Put on your favorite old coat for a walk on a chilly day, the one that falls comfortably over you and settles into all the right places. That’s the feeling you have walking into Ralph’s Tavern: It’s warm, comforting and familiar. It’s technically Ralph’s Italian-American Restaurant, but everyone knows it as Ralph’s Tavern.
My friend Virginia and I were pleased with the quick, friendly greeting and the unpretentious surroundings, low ceiling and dark paneled walls. The dining room was calm, despite the bustling, crowded bar in the next room We admired the wine-themed art, the smooth efficiency of the staff and the big white plates of food that glided by. It was going to be good, we knew.
You can get almost anything Italian here. Appetizers include a variety of wings but also old-school stuffed mushrooms and clams casino. There are hot and cold sandwiches, including the rare triple-decker, and to Virginia’s surprise and delight, there was egg and peppers on a roll.
Ralph’s has pizza, too, and entrees cover the Italian territory from eggplant parm ($11.95) to veal Sorrento ($15.95). Prices are moderate: the chicken parm is $13.95. You can get an 8-ounce New York sirloin with scallops for $15.95.
Entrees include soup or salad, starch and vegetable or pasta, plus wonderful bread.
The warm, freshly sliced Italian bread from Fiorello Bakery in Albany was a treat. The crust is just chewy enough, and the inside is cottony soft but yeasty and delicious. We made a mental note to bring home the leftovers and to visit Fiorello Bakery and Deli on Western Avenue.
Ralph’s Tavern Italian-American Restaurant
WHERE: 1328 Central Ave. 489-8290, ralphstaverninc.com
WHEN: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to midnight Sunday
HOW MUCH: $44.69 with coffee, tax and tip
MORE INFO: Credit cards: Visa, Master Card, Discover, American Express. Not wheelchair accessible. Children’s menu. Parking in front and rear.
Virginia took salad detail, relating ingredients in precise fashion as she’s learned from years of being my dining companion: “Iceberg lettuce, cut up. Everything nice and fresh. Couple small tomatoes. Thinly sliced onion. Black olives. House balsamic dressing is excellent.”
I opted for the soup ($3.95 for a bowl if you order a la carte), homemade Parmesan spinach, which seemed to be a bowl of cream and cheese with some spinach. It was rich, rich, rich, and it was out of this world. The spinach and bits of carrot are pretty and give the thick white soup some fiber but in no way offset the fat and deliciousness. Whew.
A specialty of the house is hand-cut mozzarella sticks, so we opted for the deluxe version with two sauces ($6.75), raspberry and marinara. The six logs of mozzarella have a delicate breading that belies its robust seasoning. I tried the raspberry sauce, slicing the cheese into small pieces and swabbing them in the puddle on my plate. The marinara was pulpy and pleasantly tart. “That could have been dinner,” Virginia said, and we could have stopped right there. In hindsight, I suppose I should have.
Husband Eric, who did this job for many years, likes to tell the story of the hapless restaurant critic who orders steak, peas and mashed potatoes in an Italian restaurant, then pans the place. You get the idea.
I suppose after the calorie-fest, I was looking for something healthy. But why I settled on broiled haddock ($11.95) I’ll never know. Its taste disappointed, though the rice pilaf and broccoli were tasty, with a nice cheese sauce over the vegetable. The rice was a true pilaf, seasoned and mixed with pasta and bits of vegetables.
The waitress brought us dessert and apologized for what was an entree that wasn’t up to par.
Virginia ordered veal and peppers ($14.95), a veal stew over ziti, on a thick white platter; it looked like a nice dinner for a family of four. The red and green peppers lent their flavor to the marinara, and Virginia thought she tasted oregano. The veal was fork-tender without falling apart. Ralph’s wisely opts for plain ziti cooked through over trendy pasta cooked al dente. A few chunks of veal and some pasta and peppers were enough, and she brought home most of the meal.
You shouldn’t miss their special dessert, outrageously good homemade peanut butter pie ($4.95), with that chocolate graham cracker crust that you forgot you liked so much. There is a layer of mousse-like chocolate piled with fluffy, peanuty filling, topped with mini semisweet chocolate chips. I enjoyed it at home with a glass of milk: Heaven.
The tab for dinner with coffee came to $44.69. We enjoyed our meal, and I would go back again, this time for chicken parm or some of those oversized meatballs that look so good. The service was spot-on, the prices were reasonable and the place is so comfortable.