of the Italian
By B.A. Nilsson
Café, 1186 Western Ave., Albany, 437-1701. Serving
lunch Mon-Fri 11:30-2:30, dinner Mon-Thu 4:30-9:30, Fri-Sat
4:30-10, Sun 4-8. A, CB, D, DC, MC, V.
Cuisine: Neapolitan Italian
Entrée price range: $9 (pasta with marinara) to $24
(Cappellini primo with lobster)
Clientele: neighbors and legislators
Ambiance: like family
Five years ago, Maggie Smith moved her café from the cramped
Fuller Road quarters (where it opened in 1995) to the site
of the former Son’s Tavern on Western Avenue. Now there’s
room both for banquets and regular dinner service as well
as a large, comfortable bar.
Restaurant comfort is elusive, and there may be no better
indication of just how accommodating a place feels than by
visiting in winter. Especially when it’s cold outside. A recent
visit to Maggie’s took me through a slushy parking lot where
the piercing wind was creating an ice crust; inside, although
the dining room is large and high-ceilinged, it took little
time to relax and feel warm.
And the food, beginning with the basket of crisp-crusted bread
that hits your table, will make a believer of you. “Maggie
buys nothing but the best,” says chef Sam Vardaro, who has
been part of the restaurant since it first opened. “She’s
very strict, and would rather throw it [poor-quality fare]
in the garbage then send it out to customers.”
Vardaro worked at Casa Primo before joining Maggie’s operation,
but he credits his introduction to cooking to his mother.
“I liked to watch what she did when I was growing up, and
most of the recipes I use here come from her. Everything is
fresh. We make the sauces every morning, and people notice
it. I’d come eat here myself!”
A baker’s dozen appetizers range from a $2 basket of garlic
bread—the real thing, too—to a $10 plate of clams. Seafood
appetizers otherwise are $9, with calamari or shrimp or mussels
available. Three soups are on the list, with pasta é fagioli
($6) or tortellini ($4) soup listed as such, and the $7 escarole
and beans presented with enough of a tasty broth to qualify
as well. What’s vital to the last-named is garlic, and it
has a more-than-suitable presence.
We qualified for salads with our entrée orders, so Jaime,
our server, offered a family-style bowl of it. It’s a simple
mixture, uncomplicated by lots of add-ins, so I ordered an
appetizer of roasted red peppers and anchovies ($7) as a complement,
and enjoyed a bold, fresh flavor as a reward.
Pizza and calzones are recent menu additions, so we sampled
a calzone ($11, and an extra 75 cents for the pepperoni stuffing).
The menu promises that it will serve two to three people,
and this is an understatement. It’s huge and gooey and comes
with a excellent side of marinara.
Both the pizza ($9) and calzones are offered with the usual
toppings, all of them fresh. A pizza with the works is $13.
The dozen pasta-based entrées present a variety of macaroni
stylings, and lots of butter and cheese. A simple pasta with
meatballs or sausage is $11; fettuccine Alfredo is $15, but
you can the even richer carbonera preparation (add prosciutto)
Fettuccine fantasy ($17) is a concoction of good-sized chicken
breast chunks and prosciutto bits in an onion-rich cream sauce
with mushrooms, served over a vast bowl of pasta that’s perfectly
Turn the menu page: a dozen chicken dishes, a dozen preparations
of beef or veal. Parmigiana for chicken or veal ($14 or $18),
sautéed with mushrooms as Marsala ($15 or $19), or in a variety
of traditional and innovative styles. Listed as the house
signature dish is cappellini primo ($24), in which lobster
meat, shrimp and spinach are served over pasta with a sauce
of white wine, butter and cheese.
Lobster also figures in the ravioli Americana ($22), one of
eight seafood items. Homemade (in Brooklyn) ravioli is presented
with lobster meat and roasted red peppers, but the sauce is
cream on top of cream with a complement of butter. I don’t
know when I’ve had a richer pasta creation—and portion size
is such that the leftovers were good for two more meals.
Desserts are purchased from outside suppliers, but a tartuffo
we sampled brought a nice, sweet end to a meal.
If you feel lucky when you discover Maggie’s Café and enjoy
a meal there, consider Maggie Smith’s own luck. She was able
to first open a restaurant thanks to a Saratoga racetrack
combo she hit, and she’s never looked back. There’s a strong
family feel about the enterprise, helped by the many members
of Smith’s family who work there. Her daughter, Jaime, was
our attentive server.
Although pricing is higher than the corresponding chain restaurants—I
suspect the strong legislative clientele tempts those prices
upward—the food is so much better (and portions so generous)
that you’ll more than get your money’s worth.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.