WHERE: 123 1⁄2 Madison Ave., Albany. Phone 512-5116. www.katrinellasbistro.com
WHEN: Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4:30 to 10 p.m., Saturday 4:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday.
HOW MUCH: $63.57 with tax and tip.
MORE INFO: Credit cards: Visa, Master Card, American Express, Discover. Parking on street or on Van Zandt Street around the corner. No children’s menu.
Katrinella’s tiny restaurant is a big hit. “Weekends we’ve turned away a hundred people,” owner Joe Rogers said, ruefully. “But if the restaurant were bigger, I couldn’t do all the cooking myself.” The dining room is intimate, to say the least, with only about 15 coveted seats. So make reservations, even for lunch.
Katrinella’s, named for Katrina, Joe’s wife and the restaurant’s co-owner, opened a year ago but gained notice when they focused on the $20 menu. There are three courses: appetizer, entree, dessert, and the choices are excellent. “It’s the stuff I love to cook,” said Joe.
Katrinella’s Bistro is homey, humble and charming. There are black-and-tan linens on the tables and lots of candles, but it’s not fancy. It’s a true bistro, intimate and personal.
The sign on the Madison Avenue facade directs you to a door around the side that opens onto a long corridor. When Virginia and I visited there was no one in sight and only one way to go, so we headed down the hall toward some voices, and found ourselves looking into the kitchen.
”Do you have a reservation?” we were asked when we arrived. Was he kidding? It was 5 p.m. on a weeknight and there was no one else in the place. A list of names was consulted so closely that we started to worry. At last: “I have a table coming at 6:30. You can have it until then.” We could do that. We got a table.
In addition to a comprehensive Italian menu, Katrinella’s offers the popular $20 three-course dinner (and a similar $10 menu for lunch). The menu includes shrimp cocktail, lobster ravioli, scallops sauteed with bacon and broccoli in an Alfredo sauce, salmon, veal Sorrento, the things Joe loves to cook. The regular entrees include salad or soup and bread, and the prices are inexpensive. Chicken parm is $12.95, to give you an idea. That’s pretty good.
From my seat by the kitchen I watched our server do everything the cook didn’t: take orders, bring out food and drink, assemble salads, plate desserts, bus tables. I occasionally saw another man dive for the refrigerator in my line of sight and then disappear, presumably the cook. How refreshing and human compared to the big corporation-run restaurants with their mechanized, tightly choreographed service.
So we started with salad for me and soup for Virginia. Katrinella’s uses leaf lettuce and tops it with chopped mushroom, red onion, olives, and carrot with a wedge of tomato and a chunk of cucumber on the side. It was ice cold and the ingredients were perfectly fresh, with house Italian dressing served in a plastic cup on the side. Very good.
Virginia’s Italian wedding soup featured soft, tasty meatballs and a rich broth. She approved and recommends it as a good, light start to your meal. You’re going to want to save room, and besides, there’s the bread.
Katrinella’s bread is homemade, dense and generously portioned. Their olive oil is seasoned with sweet balsamic vinegar, sauteed garlic and Parmesan cheese. I could have made a meal of the salad and bread.
I’ve never heard of shrimp Francaise ($16.95), but what a good idea it is. The coating on the shrimp was eggy and crisp, and I was delighted by the abundance of fresh broccoli florets, which were heavenly when soaked in the wine, lemon and butter sauce. “Fresh lemon,” I said, at the first bite, quite pleased. There was enough penne pasta to round out the platter, and the unfinished half of the meal made a very satisfactory lunch the next day.
Virginia recommends the chicken a la Katrinella ($15.95), which features two sauteed chicken cutlets topped with spinach and red roasted pepper in a creamy pink gorgonzola sauce. There’s plenty of penne pasta on the side, also topped with vegetables. Virginia had enough left for another meal. “Or two,” she said. It was excellent, she said.
By now, every table but one was filled. Our guy was hustling between kitchen and dining room with three salads here, a tray of entrees there, three glasses of wine at a time. He took the dessert orders and brewed decaf for Virginia ($1.25). The desserts are homemade, “but not here,” he explained, and the dense, creamy New York-style cheesecake certainly tasted like it. It’s all you need after dinner.
Virginia ordered the chocolate mousse dessert, which turned out to be a cake of many layers including white and dark chocolate mousse. Both desserts came with fresh whipped cream and the mousse cake was embellished with chocolate syrup. The desserts are of good quality and a bargain at $3.50.
As Virginia lifted her cup to finish off her freshly-brewed decaf I saw the time on her wristwatch: 6:10. We asked for the check and left in time for them to clear the table for the 6:30 reservation.
I didn’t forget husband Eric, bringing home a takeout order of baked manicotti ($11.95) with a whole disc of homemade bread and generous salad. “Wow, it’s a feast,” he said later, digging into his salad. I couldn’t help tasting the baked pasta with its irresistible puddles of melted mozzarella cheese and sweet, fresh tomato sauce. “It’s hearty and delicious,” he said, scooping up the ricotta spilling out from the ends of the manicotti onto his plate. He ate two more slices of bread and about a third of the pasta and called it quits. Somehow he had enough room for my leftover cheesecake.
The tab for two dinners and one takeout came to $63.57.
And my apologies to the regulars at Katrinella’s. It’s only going to get harder to get a table.