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Secrets to Success
By B.A. Nilsson

23 Dove St., Albany, 462-9176. Serving lunch Mon-Fri 11:30-2, dinner Mon-Wed 5-9, Thu-Sat 5-10. AE, MC, V.

Cuisine: traditional Italian
Entrée price range: $9.50 (pasta with oil and garlic) to $27 (seafood stew with lobster tail)
Ambience: homelike
Clientele: legislators and neighbors

At first I decided that it was
the building and its location that inspired the long-lived success of Bongiorno’s. Strolling along Dove Street on a balmy Indian Summer evening gives you the best of Albany’s downtown residential ambience, and the cheerful restaurant easily draws you in.

Then I thought it was the food and service, a winning combo smoothed by so many years of experience. Finally, it seemed obvious that it was the personal attention given by owners Rosanna and Felix Bongiorno, who check in with the customers, regulars and newcomers alike.

You’re already smiling to yourself, I’ll bet. Because you know that what makes a place a customer favorite is a blend of the above, so artfully woven that you can’t separate the component strands.

Adapted into a onetime private home, the restaurant has the cozy feel of visiting a friend’s dining room. Some of the customers enjoy a cocktail at the bar on the left before taking a table in the room to the right, a habit probably born of waiting for one of the 10 tables to open up. There’s also seating upstairs, in a banquet room that opens for regular business when the Legislature is in session.

Nothing extraordinarily innovative happens here in a culinary sense. Rosanna Bongiorno, who boasts about the activities of her grown kids while maintaining the fresh-faced appearance of someone barely out of her 20s, is the chef, specializing in veal and seafood while turning out first-rate versions of standard Southern Italian fare.

Settle in at one of the white-linen-topped tables. A cruet of basil-enhanced olive oil sits near the center. You’ll use it with the crusty bread that will arrive shortly.

A quartet of fettuccine-based dishes are on the menu as specialties of the house: Alfredo, of course, the grown-ups’ version of macaroni and cheese, in which egg and cream and parmesan cheese combine to produce a rich, silky sauce; primavera, which adds fresh vegetables; carbonara, with prosciutto and white wine; and al cognac, flavoring a prosciutto-tomato cream with brandy ($13.50-$14.50). The primavera that we sampled featured both green and white noodles tossed in a mixture of broccoli, carrots and mushrooms, in a sauce rich enough to anoint the components, but not so thick as to be oppressive.

A small blackboard previews the day’s specials for you just outside the restaurant’s front door; a recent listing included an appetizer of bocconcini (little mouthful), a name given to fresh balls of mozzarella. In this case, they were sliced and served on equally small tomato slices surrounding a center of salad greens ($5.25).

Pork chops with mushrooms ($16.50) was an entrée special, and arrived at the table as a simple plate of two reasonable-sized chops in a light wine sauce that complemented the meat well. Nothing very fancy here, but as satisfying a serving as you could expect.

The appetizer list gets to the point quickly. Three sizes of antipasto (for one, $6; for two, $10.50; for the family, $18.50); shrimp cocktail ($7.25); a few salads, including a $5.25 plate of artichokes and olives that modestly sets the mouth watering for more, just as it should; a few tortellini-based dishes; soups (pasta e fagioli and minestrone among them); and a plate of broccoli sautéed with oil and garlic ($5.25) that’s another effective way to wake up the taste buds.

Although a half-dozen steak preparations are featured ($20.50 each), we skipped them in favor of more indigenous fare, like one of the 10 veal dishes. The veal dishes start with a simple breaded cutlet ($14.50) and culminate in the classic saltimbocca ($17.50)—that prosciutto-and-mozzarella-enhanced classic. Scalo-ppine marsala is a sauté of veal medallions with mushrooms and marsala wine; for the same price ($16.50), you can get this as scaloppine piccante, in which capers and other seasonings are carefully added to give the dish a more striking flavor. Again, it’s a simple, unadorned presentation, a side dish of linguine with tomato sauce completing the entrée.

Entrées are preceded by salads, chilled and crisp; a vinaigrette with crumbled blue cheese was my favorite of the dressing options.

Ten chicken dishes cover the same ground as the veal preparations. We examined another classic, cotoletta parmigiana ($15.50), with a tomato sauce and mozzarella topping, and it was just as expected and therefore quite satisfying.

Service couldn’t have been friendlier, with plenty of attention when needed and discreet visits from the owners. We finished with a pair of dessert samples ($4.50 each), both commercially obtained: a chocolate mousse cake too rich to finish, and a splendid limoncello sorbet that passed along the flavor of that liqueur without as much of the kick—a nice finish with a cup of espresso.

With its understated elegance and superior food, Bongiorno’s transcends the role of neighborhood Italian restaurant enough to make it worth a trip into Albany’s downtown. Once you find that all-important parking space, you’ll be amply rewarded.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.

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