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Photo: Alicia Solsman

A Very Good Year

By Laura Leon

Grappa ’72 Ristorante

818 Central Ave., Albany, 482-7200. Serving lunch 11:30-3 Mon Fri; dinner 4:30-9:30 Mon-Thu, 4:30-10 Fri-Sat, noon-8 Sun. AE, MC, V.

Cuisine: classic regional Italian

Entrée price range: $14 (fettuccine with tomato, garlic and basil) to $30 (veal porterhouse)

Ambiance: upscale trattoria

A while ago, as I drove past the old Blockbuster Video/Friendly’s plaza near Westgate, I began noticing a sign with the subtle inscription Grappa ’72. It was clear that this was a new restaurant, replacing the defunct Carmine’s, but its curious appellation called to mind earlier movies like Europa ’51 and Boccaccio ’70. As it turns out, the year referenced is homage to the restaurant’s married owners’ shared birthdate. But my remembrances of European cinematic influences have held firm each time I’ve had the pleasure of dining here.

While structurally almost identical to Carmine’s, Grappa ’72 has withstood subtle changes that greatly enhance the atmosphere of what is essentially a fine-dining establishment in the back end of a strip mall. Gone are the harsh whites, the uncomfortable chairs and the vaguely institutional lighting, and in their place are softer golden tones on the walls, plusher seating, and subtler lighting. Whether you choose to sit at the bar or dine at table, the experience is geared to be comfortable, soothing.

But the menu has something else in mind. At first glance, it seems fairly generic. Owner Armand Lule and Chef Dominic Colose present starters like minestra del giorna, soup of the day, which diners often pass over in favor of something more exotic-sounding. But examples such as cold potato scallion bisque with crumbled bacon, or on a particular sultry afternoon, chilled watermelon soup, tease the palette, as if to say, “So, you thought this was going to be just another boring soup?” Salads are uniformly crisp with vibrant dressings, such as aged balsamic or the highly recommended house vinaigrette. House-cured (grappa and lemon) salmon is delectable, as are house-made chicken liver pâté, prosciutto served with melon in a fig-walnut vinaigrette, and a show-stopping dish of Prince Edward Island mussels bathed gently in a spicy tomato feta broth.

The carb counters among us often skip the pasta course, but you really can’t go wrong with classics like the Bolognese or the Amatriciana. The restaurant does an outstanding job with risotto, offering a variety of takes on it including one with wild mushrooms, Alba truffle oil and smoked gruyere, and others with seafood. A recent special appetizer of fried ravioli stuffed with roasted peppers and served with a light sage cream sauce was delicious and surprisingly light.

I’m a big fan of Grappa’s lunches, which are economically priced and beautifully portioned. Take, for instance, the textbook balancing act of taste and texture that is the grilled fennel sausage served with braised white beans and sautéed rapini. Recent specials that really impressed included a refreshingly crisp Greek salad served with tuna carpaccio, and impeccably grilled scallops with risotto.

We rather cruelly tested the kitchen recently when, on the spur of a moment, we took the entire family. On a Friday night. Lule and his staff were the epitome of gracious hospitality, welcoming our crew and proceeding to usher in a truly remarkable evening. The formaggio plate, augmented by fresh figs and grapes, offered a sensation of tastes and textures, and the prosciutto di parma served with grilled peaches, arugula and the fig- walnut vinaigrette was equally tantalizing, with its mix of salt, tang and sweet.

While the littler ones enjoyed the Bolognese, one son opted for a sort of red snapper puttanesca, which featured a flavorful, flakey filet and nicely seasoned sauce on the accompanying pasta. I chose the Cotoletta d’Agnello, grilled lamb chops marinated in Calamata brine and served with roasted potatoes and rapini. Never before have I had such succulent, meaty chops, and the subtle salt of the olive brine was a revelation. This is how I will make my lamb chops from now on, provided Chef Colose sends me some pointers. My husband, who usually heads straight to the roast chicken, debated between the classic free-range with rosemary and lemon and the Pollo Filipina, which is a vinegar-and-laurel-braised bird with baked polenta and greens. Tough choice, but he went the more adventurous route and was well rewarded with a moist and flavorful entrée. On future visits I’m looking forward to Grappa’s way with veal, a meat, which for a number of reasons, has gotten short shrift of late, as well as an intriguing sounding Anatra Arrostito, crisp roasted duck with raisin and Lambrusco recuction.

The wine list is heavily Italian, with some intriguing and relatively new varieties, and is augmented with some well-chosen Californians. And it is very reasonably priced.

Desserts have included an intoxicating cream panna cotta served with berries, and other traditional Italian sweets like tira meso [sic], along with cordials and after-dinner coffees.

Grappa ’72 is a welcome addition in a local restaurant scene that, like the overall economy, has lost some luster of late. In pursuing a soft opening, the owners have wisely chosen to hone their exemplary abilities and to further train a very gracious and professional staff in order to avoid the pitfalls that too often accompany a splashier but less well-thought-out entrance. Again, think European cinema, not Hollywood.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Schenectady 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 to Metroland.



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