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Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Luck of the Italian
By B.A. Nilsson

Maggie’s 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) for $14.

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 cooked.

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.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.

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