“I feel like I’m at my grandmother’s house on Watervliet Avenue,” said my friend Patrice, looking around Sam’s. The impeccably dressed hostess saw us spy the cozy nook in the front, and said, “Take the bigger table. It’s more comfortable.” Then she leaned over the table and switched on a small table lamp, like you’d have in your home.
Sam’s, an Albany fixture since 1971, is a family-owned Italian restaurant in a converted two-story home on Southern Boulevard in the South End.
It’s your standard two-family house, so you know how big it is. Besides the nook, there’s a dining room with lines of tables; a long wood bar presided over by an observant bartender dominates on the right. It has linen-covered tables, wallpaper and dark carpeting, framed prints, the odd sconce.
Prices are friendly, and you’ll find some Italian classics that are hard to come by these days — seafood fra diavolo, linguini and clam sauce, clams casino. Italian immigrants have left their mark here in restaurants and bakeries.
Veal and chicken are prepared in endless delightful, geographic-sounding ways, like Parmesen, Sorrento, dorato, Capri, casalinga, and with marinara, Alfredo, creamy pesto, lemon butter, creamy tomato, or special ricotta cheese sauce.
Sam’s Italian American Restaurant
WHERE: 125 Southern Boulevard, Albany, 463-3433, www.samsitalian.net
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, Saturday 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $69.70 with tax and tip
MORE INFO: Credit cards: Master Card, Visa, American Express, Discover. Children’s menu. Not wheelchair accessible. Small parking lot, otherwise parking on street. Reservations suggested. Full bar.
To weary rush-hour drivers backed up from Delaware Avenue, the hand-lettered sandwich board in front advertising dinners for two, $24 to go, must look like an oasis in the desert. During our meal, there was a steady stream of folks, some bringing their own large cardboard boxes, who came in to pick up their meals.
Sam’s serves Prinzo’s bread at room temperature with butter; it’s dense, with a thick chewy crust and cornmeal on the bottom.
Patrice started with shrimp cocktail (on special at $5.95) served in a champagne saucer with a fancy stem. Four enormous, crisp butterflied beauties were served over greens with a dollop of spicy homemade cocktail sauce.
I enjoyed a cup of the pasta e fagioli ($3.75), an old family recipe of spicy tomato base with two kinds of beans and ditalini pasta.
The chicken Parm ($14.95) was all about the chicken. The thick white breast was tender and its quiet flavor came through the sauce, breading and cheese. There’s plenty for leftovers but they don’t serve the unnecessary, heroic portions so often mistaken for quality. The cheese melted into a creamy mass, the breading was mild with a slight flavor from the oil. Sam’s marinara sauce is to die for — mild, a bit pulpy, cherry red, gentle without being sweet. I could eat it with a spoon.
They don’t always have braciole ($21.50), but if they do, don’t pass it up. “This is exactly like my grandmother’s,” said Patrice after the first bite. The rolled beef is savory and tender, stuffed with a herb-seasoned bread crumb mixture and simmered in tomato sauce.
Their pasta is cooked past al dente. I had Yukon gold seasoned and roasted potatoes and broccoli that was much improved with the addition of butter and salt.
Most of Sam’s desserts are homemade. Patrice ordered a cannoli ($5), with powdered sugar, drizzled with chocolate syrup that also formed an “S” on the plate. “It’s very different from what I was expecting, but better. The filling is smoother and there’s an almond flavor,” she said.
Their lemon mousse ($5) is made with Limoncello and real lemon peel. It manages to be both light and rich, and it is exquisite.
Our server attended to us capably, chatted amiably, kept our glasses full and made sure that we were satisfied. Her quiet competence, along with the superb food, made for an outstanding dining experience.