The familiar face of Joanne Cornell Aragosa greeted us at the door with a big smile and open arms. Gail and I had enjoyed Chef Armondo Cioccke’s cuisine and the hospitality of the Villa Tuscan Grille several times, and we were delighted to return on a busy Friday evening.
Word had already gotten around that the Villa, open since last fall, was a fine venue for authentic Italian food. I had forgotten to make reservations, but there was a table in the back room, which seats about 30 guests. The horseshoe-shaped bar, which was as busy as the 80-seat dining room, is also located here. The table was just far enough removed from the Friday-evening crowd that we felt secluded.
Villa Tuscan Grille
WHERE: 273 Duanesburg Road, Rotterdam. 355-2090, www.thevillatg.com
WHEN: 4-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
HOW MUCH: $63.50 without tax, tip or alcoholic beverages
MORE INFO: Wheelchair accessible, large parking lot, all major credit cards accepted, noise level permits conversation, take-out, catering, $20-four-course dinners Tuesday and Wednesday
Server Ashley delivered a basket of fresh warm bread, which included four pieces of flat bread reminiscent of pizza dough. Handing us menus, she took our drink order and hustled off to wait on another table. As we nibbled the flat bread, we checked out the daily specials on a separate menu as well as perusing the Villa’s regular menu. Both overflowed with enticing Italian-influenced dishes.
The large number of options made it both challenging and fun to select our meals.
Gail and I opted for sturdy Italian Wedding Soup ($4 a cup) — one of the evening’s special offerings. It was chock full of acini di pepe pasta, greens, small pieces of shredded chicken and several petite, incredibly tender meatballs. Though there was little of it, the broth was rich and flavorful.
Gail’s classic Shrimp Oreganato ($12) appetizer arrived laden with Italian seasoned bread crumbs. The four plump pink shellfish had been sautéed perfectly to a succulent firmness.
My Utica Greens ($8) were delivered steaming and unadorned. It is the kind of dish that requires no embellishment. Whole cloves of garlic were sautéed soft within an ambrosia-like coarse mixture of escarole, prosciutto, pecorino romano, hot peppers, Italian seasoned bread crumbs, broth and extra virgin olive oil.
Gail is partial to Penne alla Vodka ($18), but only orders it from two places; Villa Tuscan Grille is one of them. Said to be one of Frank Sinatra’s favorite dishes, its pale red sauce is made from tomatoes, garlic, oil, onions, butter, heavy cream, grated Parmesan — and of course, vodka.
My entrée was also a perennial favorite: Hot Antipasto ($12). There was a treasure trove of ingredients in a not-too-heavy marinara: clams in the shell, artichoke hearts, fried eggplant, shrimp, fresh mushrooms, green peppers and roasted red peppers, topped with melted provolone. It is billed as an appetizer but is ample enough for a dinner; half of the antipasto came home with me.
Desserts are either made in-house or locally. But this night, anything more to eat was impossible for us. I ended my meal with espresso and Gail had coffee.
A word about service at Tuscan Villa Grille: Taking their cue from Joanne, servers were friendly, professional and caring without being overbearing. Food was presented in a timely fashion, the table was cleared periodically and nothing was forgotten. It was clear that our server Ashley enjoyed chatting with us, but she always knew when to limit the conversation — a rare skill.
Although one would surely visit Villa Tuscan Grille for a special occasion, the ambiance, which includes a raised fireplace at one end of the dining room, the excellent food and service and the reasonable prices, would make the restaurant a weekly destination.
At least for this happy diner.
The name Utica Greens apparently had its origin in — you guessed it — Utica, N.Y. in the 1960s. It appears as if there are as many variations of the dish as there are Italian restaurants in the city. But to be Utica Greens, this nearly vegetarian side dish should be composed of escarole, some kind of cured meat like prosciutto, bread crumbs, garlic, peppers and Italian cheese.