The beautifully restored Proctors theater on State Street has a worthy new neighbor, Aperitivo Bistro, which opened last November.
It’s the latest venture for restaurateur Angelo Mazzone, who’s probably best known as owner of The Glen Sanders Mansion and 677 Prime, Albany’s answer to Ruth’s Chris steakhouse. He provides catering for such venerable institutions as Sargo’s at the Saratoga National Golf course in Saratoga Springs and the nearby Hall of Springs.
He knows what he’s doing, and it was a smart move on his part to take advantage of the resurgence in popularity of Proctors. Aperitivo Bistro’s glass front doors will open onto the wide sidewalk in warmer weather so you can dine outdoors, just like real cafes in Europe. All of a sudden, Schenectady is looking pretty good.
So my dear friend Mary and I arrived right on the dot for our 6 p.m. reservation and hung our coats on the rack near the front desk. We were led through the main dining room past the bar to a comfortable table in the middle of the large back dining room.
We admired the exposed brick wall, tastefully framed black-and-white photos of Schenectady landmarks, outstanding choice of blue paint and the tile floor.
But the other room is where everything is happening. There are high tables for large groups, the substantial bar with mirrors behind and seriously funky light fixtures that liven up the simple decoration scheme.
Aperitivo is lively, bustling and stylish. It’s not a place for an intimate dinner. Instead, it’s a place to show off your date.
The menu at Aperitivo is elastic, a bit unusual and not your standard Italian. Keep in mind that it accommodates someone stopping in for a drink and a snack. Our polite server told us we could order several small plates — piattini — or by courses, as usual.
Let’s start with the stuff that’s easy to explain: there’s pizza, starting at $11 for tomato and cheese to $18 for lobster pizza and frizzled onion salad. They’re big, and serve at least two. There’s soup, and a variety of pasta dishes. Salads are meant for two or three people. A respectable list of entrees includes several steaks, veal and chicken, from $17 for a chicken dish up to $31 for a 22-ounce steak.
The small plates can be as simple as a dish of olives ($5) or cheeses, or more elaborate, like the petit osso buco ($8) or fennel-dusted lamb chops ($9). From what Mary and I saw, these plates were wonderfully constructed and dramatically presented.
Aperitivo has an excellent bread basket, with extra points all around for variety of bread and accompaniments. Along with the basket came a sectioned dish of robust olive oil, tapenade and garlic butter.
We started with gorgonzola dolce ($5), an exquisite presentation of a small, neat cube of cheese and peaches drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Just what I’d expect from Angelo — beautiful, with unexpected flavor and top-of-the line quality.
But here’s what we didn’t expect: Our salad arrived before we were done with the first course, and the entrees before we were done with the salad. It was our only complaint, but it’s a significant one if it happens often. This is food that demands attention and part of the pleasure of dining out is lingering over the meal.
We ordered the spinach and grilled radicchio salad ($8). I liked the delicate flavor of the baby spinach leaves, probably the best I’ve ever had, and the slightly sweet white balsamic vinaigrette dressing fortified with bits of gorgonzola. Sugared walnuts and shaved carrot added crunch, and I enjoyed how the bitter flavor of radicchio was softened by grilling. This deserves to be lingered over.
I ordered penne vodka ($16), which was very good. I recently made vodka sauce for a crowd and poured in lots of extra heavy cream at the end, with the result that my pasta was swimming. The chef at Aperitivo knows that my indulgence is not authentic, and the al dente penne were tossed with just enough sauce, along with bits of wonderful, salty chicken sausage and chunks of good aged cheese, which surrendered to the heat and melted marvelously.
Mary measures Italian restaurants by the quality of the veal, and said Aperitivo Bistro’s veal Maria ($22) was the best veal she has ever had. Fork-tender, it was coated in fine bread crumbs and perfectly fried. It comes in a light sauce flavored with tomato, red onion and balsamic vinegar and topped with fresh arugula. The contrast of meat and greens made you examine both again. A really good chef makes you stop and think about what you’re eating. This is good stuff.
Happily, the pace slowed down as we finished our meal and we leisurely perused the dessert menu. The choices were novel, and sizes meant to share. The prices, though, were quite reasonable. Mary’s Nutella pizza ($7), for example, could satisfy four people. It’s at least 10 inches in diameter and sliced into eight wedges, each topped with a raspberry. It’s thin as a cracker, with a layer of the creamy chocolate hazelnut spread sandwiched between pastry, and dusted with sugar. Mary loved it.
Here’s something different: fried dough and dipping sauces, called pizza frite bites ($7). I don’t approve of dipping sauces, especially chocolate, for the last course of the meal, but here again, I was pleasantly surprised. The dessert comes with a pyramid of freshly fried dough bites each about an inch in diameter and dusted with powdered sugar, and three sauces on the side: berry, hazelnut, and chocolate. The chocolate is bitter, and the bites are not sweet, which makes for an interesting dessert. I loved the hazelnut, a freshly made caramel sauce that was really outstanding.
Drawbacks: it’s hard to avoid double-dipping and the bites are not easy to spear with your fork. But for a $7 dessert, it was really excellent.
The tab for this wonderful dinner with two sodas came to $84.35. Aperitivo Bistro offers choices: Stop for a light snack, a complete meal, or just share a pizza with a friend. You will enjoy the lively atmosphere and the thoughtfully prepared food.
WHERE: 426 State St., Schenectady. Phone 579-3371.
WHEN: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $84.35
MORE INFO: MasterCard, Visa. American Express, Discover. Children’s menu available. Fully wheelchair accessible. Reservations accepted.