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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Tuscan Thunder

By B.A. Nilsson

Limoncello Ristorante

1 Ballston Ave., Saratoga Springs, 580-8700, Serving dinner from 4:30 daily. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: northern Italian

Entrée price range: $15 (pennette all’Arrabbiata) to $30 (filet mignon with porcini mushroom sauce)

Ambiance: Tuscan revival

The season is upon us, and you easily could tempt me, late on a pleasant night, to sit on the patio at Limoncello and sip the drink for which the restaurant is named—a drink that they craft themselves and avoids the cloying sweetness that often clogs the commercial versions. But I’d like you to promise me a night free of motorcycles and semi-trailers. Limoncello sits by the intersection of Routes 50 and 9 in Saratoga Springs, and a recent Sunday dinner on the patio was too-often punctuated by the external roars of internal combustion.

It’s our own fault for not moving inside. The former KFC was transformed, for a while, into an Indian restaurant before getting a Tuscan-style makeover for its current occupant, now in place for nearly three years. This came after Limoncello put in an initial year on Saratoga’s Broadway.

Chef-owner Giancarlo Balestra runs the place with his wife, Nancy, and offers a menu that breaks no ground in the northern Italian realm but offers a broad array of items in classic Italian multi-course style. Thus the pasta list offers penne, pennette, fusilli, spaghetti and even gnocchi in a variety of preparations, priced from $15 to $23 and offering clams, scallops, chicken and a variety of tomato sauces, including Bolognese, puttanesca, alla Vodka and more.

Spaghetti e vongole ($20), for instance, is the classic white-clam-sauce preparation, but here the clams were deliciously sweet littlenecks that oozed their juices into the garlic and olive oil that coated the pasta. This was where simplicity worked very nicely. Fettuccine capesante e gamberi ($22) is a big bowl of shrimp and scallops tossed with the aforementioned pasta in a garlic and oil mix finished with tomatoes. Again, simple, but with nothing outstanding in the flavor department. What did I expect? Something that would lift it from the background of so many similar dishes in similar restaurants.

Simplicity was the watchword with the salads, too, where classic ingredients were mixed into preparations livened by their freshness. Insalate fresca ($9) is a plate of mixed baby greens with fresh mozzarella and good roasted tomatoes; gorgonzola, pear slices and walnuts (pere, $9), took the concept to that place where cheese and fruit dance across the palate.

Our dinner party enjoyed the spontaneous growth of a run-in with friends and decided to parlay that meeting into a meal. Ironically, the last time I’d dined with them was in Tuscany. So I think it was in the back of our minds to re-create that experience.

Ah, but that’s a high expectation. Tuscany—at least the hillside outpost we visited—was languid. Sara toga was hurried. And it showed. As the tables filled, service efficiency dropped off. It’s a youthful staff that doesn’t seem to have mastered the rhythms of the business. A succession of servers can pass your table without glancing your way, unmindful of the maxim I was taught: Someone at each table needs something at any given moment.

The plates took ever longer to emerge, and the entrées looked a little harried. The presentation bar is high these days, and something as simple as string beans need to be cooked until still-crisp and neatly arrayed, not splayed in a too-moist pile. Similarly, the parsley garnish needn’t look as if it were flung at the plate from a considerable distance. Small points, but it’s in such details that virtuosity is reckoned.

The dozen antipasti include bruschetta ($8), mussels sautéed with garlic and oil ($12), tortino di verdure, a stack of grilled vegetables layered with gorgonzola ($11), calamari grilled with chorizo ($13) or fried with zucchini ($12) and other preparations of shrimp, clams and more. Polenta e porcini ($10) marries grilled polenta with porcini mushrooms in a truffle-scented cream sauce, and the components in this dish came together splendidly. The polenta was crunchy, the porcini chewy, and the sauce was rich, so this one made the rounds of the table with appreciable damage at every stop.

Carpaccio classico ($13) is a plate of raw filet mignon sliced so thin that it’s almost like a paste. Although you also can get it al gorgonzola (also $13), with melted cheese and pine nuts, I figured it was worth sampling it unadorned this visit. Arugula and grated parmesan are the only accompaniments, and it proved an ample showcase for the brief, intense flavor of beef.

And then there was secondi, the post-pasta, typically meat-based course. Here’s where the beef fan gets a bigger fix, with a porcini-cognac sauce as one option ($30, and if it’s like the sauce on the polenta-porcini appetizer, go for it), a peppercorn-cognac sauce as another ($30), and a dish of sliced filet with arugula, cherry tomatoes and balsamic vinegar as a third ($28).

Pollo alla Mediterranea ($21) puts strips of chicken breast in a characteristic array of roasted red peppers, olives and pine nuts, with tomatoes, of course. Saltimbocca alla Romana ($29) is based on one of those fortuitous discoveries that liven the culinary arts: that a combo of veal and prosciutto and sage becomes more than the sum of the ingredients. The veal should be sliced and pounded so that it’s as yielding as the butter in which it’s sautéed, but I was served what’s unfortunately more common: scaloppine that fights back. The flavors were great, with a big hit of that puckery sage flavor. The plate was garnished with string beans and carrots and a dollop of mashed potatoes.

We sampled a couple of homemade dessert cakes, one of chocolate with a coconut filling (called “crazy Italian” on the dolci list) and a straightforward lemon cake, both of which were good of their kind. My dessert, as I noted, was a glass of limoncello, a very satisfying way to conclude the meal.

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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