I felt as if I were taking friend Gail home to meet my family. The scent of garlic and Italian pastries hung temptingly in the air. Smiling women moved gracefully in flour-covered black aprons. Smiles and friendly chatter, greetings, goodbyes and warmth overrode the less obvious business transactions. A few green vinyl booths and small square tables, glass cases of Italian cookies and pastel gelato furnished the area. Civitello’s was an integral puzzle piece of Schenectady’s Little Italy.
It may be blasphemy to my Hungarian relatives, but Civitello’s on North Jay Street in Schenectady made me wish I were Italian.
Although emotions and aromas can be difficult to describe and even more difficult to explain, I shall try.
The limited menu of salads and sandwiches is posted on a mirror covering the wall at the far end of the room. A few specials are listed to the right. Despite fewer than 25 choices, the decision was difficult. Gail chose the roast beef sandwich with Swiss cheese, iceberg lettuce and mayonnaise. I chose the hot pastrami with Swiss cheese and mustard. Both were $9.
The sandwiches were made with freshly made Italian bread produced in Civitello’s kitchen. Both arrived quickly with a small bag of potato chips on paper plates with paper napkins but real tableware. The lack of fine china in no way interfered with the enjoyment of our meals. High-quality food, fresh and served with obvious pride overcame the lack of frills.
Gail reported that her thinly sliced rare roast beef sandwich had a hint of horseradish, which spiced it up without being overpowering. “The bread was just delicious-light and airy with a wonderful crispy crust,” she said.
Reliving an experience
“Growing up in Brooklyn,” she explained to me, “there were so many neighborhood family-run authentic Italian restaurants like this one. For me it seemed as if I was stepping back into that experience again.”
She continued, “The trays of cookies and sweets speak volumes about the hard work this family puts in every day to make this restaurant so warm, welcoming and delicious! Plus our conversation with the sisters [Roie and Bea] made it feel as if we had been invited to dinner in their home.”
The thought of having a pastrami sandwich on anything other than rye bread would never have occurred to me — that is until we had lunch at Civitello’s. I am guessing even layers of peanut butter and jelly on their Italian bread would be a gourmet treat.
The pastrami was warm and juicy with enough fat to make it flavorful. The sandwich itself was large enough to satisfy but not so big that it had to be wrapped to take home. My cappuccino ($2) was served steaming in a paper cup with a shaker of cinnamon on the side.
After gazing through the glass of the showcase like a kid in a candy store, I knew I had to have gelato for dessert. From the six flavors I chose a small dish of banana split that was punctuated by pieces of chocolate and ribbons of strawberry syrup. My taste buds, however, failed to detect any banana flavor.
Gail’s vanilla gelato appeared to be dotted with tiny specks of dark vanilla bean — the real deal. Served in a small green plastic bowl with a tiny neon plastic spoon, each serving was $4.
We did our best to avoid staring at the shelves of Italian pastries and cookies, knowing in our hearts that we would soon return to sample them. I did, however, pre-order a large tray of assorted Italian treats to bring to my family’s annual Thanksgiving dinner.
Sfogliatelle, my favorite luscious layered unpronounceable clam-shaped Italian pastry, filled with ricotta cheese resembling a marriage of vanilla cheesecake and custard, are apt to be sold out by noon.
I am told Civitello’s eggplant Parmesan, made on Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as their tomato pie, and lemon ice in the summer are among their most popular items. An enclosed patio with a fountain and picnic tables and occasional music adds to their summer charm.
Gail summarized our luncheon experience: “The affordability of good food [at Civitello’s] is a rare quality in this day and age. This restaurant makes it easy to follow my commitment to shop local and avoid the chain restaurants.”
Sfogliatelle and lobster claws are often confused. Lobster claws are slightly elongated and have a French cream filling, whereas Sfogliatelle, which are sometimes referred to as lobster tails, are filled with a drier less sweet ricotta filling. But what’s in a name? Both pastries are sold at Civitello’s and are heavenly.