ALBANY On our way to dinner, my friend Mary and I tried to figure out how many different restaurants Carmine Sprio has operated in the Capital Region over the years. We came up with Carmine’s on Central Avenue, the one with the television studio. Carmine’s Kitchen in Latham, with excellent food to go, and Carmine’s Brazilian Steakhouse in downtown Albany, which morphed into the current Carmine’s early this year.
I’ve been to three of them, and I liked them all. The latest one, on Sheridan Avenue, is pleasant, well-run and gives good value for money.
It’s one of three restaurants right across the street from Capital Repertory Theatre, all with outside seating. Carmine’s is the most refined of the three, but all of the patios were bustling the night we visited.
Mary and I arrived without a reservation on a weeknight and were seated right away. As we waited for our drinks, we sized up the place. It is handsomely decorated, with a terra-cotta and teal color scheme, a more sophisticated spin on the regular red-and-green Italian decor. There are wood floors, lots of attractive tile work, black wrought-iron lamps, and a long banquette behind the bar, which faces Sheridan Avenue. There are wooden tables with comfortable padded chairs.
Carmine’s Italian Restaurant
WHERE: 4 Sheridan Ave., Albany. 729-4477, www.carminesrestaurant.com
WHEN: Dinner, 5-9 p.m. Monday, 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday. Closed Sunday
HOW MUCH: $84.47, with one iced tea, tax and tip
MORE INFO: Credit cards — Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club. Accommodations made for children’s meals. Wheelchair accessible. Reservations accepted. Parking free on street after 6. Pay lot across the street.
Our server was armed with an iPad, from which he read the specials. The iPads are used to take orders and keep up with changes in the kitchen, but their highest use is to show gorgeous photos of the food on its high-resolution screen. “I’ll have that,” I said, as he flashed us the night’s special. Anyone trying to resist dessert is powerless against the luminous photos.
Carmine’s menu is simple, with just a few choices in each section. For example, there are four kinds of chicken: Marsala, Parmesan, piccata, and saltimbocca, which I think covers everything. I prefer a slimmed-down menu, but many people like to have more choices, including Mary, who thought there should be more than one selection of veal.
However, Carmine Sprio told me that the kitchen will accommodate any requests. “I tell my servers, the answer is always yes,” he said. The prices are modest, given the attractive surroundings, professional service, and proximity to downtown Albany venues. Chicken Parm is $17, including a side of pasta.
Mary started with the Caesar salad ($8). “Classic,” the menu said, and it was. She liked the light and fresh dressing, the whole anchovy fillets, and the seasoned toasted croutons, which were just the right size. Well done.
I liked the house salad ($6), which went above and beyond a regular mesclun salad with its better-than-average tomato, and lightly pickled cauliflower and red pepper. The house balsamic dressing isn’t sour, which it so often is. They didn’t drown the salad in dressing, either. Sometimes what you don’t do is more important that what you do.
The photogenic dish I fell so hard for is chicken Sorrentino ($19), thin cutlets of white meat chicken topped with prosciutto, eggplant and smoked mozzarella in a rich brown sauce flavored with chopped onion and cracked black pepper. The pan-fried chicken was improved by the salty prosciutto and smoky flavor of the cheese.
The eggplant soaked up all the flavors around it. The smashed potatoes are just right here. Everything comes together and everything works in this dish. Happily, it shows up as a special fairly often.
Mary approved of the veal Parmesan ($19), three thin breaded fillets expertly fried a golden brown. They were topped with plenty of marinara sauce and each medallion sported a creamy slice of snowy mozzarella cheese.
She gave it high marks, said the breading was delicious and the meat very tender. She wasn’t interested in the side of rigatoni, though, and I took it home. I can tell you the marinara is slightly chunky and has an interesting kick to it.
Desserts are homemade and skew Italian, including zabaglione and cannoli. We each chose the fallen soufflé with ice cream ($7.50), chocolate for Mary, vanilla for me. They were well worth the price. Mary praised the chocolate flavor of the soufflé, and liked the chocolate ice cream and syrup. Mine was just as good — the fallen cake rich and moist, with vanilla everywhere: in the ice cream, sauce and cake. Carmine’s is a dessert destination, so leave room.
The tab for our meal with one iced tea came to $84.47 with tax and tip. We left impressed with Carmine’s. The service was polished and professional, and we calculated that the hour and a half we spent there was just the right amount of time for supper. Carmine knows what works, and this newest incarnation is the product of years of experience in the restaurant business.