A recent lunch at Bel Cibo Bistro on Jay Street in downtown Schenectady evolved into a cross between a grand opening, a college reunion and a birthday party with choruses of congratulations and rounds of hugs. The Bistro had recently reopened after a nine-month hiatus caused by smoke and water damage.
The large, bright squarish space on the corner of Jay and Franklin sported floor to ceiling windows on the front and side, which allowed lumens of natural light to flood the restaurant.
Four round tables were placed on platforms in front of the windows. Eight higher-topped tables were spaced around the floor at street level, making room for 48 diners. The cash register stood on the far right, while a door to the specialty foods area (Bel Cibo 96 Provisions) was to the left.
Server Danielle, sporting an amazing necklace (you need to see it for yourself) came with Leslie’s coffee with a small old-fashioned milk bottle of cream, and my lemon ginger herbal tea.
The one-page laminated menu consisted of three types of sandwiches (paninis, wraps and flatbreads, $8.95-9.95), plus a variety of dinner plate-sized salads for $9.50. A large board also announced two special paninis (Turkey Reuben and Italian Meats), as well as two soup specials — Lemon Chix Orzo and Butternut Squash ($4.95).
On the boards with the specials of the day was a request: “Please be patient with us as we are getting our sea legs back.” It appeared to Leslie and to me that owner Jeanette Massaro and her able staff were doing just fine after being open (again) for only a little over a week.
Leslie ordered the cranberry chicken salad wrap with grapes and walnuts, along with the pear and walnut salad (thinly sliced pears, candied walnuts with blue cheese crumbles with baby lettuce dressed with balsamic vinaigrette). When the salad arrived, she recognized that it could have stood alone as lunch. Joyful overkill.
Also a meal by itself, the wrap (it feels like a couple of pounds, exclaimed Leslie) was accompanied by a side of macaroni salad dotted with bright dried cranberries. Half of each ample dish went happily home with Leslie.
My butternut soup was delivered steaming and came with a warning from Danielle: Careful, it’s HOT! The soup, more like a thick puree, had a hint of nutmeg and sweetness. As I reached for the pepper, more out of habit that need, I realized there was neither salt nor pepper on the table. I often interpret the omission as a sign of the chef’s arrogance, as if the say my food is so exquisitely seasoned it requires nothing additional. In this case, Chef Craig’s attitude was not arrogance but a correct assessment of his cooking.
Like Leslie, I over-ordered. The Chopped Waldorf Salad consisted of a balanced blend of the traditional Waldorf salad (apples, grapes and candied walnuts) with marinated chicken breast and romaine lettuce with adequate lemon aioli dressing to blend the ingredients together as a unit.
I realized halfway through my salad that my panini had not yet arrived. Danielle hurried back to the kitchen and returned to apologize. It had simply been forgotten. How refreshing to receive a straight explanation with an apology.
The Italian meats (salami, pepperoni, capicola) panini was worth the wait. Toasted crispy with prominent grill marks outside, warm internally with melted provolone, tomato and seasoned with pesto mayo and garlic mayo, it was a panini fit for a pedestal.
Tableware consisted of both disposable and “real” items. For example, coffee cups were china while most plates were disposable. This posed absolutely no problem for me.
All through lunch, Leslie and I kept eyeing the small glass cases of cupcakes. Cupcakes!
So we were surprised and delighted when owner Jeanette came out from behind the counter with a vanilla frosted chocolate cupcake for us to share and an apology for forgetting the panini. The frosting was the real deal — the kind you’d like for licking the bowl.
Bel Cibo’s is off to a glowing start. Sunday brunch and prix-fixe dinners are in the offing. A comedy show is scheduled for Feb. 13, with one a month planned. Live jazz is being discussed (Jeanette’s dad is jazz singer Bobby Massaro). The specialty foods section is growing. Take-out and deliveries are already in place.
Leslie summed up our experience succinctly, “I’m very happy.”