Dinner guest Sarah, wise beyond her 14 years, described Mario’s on River Road in Niskayuna: “It is a small place with a big taste!”
The restaurant is compact (15 tables, eight stools around an L-shaped bar) and the prices are reasonable. But the portions are large — huge, really — the flavors are robust, and service is abundant.
We arrived at 5:30 on a Friday evening to find the dining room half full. A member of the wait staff seated us immediately and handed us menus and a list of the specials for the day. We ordered soft drinks and settled in with the large laminated menus.
I ordered an antipasto for one ($9.95) and a four-cut personal pizza with sausage and peppers ($8.25 plus $2.25/topping), believing the appetizers would tide us over until we ordered entrees.
We should have stopped there. Each dish was easily enough for two people. But in our blissful ignorance Sarah ordered Shrimp Parmigiana ($20.95) and I ordered Veal Sorrentino ($18.95).
The pizza was as good as I’ve had anywhere, nicely browned with a chewy crust, strewn with sausage and green peppers as requested. The cold antipasto was fit for a king — a very large king.
Glimpses of iceberg lettuce peeked out from underneath mounds of Italian meats, cheeses, and peppers, decorated with near-transparent slices of red onion. A hint of Italian dressing pulled the ingredients together as a unit.
At the risk of using clichés, Mario’s wait staff functioned like a well-oiled machine, exhibiting service with a smile. Working as a team, servers delivered plates of attractive food, whisked away empty dishes, boxed leftovers, refilled tall glasses of soda ($2.50 with unlimited refills) and answered questions. They never seemed rushed and were always available. They were poised to handle the busy Friday night traffic.
Mario’s Restaurant and Pizzeria
WHERE: 2850 River Road, Niskayuna. 346-0002, www.mariosrestaurantniskayuna.com
WHEN: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 4 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday
HOW MUCH: $99.94 for two appetizers, two entrees, two desserts and unlimited soda, with tax and tip
MORE INFO: Parking, all major credit cards, accessible
Mario’s appeared to be a date-night destination as well as a night off for mom. Larger tables were filled with exuberant high school and college kids, while older couples talked quietly in corners. While the noise level indicated activity, it was quiet enough for a conversation.
Sarah nibbled on freshly made bread (owner John Isopo makes the bread and pizza dough daily, along with the marinara, his wife, Katrina, explained later by phone).
Our entrees were similar — Sarah’s shrimp and my pounded veal and eggplant slices were breaded and fried crisp, baked off with mozzarella (the kind that makes a foot-long string if your mother lets you play with it) and topped with a sturdy marinara.
Both exemplified the Big Taste my dining partner described. Dinners come with pasta (we both chose angel hair, cooked perfectly al dente) and salad, which server Christie wisely omitted.
The size of my veal dish was as big as its flavor, and two-thirds of it was boxed with most of the pasta for supper the next evening.
Despite the magnitude of her meal, Sarah was certain she had room for dessert.
She opted for the Manhattan Tartufo ($5.95), while I ignored the server’s warning and ordered the Brownie Sundae. How big could a dessert for only $6.95 be?
Surprise! The sundae covered an entire dinner plate: four triangle-shaped warm, moist brownies spaced between four scoops of vanilla ice cream and circling a megalith of real whipped cream.
Smaller dabs of whipped cream filled in any perceptible open space on the plate, and the entire masterpiece was drizzled with ribbons of chocolate sauce. Delightful decadence. Sarah was kind enough to help me devour the dessert, and there was still some to bring home.
Built to last
Both the restaurant and its laminated menu are designed to last. The solid brick building has a retrofitted gas fireplace in one corner of the room. A server told us that it produces so much heat that partway through a winter evening it has to be turned off.
The menu has the same solid feeling. Nothing flimsy here, no nouvelle cuisine. Just the family-tested food that John Isopo’s parents brought to the United States from Italy in 1949.
You can order appetizers and side dishes, hot and cold subs, salads (like my exquisite antipasto), and stuffed breads. There are full dinners of chicken and veal, pasta and seafood. And of course, there is pizza. I watched servers bring long wood pallets with 28-inch pizzas to several tables. Mario’s Large Sicilian ($16.95) is served in-house only.
From food to service to ambiance Mario’s is the little Italian place that could — and still can.
Our dinners (and hence the cost listed above) were double what any sensible two people could had eaten. In a noble effort to acquire Mario’s “flavor,” we unintentionally over-ordered. Any two of our appetizers or entrees would have satisfied two appetites.