Trendy restaurants survive, often flourish, because everyone wants to be the first to try them, despite their often pricey menus. It’s a status thing and the place you go once a year to celebrate a birthday or anniversary.
Chains survive because they’re predictable — both in price and in food quality, which is usually about a C+. They’re adequate. Fine if you’re dining alone on a business trip. Or in a hurry. Or with kids.
Often overlooked are the unpretentious Mom and Pop restaurants that have been in business for 30 years because the food is abundant and more than good, the prices are reasonable, the service is caring. It’s the home away from home you keep returning to. The place you bring guests to because you know the place is dependable.
Former colleague Winnie knows food. She taught home economics for years, gardens, preserves her produce, cooks, travels. So I was optimistic when she suggested meeting her at Nicolino’s on Route 30 north of Amsterdam. My dinner date brought her date (husband Fred) along for the purpose of reviewing, which gave us a chance to sample more choices. At 5:30, there were only a couple of cars in the large parking area.
WHERE: 4515 State Highway 30, Amsterdam, NY 518-842-4907
WHEN: 2:30 p.m.- close Tuesday-Thursday; 12:00.p.m.- close Friday; 2:30-close Saturday; 12:00 p.m.-close Sunday; Closed Monday
HOW MUCH: $69.40 for 2 people (1 appetizer, 2 entrées, one coffee and 1 espresso) with tax and tip
MORE INFO: Parking, all major credit cards accepted, accessible
The greenhouse entrance was filled with plastic flowers. Winnie assured me that as soon as the weather cooperated, the artificial plants would be replaced by tomato, basil, oregano.
Greeted by a staff member, I was shown to a long mauve and avocado room on the right. A dozen and a half tables covered with white tablecloths accented with angled black cloths, sparkling tableware and mauve napkins greeted me. I was the sole diner at that early hour, giving me time to study the cleverly designed menu.
On each side was a large square divided into four parts. Side 1, entitled Vino Wine Bar, boasted over 40 appetizers/small meals ranging in price from $7-15. The large square featured pizzas, wraps, panini and burgers; salad and soup; sandwiches. A fifth section, Fromage/Nibbles/Starters was included.
The flip side also featured a square titled “5 Ways.” Each of four categories — Veal, Seafood, Pasta and Chicken — was offered five different ways. Also included was a section offering a create your own pasta dish and six Italian specialties.
My friends arrived, settled in and server Olivia took our orders. We began by sharing a dozen Toasted Raviolis, delicately breaded and fried little pasta pillows stuffed with spinach, artichoke and ricotta served with house vodka sauce for dipping. Just enough to whet our appetites.
Winnie’s and my house salads consisted of crisp chilled mixed greens, tomato wedges, cucumbers, black olives, red onion rings and toasted croutons sprinkled with grated cheese and dressed with balsamic vinaigrette (mine) or thick bleu cheese dressing.
Fred’s cheddar cheese and broccoli soup was hot, creamy and satisfying.
Then the entrees. Winnie’s Osso Buco arrived, a tender veal shank tower smothered in a thick sauce of mushrooms and caramelized onions atop a bed of thin spaghetti. Definitely my choice next time. And for $21 it was probably the biggest bargain on the menu.
Fred raved about his Veal Cordon Bleu (I’m always impressed when a restaurant spells it the French way). At $23, the dish was another great value — tender veal rolled with prosciutto and mozzarella, breaded and finished with lemon butter wine sauce. Roasted potatoes and intensely green broccoli complemented the veal.
Unable to choose between the eggplant parmesan and veal, I compromised with Veal Sorrentino, which was served with a rich marinara over a bed of penne rigate.
The generous serving left a substantial portion for dinner the following evening. Like a culinary geologist, I deconstructed the strata: grated cheese, marinara, mozzarella, light breading, several thin layers of eggplant, tender veal cutlet, another layer of breading. Meals are lovelier the second time around.
Decaf coffees for Fred and Winnie and an espresso for me were enough to end the meal, though we listened to the evening’s dessert offerings: cranberry walnut or carrot cake, cannoli, double fudge chocolate cake a la mode and New York style cheesecake.
When I spoke to staff member Pamela a few days later, she told me that their pastry chef makes the desserts every other day according to his whim, though cannoli are available every day.
You can get a quick sandwich or salad at Nicolino’s. But for a leisurely cooked-to-order meal with outstanding service, the short drive up Route 30 will not disappoint.