with a choice
of a $500 gift card at either Town TV or Empress
Travel, and gift baskets sponsored by the Schenectady
Day Nursery Board of Directors. Reservations are
$50 per person or $100 for honorary committee
status, and may be made by calling Jim Kalohn
at 894-6305. . . . Remember to pass your scraps