ALBANY — You might think it’s a part of a chain, but it’s not. Napoli Don is polished in concept, service and design, but that’s due to hard work and good preparation, not because it’s part of some carefully cultivated corporate plan. Good for them.
The locally owned restaurant that occupies the space in the Howard Johnson hotel on Central Avenue is bright and fresh-looking, with a wall of high windows across the front dressed with diaphanous sheers in contrast to heavy wood trim.
WHERE: 1614 Central Ave., Albany, 389-6390, www.napolidon.com
WHEN: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 12 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $77 for food, before tax and tip
MORE INFO: Children’s menu. Credit cards: Master Card, Visa, American Express, Discover. Wheelchair accessible. Parking lot.
The dining room is bisected by a set of stairs, one side with a view of Central Avenue, the other separated from the kitchen by an illuminated low wall topped with candelabra that let you know that they don’t take themselves too seriously. There’s ample room between tables and the sturdy wood chairs are padded to keep you comfortable throughout your meal. I liked the wood floors, handsome coffered ceiling and white tablecloths under glass.
Virginia and I were shown a table by the window while Frank Sinatra sang. Our server was ready to help us the minute we sat down and attended us effortlessly throughout the meal. “We trained for a month,” she told us, evidence of good planning.
Napoli Don touts its casual Italian food and wood-fired pizza. I have to disagree with them about casual; it’s anything but, and though it may be casually prepared, it’s sophisticated and their well-thought out dishes are expertly executed.
The menu is comprehensive without spreading the kitchen too thin. Five classic preparations of chicken and three of veal traverse the map of Italy: Caprese, Sorrento, Parma. Pasta dishes range in price from $16 for wood-fired cheese ravioli or pasta with meatballs or sausage, to $30 for seafood pescatore, made with a whole lobster tail, among other fruits of the sea.
For those who like steak, they have a 14-ounce Angus strip and an 8-ounce filet prepared several ways ($24 to $30, including potato and vegetable or pasta). Wood-fired pizzas ($10 to $17) are thin-crust and cooked directly on the floor of the oven.
We started with the beautiful Napoli plate ($12), slices of hard cheese, a variety of olives and roasted red peppers served with cheesy thin slices of the same wonderful freshly baked ciabatta served with seasoned olive oil served before the meal.
Virginia, my Italian food expert from Utica, approved of the bowl of pasta e fagioli ($6), a mildly spicy tomato broth with pieces of tomato and onion, white beans and ditalini pasta.
I liked the garden salad ($4) very much, with impeccable mesclun lettuce, sliced reasonably ripe tomato, whole black olives, thinly sliced red onion topped with a pile of grated mozzarella cheese. It was lovely, as was the slightly sweet balsamic vinaigrette, but the big pile of cheese would have filled me up, and I reluctantly left most behind.
Getting it right
Napoli Don gets it right with the veal scallopini ($23), tender medallions that rendered the hefty steak knife obsolete. “The flavor is so unusual but it’s outstanding,” Virginia said. It comes from long-cooked veal stock, but the lemon white wine butter sauce, sun-dried tomatoes, capers and scallions didn’t hurt any. “I would have that sauce over pasta without any veal. It was fantastic,” she said.
Their shrimp scampi ($22) served over house-made tagliatelle puts others to shame. Five massive shrimp were tossed in a butter, lemon, garlic and wine sauce enriched with grated cheese. Each flavor came through and a few lemon pits assured me they used the real thing. In addition there were fresh vegetables: chopped tomato and onion and scallion and red pepper, all picked up the sauce beautifully. The vegetables were so fresh, the pasta soft and just made, and the sauce rich with cheese and butter. It was outstanding, about the best I’ve had.
All desserts are homemade, so leave room. They also hit all the right notes, like deconstructed cannoli, tiramisu, New York style cheesecake. We ordered the plate of homemade Italian cookies ($10), which tasted like they came from an Italian bakery — and a good one. There were two kinds of biscotti, raspberry jam-filled spritz fingers dipped in chocolate and sprinkles and awesome black-and-whites that got the icing just right. Bravo.
The tab for this gargantuan meal came to $77 before tax and tip.
Napoli Don is of the new generation of Italian restaurants, bright, splashy, with big plates of food, but it’s old-fashioned in its dedication to authentic flavor. There’s a good chain Italian restaurant across the street. If you’re thinking of heading there, think again and think local. Given a choice, I’d go to Napoli Don.