Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ciao Italia Ristorante, Schenectady NY

One of my favorite meals of all time is Chicken Parmesan. There are several reasons for this:

1. I've never met a fried food I didn't like.
2. Chicken can be diet food if you don't fry it and cover it with cheese, but it has potential.
3. Anything with cheese is good both for old ladies and Goddesses. It is also delicious.

After reading the FussyLittleBlog on red sauce I decided that I didn't agree with -R and think I could, because I have superpowers perhaps, eat Chicken Parm every day for light years without getting tired of it. AND, like everyone else, I have an experience in mind with red sauce that is also very personal.

The red sauce has to be GOOD.

So I'm dining out at some of the Capital Region's family run Italian restaurants, trying their Chicken Parmesan and their red sauces to see what I find. Just because I think I can do it well at home doesn't mean I shouldn't be able to get something as good, if not better, eating out. And I don't have to do the dishes.

Tall, blonde and beautiful (TBB) and Cookie joined me for dinner at Ciao Italia Ristorante, located  at 3770 Carmen Road, Schenectady for dinner on Saturday night. It's in a strip mall set back from the road so you may not see it driving by, and it doesn't look like much on the outside either. Neon doesn't exactly sing fine dining, if you know what I mean. But don't let this fool you. Or the fact that there's a few tables on the right when you first come in that looks like a place to wait for take-out. The dining room, to the left, is simple but dressed with linens, which was nice. It was quiet when I arrived - only one other large table was seated already. Just few others came and went through the course of the evening.

I was seated promptly, and given water and menus while I waited for my friends to arrive, so I settled in to have a good look at what they had to offer. In almost every respect this was classic what I think of as Italian American, with Antipasti such as Calimari Fritti, Caprese salad, and an Antipasto platter with cured meats and Italian cheeses. Pasta dishes were characterized by an Italian City (kinda cute), such as Sicilia (swordfish with egglplant, also in marinara), Piemonte (Fettuccini Alfredo), and Firenzi (steamed clams). Their "al Forno" dishes (lasagna, manicotti and ravioli) are made with homemade pasta and served either with bolognese or marinara sauce. Entrees included chicken or veal parm or Marsala, eggplant parm, Braciole alla Calabrese, and Saltimbocca di Pollo Vitello.  Ciao Italia also offers up five 12" pizzas, 3 of which are "white". Overall I would say the variety was very nice.

Once the gang had all arrived we looked more closely at the wine list. Vino choices were pretty limited and there was nothing that seemed interesting or familiar; prices ranged from $23 to $51/bottle. Most of what they had were Italian wines, about 20 in all, but some were not available, according to our server, as they were just in the process of creating a new wine list. We were allowed to test a few; the first two were really awful. TBB described one as "diner wine, made from the grapes that fell on the ground and got stomped by your toes." Not exactly NYTimes reviewing but it makes the point nicely. The third, Catena Classic Malbec from Argentina ($33/bottle), was passably OK. A new selection of better quality options is definitely in order.

TBB and Cookie wanted to eat light, and so chose off the Antipasti menu to share. They ordered Beans and Greens ($8), swiss chard sauteed in olive oil with cannellini beans, and the Insalata di Gamberi ($13), a green salad topped with grilled shrimp. The beans were delicious - creamy, thickened, and nice and garlickly, with a goodly ratio of greens. All of us thought it was one of the best we'd ever had. The Insalata was also delightful, with crisp Romaine lettuce, little fresh mozzarella balls, red peppers and sun dried tomatoes, although I could have done without the canned artichokes. The lemon vinaigrette was light and flavorful. Both servings were very generous, and it was really sweet that the kitchen split the bean dish without charging a sharing fee (something I spit at - honest to saving the world: if the servings are so large that people keep asking for splits then restaurants should offer smaller sizes).

We got a basket of fresh, homemade bread along with our meal. It was yeasty and dense, but the butter it was served with, "James Farm Butter", was almost rancid and incredibly salty. Little butter packets also sing Diner out loud at the top of its little yellow lungs - not a good idea if upscale is the goal. There is a bottle of herbed olive oil on each table that diners should be introduced to instead, and while not very herby it was still lovely, even sublime. FYI the restaurant will sell the bread by the loaf if you want to bring some home.

All entrees come with a side of soup or salad, so I ordered my Chicken Parmigiana ($18) with a house salad and their homemade balsamic vinaigrette. The salad was generous, nicely presented, had lots of variety, and was perty darn good for early April in NY.

The chicken was delicious! Each of four nice sized slices were slightly crispy, uniform in thickness, not overcooked, or at all greasy. The sauce was simple and light (diced canned tomatoes with a bit of garlic), although there was a bit more on the plate than I would have preferred, as it quickly made the cutlets soggy. Anyway the simplicity of the red sauce was the right compliment for this dish. It was served with just enough cheese on top to make it sumptuous without masking the taste of the bird. Cookie, from previous experience, knew that the fettuccini was homemade, so that's what I ordered on the side. It was very tasty, tossed with the same red sauce in the kitchen before serving. As a topper to plain pasta, however, I found the red sauce very bland and not at all interesting. No herbs that I could taste, no seasoning at all really, and a bit tinny, a sauce that was sort of like the single note fa without the la la la. The server never returned with parmesan to sprinkle, so that was too bad.

The servings were generous, so I got to take plenty home and YES, my theory was correct: I CAN eat Chicken Parm every night and not get tired of it. (:

We were full and happy, but did someone say dessert??? We ordered their tiramisu and three spoons. It was tasty, heavy with cinnamon on top (cough cough) and hard to finish. The coffee was also very good, but again those little diner creamers seem to detract.

Ciao Italia is a place to eat a nice dinner out with friends and family but neither the location, nor the decor, make it a cool or trendy place to be. But I thought dinner was really good - that was a nice surprise! Fresh ingredients seemed to rule the kitchen and that's all in their favor - good quality from the start always makes food shine. When I return, and I plan to return, I want to try their Osso Buco if I'm lucky enough to find it as the nightly special.

Dinner for three with two dinner-sized appetizers, one entree, a bottle of wine, dessert and coffee for two, including tax, was $89.00.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: I am an admitted pasta junkie (no one can smell it on your breath if you get pulled over for singing behind the wheel).  

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