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PB. A. Nilsson

Happy 52
By B.A. Nilsson

134 Duane Ave., Schenectady, 346-7324. Serving lunch Mon-Fri 11-2, dinner daily 4-9. AE, CB, D, DC, MC, V.

Food: * * * *
Service: Attentive

Ambience: Friendly

With more than 2 feet of snow piled outside—not counting the extra-high berms built by relentless plowing—we didn’t want to budge. Traveling, even while hungry, was appealing only if a reliable feast awaited at the other end. We didn’t want to go someplace new. We wanted something reliable.

When a restaurant has been thriving for 20 years, you can bet something is going right. Thirty is an extraordinary stretch. But Petta’s is now in its 52nd year of business, under the auspices of the family’s third generation.

What’s the secret? “Well, my grandparents started the business,” says Kathy Petta-Wolfe, who now runs it with her brother and two sisters. “And we just try to make sure we keep it the same.” This means presenting a menu with very mainstream Italian fare, cooked by a staff that has been with the restaurant for a long time—one of the chefs has been there for nearly 40 years.

Not surprisingly, the surrounding Schenectady neighborhood has changed, but the restaurant has accommodated those changes (somewhat drastically, in the case of the huge parking lot, which 20 years ago was a row of houses). The building itself houses a banquet room, two dining rooms and bar, with a dedicated take-out window if you’re picking up an order on the fly.

Although the nearby streets were a squeeze, the Petta’s parking lot was clear (truckloads of snow had been removed) but sparsely populated. We joined a few die-hards inside, many of them at or near the bar, watching a televised sports event.

Our dinner essentially was a feast of appetizers. The menu, printed on two sides of a plain white page, offers 16 starters, most of them $6 to $7. A few, like shrimp cocktail or scampi and the antipasto for two, hit $10. You can have clams any of several popular ways, chicken wings fried or baked, mussels, roasted peppers—or the three my party chose.

Greens and beans ($6) is as classic as it comes, a stewlike dish of navy beans and wilted lettuce with a suitable helping of garlic in the small amount of broth. But you’ve got a basket of sliced Italian bread at your elbow, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s baked in the restaurant.

And there’s part of the secret. Even though such prefab, blister-pack emporia as the Olive Garden continue to thrive, there’s obviously a clientele that wants the real thing, with homemade soup and nonrobotic servers among the attractions.

The fried calamari rings ($6) are another classic, just as you’d expect, with an intense coating of seasoned breadcrumbs clinging to the softened fish, and a horseradish-tinged marinara sauce alongside for dipping.

I have a regular dining companion who is on a chicken-wings binge, ordering them wherever we go. Again, Petta’s presents a mainstream version ($6, and you can get them breaded for the same price) complete with celery and blue cheese dressing.

That dressing, like all of the restaurant’s salad dressings, is made on the premises. I chose it to top my salad, where it became too much of a good thing. It’s thick and chunky and served so plentifully that it tended to obscure the greens beneath. The Italian dressing, on the other hand, was a subtle vinaigrette, applied in moderation.

Entrée specials included pork chops pizzaiola ($17), with mushrooms and peppers, marinara and a mozzarella topping, and chicken tortellini ($14), which proved to be a more-than-plentiful dish of large, garlicky chicken-breast chunks sautéed with broccoli and sliced olives and hunks of roasted pepper, tossed at the end with tortellini. The tortellini was exceptional, with a lighter-than-usual pasta shell enhancing the flavor. A garlic-and-butter sauce was applied with restraint, and would have gotten a nice kick from some good olive oil. As it was, I made two more meals with what I brought home.

Pasta entrées start at $8 for a simple presentation; baked manicotti or stuffed shells or lasagna or even ziti parmigiana are slightly higher-priced variations. Ravioli or pasta e fagioli are available as $10 entrées (and these are served with soup or salad), and for $15 you can include clams or shrimp with your pasta.

That soup, which was good old chicken noodle the night of our visit, was another example of a classic served true to form, without the excess of salt that mars the commercial variety and far more in the way of ingredients.

Steaks and veal dishes are signature items, which we somehow bypassed, and there are many different seafood preparations, including unusual variants like haddock or shrimp cacciatore ($16). Of the several chicken dishes, the Sorrentino variety ($15) is a hybrid: chicken and eggplant parmigiana, putting a thin layer of sautéed eggplant atop a sizeable array of not-so-thin chicken breasts, topped with meat sauce and melted cheese. This also was good for two more meals as leftovers. Finally, an order of ziti with a big meatball ($7) from the kids’ menu, which remained untouched.

“Terri’s Treats” are displayed in a refrigerator case near the door; Terri is one of the sisters, and her New York-style cheesecake proved to be exceptional, as was the white-chocolate-covered raspberry ice cream. We walked out of there with six take-out containers and a very full, very satisfied feeling.

Dinner for three, with tax and tip, a couple of glasses of wine and dessert, was $91.


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