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B.A. Nilsson

Madison’s Beginning
By B.A. Nilsson

V & R Italian Ristorante

136 Madison Ave., Albany, 626-0001. Serving Mon-Fri 11-11 Sat-Sun 3-11.
AE, D, DC, MC, V. $$

Food: ***½
Service: Attentive

Ambience: Attractive

As Albany’s Madison Avenue slopes up the hill from Pearl Street, the large Lombardo’s sign serves to welcome us to what threatens to become a thriving restaurant row. Great ideas have been showcased, but longevity has been elusive. Except for Lombardo’s.

Another Italian restaurant is making a bid in that neighborhood, and it has eased through a first year of growing pains to become a comfortable, friendly place for nicely prepared Italian standards tending toward that country’s southern style. V & R Italian Ristorante has survived the departure of a partner and moved away from a pizza menu; chef-owner Rudolf Berisic, who spent many years in New York City in various aspects of the business, wanted to raise his family in a less-frantic area.

He has turned this restaurant, opened in October 2000, into a handsome getaway, with décor of lovely wood and colorful murals. It looks like the kind of place that would invite you to become a regular customer, with a regular table.

My party of three visited at lunchtime—a late lunch, around 2 PM, when the restaurant was almost empty. So we can’t comment on service when the dining room is hopping. But we got just the right amount of attention—which doesn’t always happen when you’ve got the place to yourself and the lunch-weary staff hangs out in the kitchen. Prices, therefore, reflect the lunch menu, except for the dinner-menu entrée I ordered.

My friend John, himself of Italian heritage, doesn’t easily suffer lousy food. He started with soup: stracciatella alla Romana ($3), a classic egg-drop soup (stracciatella means “little rags”) that also featured fresh spinach. It compared well with other preparations John has encountered.

I’ve been seeing a lot of mussels lately, what with my daughter’s enthusiasm for the mollusk; baked mussels ($5.15) offered a refreshingly different perspective, presenting a plate of large mussels under a spicy, full-flavored tomato sauce.

Salads accompany entrées, which (given the portion sizes) means that you’d do well with a one-two of salad and main course. The greens were fresh, the house dressing a no-surprises Italian blend.

Like a siren’s call, the words “spaghetti and meatballs” galvanized my daughter into making one choice and one choice only. The $7 portion was huge. Again, no surprises, but certainly as good as you’d expect. The leftovers provided two more meals.

John’s order of chicken parmigiana ($6) was similarly generous. And it comes with a side of pasta, which should put you over the edge. Unlike other approaches in which the meat is butterflied or pounded into thinness, this featured two whole breasts coated with tomato sauce and cheese. It wouldn’t work without a good sauce, and chef Berisic obviously knows his way around one.

The dinner menu is somewhat more expansive, and priced a little higher. Where sandwiches are offered for lunch, the dinner items include much more in the way of veal and seafood (average price $15 to $16), as well as a small selection of steaks and chops ($18 or so).

I selected a pasta dish that’s not on the lunch menu—rigatoni cantadina ($13.75) —because it listed broccoli rabe among the ingredients and my mouth said, “Yeah! I want that!”

Broccoli rabe is a bitter-tasting plant from the mustard family, which also includes kale, broccoli, cauliflower, rutabaga and turnips. Also known as rapini, it has a terrific affinity for garlic, and Berisic didn’t stint: There was garlic aplenty, including large slices, throughout an entrée that also included fat sun-dried tomatoes and strips of grilled chicken over a bed of rigatoni and a very light, slightly lemony sauce. My wife dined on the leftovers that night, and I had what remained for breakfast the following morning.

By this time my daughter had drifted permanently to a seat at the bar, where she and the owner’s young daughter were transfixed by TV cartoons. Not transfixed enough to eschew dessert, I discovered. John and I figured we could secretly order some sweets for ourselves, but Lily simply delivered her own dessert order and was served where she sat. It was a huge slice of chocolate cake, I was told, but I saw only a few ribbons of chocolate remains on her plate.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed the finest slice of cheesecake I’ve encountered in a long, long time ($3). Although it looked like the dry New York style, it had a filling of creamy ricotta and couldn’t have been more satisfying—or a better accompaniment to my espresso. John’s tiramisu ($3.75) also featured a large portion and a good combo of ingredients, although he prefers more coffee flavor.

We couldn’t have felt more welcome by the end of the meal, and my daughter was practically part of the family. There’s some fine cooking going on here, and we’re eager to try it out for dinner before long.

Lunch for three (including dinner-menu items) with tax and tip, wine and dessert, was $85.

Metroland restaurant reviews are based on one unannounced visit; your experience may differ.

Food Rating Key: ***** An exciting, fulfilling experience; the food and service are everything they set out to be. Brillat-Savarin would be proud. **** Way up there with really good food, definitely worth your dining dollar. Julia Child would be proud. *** Average, with hints of excitement. Your mother would be pleased. ** A dining-out bogey; food probably isn’t the first priority. Colonel Sanders would be disappointed. * K-rations posing as comestibles. Your dog would be disgusted.

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