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Chris Shields

That Family Feeling
By B.A. Nilsson

Romano’s Family Restaurant
1475 Route 9, Clifton Park, 371-1650. Serving Sun-Thu 11-9, Fri-Sat 11-10. AE, MC. V.

Cuisine: Traditional Italian
Entrée price range: $7 (burger) to $20 (seafood fra diavolo)
Ambience: Family dining
Clientele: Neighborhood stalwarts

Recently I spent a fun afternoon talking to sixth-graders about the career of food-related writing. They were full of questions and tales of their own experiences, and especially eager to learn the behind-the-scenes secrets. Their most frequent questions had to do with my own restaurant favorites, so I turned it around and canvassed them.

Although the fast-food emporia merited a few mentions, the hands-down winner was the Olive Garden, with places like Applebee’s and Old Country Buffet close behind.

Not a single locally owned restaurant was mentioned.

This should send a little chill down the spines of local restaurateurs. The chains are winning the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of the next generation of diners.

Romano’s Family Restaurant has the potential to attract the same fan base as any old Olive Garden. The food is better and the dining room is more comfortable, but it needs to have the consistency that places like the Olive Garden offer. Let’s face it: Chain restaurants have studied the stuff of food service and hospitality to a fare-thee-well, and have put a happy face on an assembly-line approach. Local restaurants can beat that with better food and service as well as the comfort offered by a place with a distinctive, owner-driven personality.

In the food department, Romano’s has a lot going for itself. Chef Jerry Menagias made a good reputation for himself at Lucia’s, his Delmar restaurant, after establishing an estimable standard at Schenectady’s Olympic Diner.

In his hands, an entrée like veal saltimbocca ($17) asserts its heritage with a classic preparation that features a rich, meaty sauce surrounding tender medallions topped with prosciutto and melted cheese, missing only the sage leaf that gives extra earthiness to the flavor. It’s a generous portion served atop sautéed spinach, too much for a single meal.

Side dishes can include pasta, which gets an excellent sauce, or potatoes and vegetable, which, we noted, can run the danger of being steam-tabled too long.

But these are variables that can easily be fixed. The six-page dinner menu splits one of those pages between veal and chicken with much that’s traditional on view, such as parmigiana, marsala and piccata for both ($14-$16, with chicken a dollar less than veal). All of the chicken dishes feature boneless breasts, even the cacciatore ($15), a recipe with lots of regional variation but typically calling for onions and peppers and such mixed with chicken pieces in a tomato sauce. Romano’s offers a good example, with mushrooms and an aromatic blend of seasonings.

Pasta and pizza also share a menu page, with an array of pasta formations offered in a variety of preparations: $7.25 for marinara or meat sauce, $9.25 with meatballs or sausage, ditto for broccoli, olive oil and garlic, among others. Baked items include lasagna and eggplant parmigiana ($10 each); pizzas start at $8. The steaks and chops listing covers the expected realm, along with original items like filet mignon Shannon ($19), in which the tenderloin is topped with roasted peppers, shiitake mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes; over on the seafood page, shrimp, scallops, haddock and lobster are the features, with a surf-and-turf combo priced however lobster is priced that day.

The Italian specialties listing boasts a dozen preparations, most of which feature pasta. Pasta aristocrat ($18), for example, combines sautéed shrimp with green peppercorns and a cream sauce laced with brandy that goes over angel hair; fettuccine Roma ($13) adds porcini mushrooms, peas and prosciutto to the fettuccine’s cream sauce.

A salad bar is offered with the entrées or is available as a $5.50 appetizer; it’s a small but sufficient mix of greens, toppings and some already-dressed side salads. Other appetizers include antipasto ($8), steamed clams ($8 for a dozen) and fried calamari ($8), the last-named of which turns out to feature an excellent batter and wonderful consistency to the squid, served with marinara.

In terms of winning future generations, Romano’s does the right thing with its children’s menu, offering a scaled-down sampling of regular menu items instead of aping a fast-food eatery.

Owners Vicky and Steve Arrington moved from Schenectady’s Broadway Restaurant a couple of years ago, and seem to bring a family feel to Romano’s. Certainly the decor has been spruced, although the tables remain battle-station ready with clear vinyl atop the white linen. A large banquet room is separated from the smaller main dining area; the cocktail lounge is on the other side of the wall against which the salad bar sits.

I had the odd experience, when visiting on a recent Sunday evening, of feeling unusually unwanted. Arriving 45 minutes before the kitchen closed, all seemed to be fine—but the staff began breaking down and cleaning up about 20 minutes later. This included the nearby groans of vacuuming and increased volume on the cocktail lounge TV; and as I still was finishing an entrée, a server blew out the candles on nearby tables. Our waitress left before collecting the check, and without saying a word to us. This kind of behavior never would be tolerated at any of the chain restaurants that are taking business from local owners, many of whom would profit from a trip to the Olive Garden’s likes.

TABLE SCRAPS

“We believed it was time to get back to some basics, and offer the kind of food our customers have come to expect over the years,” says Sharon Taylor, innkeeper at the Friends Lake Inn in Chestertown. With that in mind, chef Kirk Gibson has put together a spring menu that includes such entrées as seared salmon filet with wild rice, cherry sauté and beurre rouge; frutti di mare with chorizo, shrimp, scallops, mussels, calamari and squid ink risotto; prosciutto-wrapped chicken breast with sage butter and Marsala jus, and much more. As always, sommelier Tom Burke will help pair wine for you from the inn’s amazing list. Call 494-4751 for more information and reservations. . . . You have the option of spending April in Paris in Albany when Nicole’s Bistro (Clinton Avenue and Broadway) presents a so-themed event. It starts at 6 PM Tuesday (April 22) with a cocktail reception and continues through four more courses, each paired with an appropriate French wine. Cream of fresh pea soup, quenelles of lobster and monkfish and charred loin of spring lamb are among the foodstuffs. It’s $65 per person, and you can reserve seats by phoning the restaurant at 465-1111. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (food@banilsson.com).

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090)

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