Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Doing Dishes: Bongiorno's and Veal Sorento

I love my neighborhood restaurants in the abstract because it’s great to be able to stroll over to a place for a nice meal. I love Bongiorno’s in particular because in the warm weather there are a few tables outside with red checked table cloths and neighbors having dinner there greet neighbors strolling by as they take in the evening air. Being a couple blocks from the heart of state government, there are always a few staffers enjoying a dinner together and sometimes the place is chock full of them. So this is another Italian restaurant that is more than the food, but a part of the social fabric of its location. It’s teensy, so no matter how much of a stranger you were when you entered, you must work at it diligently to stay a stranger when you leave.

The staff is friendly and attentive, greeting quickly and getting everyone seated, then always on the lookout to take away plates and glasses or to check to make sure you are having a good experience.  In my last visit I asked the staff member to completely rearrange the meal in several ways - hold the sauce on the pasta, bring the salad at the end and other little adjustments to personalize it.  Each request was handled immediately and exactly the way I needed, and it was lovely. Several times I have been dining beside a table for eight or ten and each guest was treated with the same attentiveness, often with a full room of smaller parties as well.

It’s serviceable Italian fare, with the common categories of antipasto, pasta, salads, meats, poultry and fish. These are  preparations by the children of Italian parents, so there is a little spin on the "nonna's recipes story". They are also, however, classic preparations that are common in our Italian-American family owned red sauce joints, served in a transformed old house for the past thirty or more years.  So- it’s truly a neighborhood Italian place with all the same intentions as similar institutions so pervasive in our little town. Which is to say there’s a sense of predictability that is comforting and we know in our hearts when we need a dinner like this.

My Veal Sorento was described uniquely as veal and eggplant parmesan. It was a heap of medallions, which is a sort of blending of the heap presentation and the medallion presentation. The breading was the most outstanding feature - there was too much of it in my not-so-humble-opinion.  The flavors were all there and balanced, once the predominance of the breading was inevitable. It was tender and moist, easily cut with a fork, which unfortunately is not all that common in this dish. The sauce was strikingly plain with no added dimensional flavors in the form of herbs or vegetables. I personally prefer the kitchen to add a signature in the form of special combinations in their sauce.  I know that this kitchen does do this for many of the sauces, but apparently the other flavors of the dish are sufficient in their opinion.

So even though I love this place and have tasted my way through most of the menu, I think it’s imperative that they close for a couple weeks and overhaul the  inside of the building.  They’ve let it go for too long, and they have to update the carpet, the paneling, and the furniture.  Sure it’s cozy, but there’s a difference between cozy and skeezy, and Bongiorno’s is learning too far toward the latter. The good staff and good food won’t compensate for this shortcoming in the long run.

My recommendation for you, dear readers, is to go in the warm weather and sit outside when the local tomatoes are at their peak ripeness and you will have a lovely and typical Albany Italian experience.

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