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Photo by: Shannon DeCelle

Trojan Trophy
By B.A. Nilsson

Lo Porto Ristorante Caffe
85 4th St., Troy, 273-8546. Serving dinner Tue-Sat 5-10 (July-Aug: Thu-Sat 5-10). AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: classic northern Italian
Entrée price range: $10 (Pasta with marinara) to $33 (filet mignon and lobster tail)
Ambiance: cozy
Clientele: upscale loyalists

Once upon a time, when Troy was poised to become the area’s dining mecca, Lo Porto Ristorante would have been one of the top destinations. With Italian cuisine a well-entrenched commodity, chef Michael Lo Porto provided his own interpretations of classic dishes, featuring a lot of northern fare, and became an instant favorite.

His secrets were simple: fresh ingredients, which unfortunately exact a higher price, and a skilled hand at sauces. Lo Porto is actually of Sicilian descent, and learned cooking from his family, a family that ran a restaurant there for several generations. The influence of French cooking upon Sicily explains part of this skill; Lo Porto’s own love of food and family accounts for the rest.

And so he opened in Troy in 1991, in a cramped 50-seat space that came to life as crowds jammed it for enjoyable dinners. With time and success came expansion, both to the restaurant—a room was added to double the capacity—and into another, when Lo Porto took over the Sign of the Tree at the Empire State Plaza five years later. He still spends much of his time there, and has placed his nephew, Carmelo Lo Porto, as executive chef in Troy.

There’s no diminution of food quality. During a couple of recent visits, I was delighted to learn just how excellent the food remains, listed on pretty much the same menu as has always been in place. It’s just been repriced to keep up with the times.

Where the two visits contrasted was in service, which later was acknowledged as a problem at times. Evidently it was busier than expected on my Thursday visit, and the staff had to struggle to stay above water. We were seated in the back room, a boxy, unattractive space that acted as a megaphone for a rambunctious six-top at the room’s rear; after 10 minutes of neglect, we were able to get enough server attention to get us moved to a table near the bar, which was gloriously quiet in comparison. After that, dinner proceeded slowly but consistently.

On a Friday visit, I was overjoyed to discover that Maurilio Gregori is the weekend host. Onetime chef-owner of the Quackenbush house, he knows his way around fine dining and the customers for same, and helped make the experience very pleasant.

My current dining strategy (besides eating less of what’s served) is to order items different from my usual choices, I thought, and so chose mussels casino ($8). Later, I discovered I’d ordered the same appetizer during my 1992 review visit. I noted that I was served “a small plate of the mollusks, opened and cleaned, topped with breading and bacon and baked until the juices flow into the topping and make it all moist and crunchy. And tangy with an appropriate combination of herbs.” And that’s how they are today.

Seafood figures into most of the appetizers. Oysters Rockefeller ($10) gets a slightly different spin with mozzarella and Romano cheeses atop the spinach; fried calamari ($12) offers no surprises but it offers no disappointment: hot, crunchy, tender—even those little leggy bits are tender—with both cocktail sauce and a hot marinara for dipping.

A black bean and sausage soup ($5) leaned toward the salt for its finish, but the combination of ingredients was nicely proportioned.

Salads precede the entrées, so you may wish to moderate your appetizer intake. On the other hand, we emerged with so much in the way of leftovers that several subsequent meals were thus derived.

Plain old spaghetti (or linguine, or ziti) is available with a variety of the usual toppings—meatballs, sausage, mushrooms, clam sauce and such—for $10-$11, and baked pastas such as lasagna and eggplant parmigiana are $13.

Veal dishes dominate one menu column. Scallopine and cutlet variants, even a dish named for Martin Scorcese, who fell in love with this restaurant while he was in town filming The Age of Innocence some years ago. I forgot to ask for whom Veal Giuseppe ($17) is named, but he was a lover of rich food: The rolled veal is stuffed with crabmeat and provolone cheese, wrapped in prosciutto and covered in a roasted red pepper cream sauce that would make a great pasta companion. But the plate, like most entrées, comes with potatoes and vegetables, and there’s a side dish of marinara-sauced pasta!

As a representative chicken dish, my wife enjoyed the chicken sauté sec ($16), adding oranges and raisins to a super-rich cream sauce that she only grudgingly shared and also hoarded in its leftover state.

On my Friday visit I was accompanied by an Atkins dieter, who expressed some anticipatory terror about Italian cuisine. He pounced on the rack of lamb ($23), which was as fine a preparation as I’ve tasted, combining a rich marinade with the kind of seasoning that springs to flavorful life under the grill. Having confessed his diet to our server, Brian had extra vegetables replace the potatoes. (And I scarfed his side of pasta for a later lunch.)

Mugnaia are seafood dishes with pasta, taking there name from a word that means “miller’s wife.” Priced from $15 to $19 and featuring scallops, sole, trout, red snapper or a seafood combo, they’re huge portions that sport a creamy sauce flavored with such Mediterranean mainstays as capers and olives, with a sprinkling of basil. The scallops version, as expected, boasted plump, juicy seafood.

When the city installed the mediocre Fresno’s chain into the former Castaway’s space instead of welcoming a locally owned business, it verified its lack of vision. Chez Sophie Bistro was going to move to Troy. The Capehouse once reigned as seafood house supreme. The Allegro Café is gone. Thank goodness the River Street Café and Lo Porto persevere as Troy’s fine-dining venues.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.

TABLE SCRAPS

Table scraps: Enjoy the cuisine of 15 of the areas finest restaurants under one roof at the Fourth Annual Capital Chefs Charity Ball. Created five years ago by My Way Café chef-owner John Bove and 14 other chefs (all members of the Greater Capital District Chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association), the Capital Chefs Charity Ball raises money for a different charity each year (this year it’s the Center for the Disabled) and offers two scholarships for culinary students working in the hospitality industry. The event will be held at the Italian-American Community Center, 257 Washington Ave. Ext., Albany, from 6 PM to midnight on Monday (May 17). Along with all that great food, you’ll also enjoy entertainment from an array of area entertainers. Tickets are $75 per person and may be reserved by calling 899-4196. . . . Former Hattie’s owners Colin and Christel MacLean open their new restaurant next week. The Circus Café (392 Broadway, Saratoga Springs) gives a festive spin to classic American fare with both lunch and dinner options, and a circus-themed drink menu for your toping pleasure. The grand opening celebration is from 5 to 10 PM Wednesday (May 19), with jugglers, clowns, door prizes and more, along with a feast of “circus snacks.” Call 583-1106 for more info. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banilsson.com).

(Please fax info to 922-7090)

We want your feedback

Have you eaten at Lo Porto Ristorante Caffe or any other recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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* E-mail address not required to submit your feedback, but required to be placed in running for a Van Dyck Gift Certificate.

What you're saying...

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
Castleton

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
Schenectady

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
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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