At The Table: Stella Pasta Bar & Bistro keeps smooth vibe, adds tasty Italian to venerable Schenectady spot

At right from top: Veal saltimbocca and Caesar salad (ordered to go); chicken parm with tagliatelle pasta; and cheesecake with strawberry compote at Stella Pasta Bar & Bistro.

At right from top: Veal saltimbocca and Caesar salad (ordered to go); chicken parm with tagliatelle pasta; and cheesecake with strawberry compote at Stella Pasta Bar & Bistro.

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SCHENECTADY — Stella Pasta Bar has gone to the big city. Well, compared with its old location at the Fo’Castle Farms Country Store in Burnt Hills, the Schenectady Stockade district is indeed a livelier place.

Its new home is that Union Street institution, the former Van Dyck restaurant and lounge, equipped with a long, handsome bar and comfortable double-height main dining room paneled in dark wood.

The focal point may be its fireplace, but it’s got competition from the glass skylight way up above and the second-story railing that’s decorated now with white lights. The Van Dyck opened in 1947 as a jazz venue. It’s a classy joint.

I asked Virginia, who enjoyed Stella on the last review many years ago, to join me. She’s an Italian girl from Utica, my expert on the cuisine. We arrived on a weeknight without a reservation.

“You don’t need one tonight but you definitely will if you come back on the weekend,” advised the friendly hostess. We lingered a bit to admire the very tall, beautiful Christmas tree by a window near the entrance.

We were seated at a cozy two-top tucked next to the fireplace. “It’s not so noisy here,” observed my friend, who thought the dining room could get loud.

I liked the tablecloths, the padded seats, the warm yellow-painted walls among the wood paneling. There’s an oil-based candle on the table, with a real flame. Thank you.

Our server brought menus, hot decaf coffee and a glass of The Seeker New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc ($9). New to me and a good example of the type; I made a note to pick up a bottle.

Stella’s dinner menu is a bit more filled out here. There’s a bistro menu as well — a nice addition — just a few items that change weekly. This night it included a burger and shrimp tacos. The soups also change weekly.

The dinner menu and bistro menu are available Tuesday to Thursday; there’s weekend specials available for Friday and Saturday.

You will find many familiar Italian favorites on the regular dinner menu, starting with arancini ($10) and Zuppa Di Clams ($14). Salads come in large or small; a small Caesar is $7.

Stella makes its own pasta: linguine, tagliatelle and cavatelli. Linguine or tagliatelle with house marinara is $12, with meat sauce $15. Cavatelli comes with pesto or vodka sauce, roasted vegetables or chicken Alfredo for $18.

Entrees are served with a side house salad or Caesar salad, pasta and bread. Chicken parm is $21, veal saltimbocca $24. It’s not a broad menu, but it satisfies.

The server brought a half-loaf of Stella’s own bread, which smelled freshly baked when it hit the table. It’s served with extra virgin olive oil from Saratoga Olive Oil Co. — high-quality and fruity.

We pulled off pieces and dragged them through puddles of oil. It was missing something — perhaps salt, I thought — but it was fresh and otherwise good.

Virginia couldn’t pass up the soup of greens and beans ($4), a generous serving of which she heartily approved.

“They use kale. It’s sweeter than escarole,” she said. It had “just the right amount of white beans.”

She tipped the soup plate to get the last of the broth. “It’s nice and warming,” she said, like something her family would make.

Salads came next, hers with roasted garlic dressing, which smelled wonderful.

The small house salads are composed of lettuce, julienned carrots and sliced small tomatoes. They are tossed with house dressing in the kitchen, each piece lightly coated. I chose the slightly sweet white balsamic vinaigrette. The first bite made me want to keep eating.

When visiting a restaurant to review, I want to pick the most complicated entree, the one with the most components, perhaps the most expensive item. But, “We sell a lot of chicken parm,” said the server.

Sometimes the most popular is the best choice. So I picked the chicken parm. I can see why it sells. First, the price: At $21, it includes two good-sized pieces of white-meat chicken; a side of homemade pasta in marinara; house-made fresh bread; and salad with a choice of several house dressings.

The fork-tender chicken is breadcrumb-coated, crispy at the edges and tastes slightly of the cooking oil. That’s a good thing; does baked chicken parm ever measure up to fried?

It’s topped with their marinara, not too much, and creamy melted cheese that is just too good to be plain mozzarella.

I chose the tagliatelle. It was a bit more al dente than I’d like, but tasty. Virginia agreed. “Almost a little too al dente,” she decided.

The pasta was very long. For those who twirl, the strands made a too-big mouthful. Virginia disapproves but I usually just cut it up.

The meal is a big enough serving for two. They won’t thank me to tell you, but I’d buy one to go for both husband Eric and me. We might not have leftovers but it would be plenty.

Virginia chose the risotto of the week ($25) for her entree, made with roasted squash and fresh sage. She took a bite and made that face, the one that’s meant to show everyone how much she is enjoying her meal. Good sign.

“The squash is nice and soft,” she said, and, “I can taste onion.” The squash was orange, like butternut. She was very happy with her dish and planned to stretch it out into days of leftovers.

Save room for dessert — all of Stella’s selections are homemade. Virginia had vanilla gelato, two scoops flecked with tiny bits of vanilla bean ($4), which she described as “rich and creamy with a strong vanilla flavor.”

My cream cheesecake with strawberry compote ($6.50) could have use a bit more vanilla flavor. Otherwise it was on target: creamy, with requisite graham-cracker bottom. I had a few bites and brought the rest home.

For Eric, who’s been under the weather, I brought home veal saltimbocca ($24) with a half-loaf of bread and Caesar salad. He wanted more dressing (he uses way too much) and thought the croutons were a bit hard. I though they were a bit too big.

When he lifted the top off his dinner the smell reminded me of my mom’s wiener schnitzel. Veal was inexpensive then, more common and in regular rotation in my house. She served it with mushroom gravy. So Stella’s veal: pounded, uniform, breaded, spot on.

It was an hour or more by the time Eric had his meal, so it wasn’t at its peak. But the ham was strongly flavored and melded beautifully with the mozzarella and sage.

“The best bites are in the center,” he said, with the ham and cheese and sage. It was served over a helping of linguini in a tangy white-wine sauce with bits of garlic.

He shared the cheesecake. “I like yours better,” he said, either loyally or truthfully.

Stella’s homemade bread was excellent toasted the next day, much improved by salted butter. Maybe it was the salt.

The service was friendly and competent, though the entrees came out too soon while we were still eating our salads. Virginia also had a soup bowl and coffee accoutrements, and the server should have seen that the plates needed to be cleared.

Otherwise it was a pleasant, reasonably priced meal in a delightful, upscale environment. The soft jazzy music lent gravitas. We had tons of leftovers. Points to Stella for reusable plastic containers.

The tab for this comprehensive meal for Virginia and me, with soup, two entrees, dessert, coffee and wine came to $92.16 with tax and 20% tip.
Stella Pasta Bar is locally owned and everything, from salad dressings to desserts, is made right there. The restaurant is handsome, comfortable, venerable. The food tastes good and the portions are generous.

What are you waiting for?

Caroline Lee is a freelance writer who lives in Troy. Reach her at [email protected].

Stella Pasta Bar & Bistro

WHERE: 237 Union St., Schenectady; (518) 630-5173;
WHEN: 4 to 9 p.m Tuesday to Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
HOW MUCH: $92.16, with tax and tip
MORE INFO: Credit cards: Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover. Wheelchair accessible by ramp on left side of building and enter through the patio doors; call ahead to make sure access is open. Parking in lot at 301 Union St. Reservations strongly suggested for the weekend.

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Categories: Food, Life and Arts, Life and Arts, Schenectady

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