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Photo by: Martin Benjamin

The Old Neighborhood
By B.A. Nilsson

39-45 N. Jay St., Schenectady, 370-3825. Serving lunch Tue-Fri from 11:30-2, dinner Tue-Thu 5-9:30, Fri 5-10, Sat 4-10:30, Sun 4-9:30. AE, MC, V.
Cuisine: family Italian
Entrée price range: $13 (various pasta dishes) to $22 (shrimp-stuffed steak)
Ambiance: aggressively cheerful
Clientele: the neighborhood-at-large

‘Chicken in the Oven” descr- ibes an entrée that requires 45 minutes to prepare, and thus you are warned on the menu. At first it seemed a too-long wait, but it’s so much the kind of meal my wife prefers that we took a chance, ordering it before making up our minds about the rest of the meal.

Was it worth the wait, as the menu promises? It was worth the wait. It’s amazingly simple—chicken baked with white wine, herbs, potatoes and a hot cherry pepper—and only $14.50. Moist meat with a crispy skin, the flavor sneaking up on you, and the boon of those buttery, chicken-flavored potatoes.

It used to be Schenectady’s Little Italy, this stretch of North Jay Street where Cornell’s is newly installed, back when such designations were tautological. Home to Perreca’s, which has produced the area’s finest Italian bread for more than 90 years, and to Civitello’s, source of spumoni and pastries and incredible Italian ices for 83 years, it once was a thriving community.

It’s going to be Little Italy again, thanks to the money the city is pouring into the area. There’s no community substructure to actually make a neighborhood out of it, so it’ll end up, if the planners and retailers are lucky, as a bustling tourist destination.

The most visible result so far is the relocation of Cornell’s from its longtime Van Vranken Avenue home where, amid a street barely passable thanks to a lengthy reconstruction and a resultant parking nightmare, the Cornell family descendants continue to turn out their excellent food in a snazzier set of rooms.

In fact, this street is “where it all began,” as the menu proclaims, when Nicholas and Pasqualina Cornell opened their first eatery in 1943. Daughter JoAnn eventually joined the business, and, when she married Ron Cognetta, so did he. He ran it for a while; the couple split; she remarried and eventually reclaimed the business.

Now her son, Jim Cognetta, is chef, maintaining the family recipes, including such longtime staples as the sautéed chicken livers available as an appetizer or entrée. As a starter ($8.50), it’s still a large portion, laced with sherry and sprinkled with onions and mushrooms. The livers are crisp enough to yield their bounty with a little snap, juicy enough to require lots of bread for sauce-soaking.

Antipasto Dilusso features salami, cappicolla and provolone, the three easy to flavor with the accompanying roasted red pepper slices, artichoke hearts, flaked tuna, olives and anchovies. (In fact, just to get back at me over an earlier escargot episode, my daughter brazenly ate half an anchovy and declared it good.) The tomato segments were unsurprisingly out of season, but the rest of it made up a very nice starter. No lettuce confounds the presentation, which is priced at $5 for one and $7.50 for two, but easily could serve double that amount.

Hot antipasto ($9) features seafood and eggplant, and there’s plenty of seafood among the other appetizers. Entrées include various beef dishes, chicken, veal, pasta and more seafood, and a number of house specialties, from which I chose Veal à la Raphael (“Jay’s favorite,” the menu tells us, and many other friends of the restaurant are similarly saluted).

It’s rolled, brasciole-like, from veal tenderloin, with prosciutto outside and mozzarella inside; the marinara in which it’s served has mushrooms and more of that sherry flavoring. The flavors blended superbly, and the presentation was simple but compelling. I added an order of homemade cavatelli, excellent stuff, that was commandeered by my daughter (“You have my linguine”).

That was from her kid’s-menu item, five of which are available for $9 each, and the intelligent assortment includes no chicken “tenders,” no hot dogs. In other words, the child isn’t being groomed for fast-food fare. Linguine and meatballs was her choice, a serving that included two burger-sized hunks of breaded ground beef, nicely finished.

Lunch at Cornell’s placed us in the front room, by the bar, at one of a series of wooden tables baretopped for the afternoon service. Although a few of the dinner items are available at reduced prices, including the hot antipasto and its cold counterpart, the latter now lettuce-enhanced, most of the fare comprises sandwiches. They come hot, cold, grilled or as wraps, and you can choose from the classics or try something new, and not pay more than $7.

My fiercely traditionalist daughter wanted a turkey club, which is all well and good but hardly unique, so I talked her into “JoAnn’s Favorite,” grilled and packed to the gills with chicken breast (also grilled), Monterey jack cheese, bacon, avocado and sour cream. And it’s on sourdough bread, for a heady swirl of flavors that pleased my offspring just fine—I also found the mix of avocado and chicken to be terrific.

The Italian combo ($6) is a sub with a tightly rolled filling of prosciutto, salami and cappicolla interspersed with provolone and decorated with roasted red peppers. A squeeze of Italian dressing gives it just the liquid it needs for a wonderful sandwich. You get a side of macaroni salad and chips, or crispy fries can replace the latter for $1.50.

After the meal, we bought a cookie across the street at Civitello’s, then stocked up on bread at Perreca’s. It almost felt like a neighborhood.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.

We want your feedback

Have you eaten at Cornell’s or any other recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

It's me again B.A. The Chain Restaurant loving fat guy who loves big, heaping helpings of prepared, marketed fried things. Even Chicken Fingers.

I could care less about Daniel's at Ogdens to be perfectly honest. I read the review mostly because my office stares right at it's front door and we all watched as the refurbishing was done. My problem here today is with your first two paragraphs.

The kind of news article that bugs you is what percentage of Americans spend 30 minutes or less preparing food!?!? You know what kind of news article bothers me? "Remains of a woman found stuffed in a barrel......" or "....Albany Police Lt. dies from injuries sustained in shootout with suspect." I realize food and it's service and preparation may be the all consuming obsession in your life, but please tell me you have a bigger heart than that.

Maybe the reason "44 percent of weekday meals in the U.S. are prepared in 30 minutes or less.." is that some people work 2 or 3 jobs. Some people may be a single parent with young children, who may only have less than 30 minutes to spare.

But I promise you this, the next time I get 35 minutes or so.........I'll order some Kobe Beef, puff pastry, shitake mushrooms and the ingredients to make a proper buerre blanc....dim the lights, put on a bowtie, apron and plenty of snotty attitude and invite you over for dinner.

Are Chicken Fingers ok for an appetizer?

Mark Eriole
East Greenbush

I really love this guys knack for picking "the best kept secrets" in the Capital District. Way to go B.A.! Keep up the good work!

Mike Aldrich

Laura Leon's review was wonderful. Her descriptions of the various selections made me hungry. I am saving the review and putting it on my refrigerator to remind me to take a busman's holiday to Great Barrington for melitzana.

Joanne Lue

Having eaten here twice- I agree with all said by Nillson- HOWEVER- No authentic Mexican place should be totally rated without mention of their Margarita quality -which is superior-very limey with just the right ingredients- and their selection of Mexican Beers-Tecata-Negro Modello and Dos Equis Dark and Amber. Excellent Selection. Another mark of good Mexican cuisine is the freshness of their pico di gallo-the true MEXICAN salsa- again excellent. If it were not for the diner atmosphere I would have rated it 4 stars- and yes- please bring back the star rating system which I relied on heavily.

William Hyde

A surprisingly nice effort for a city which seems to only allow Italian restaurants to thrive.

Bill Graper

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore

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