Beverly Elander and Caroline Lee visited roughly 50 restaurants in the past year, then served up their impressions to Gazette readers.
“How can you possibly pick a handful of outstanding restaurants from the two dozen disparate places you reviewed this year?” a friend asked Beverly recently.
She explained, “I follow the advice of former New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells: Compare what the venue says it will do with what it actually does.”
Beverly’s top picks:
Bel Cibo Bistro, 96 Jay St., Schenectady, 631-9683
Jeanette Massaro’s cozy Bel Cibo Bistro, located opposite Schenectady City Hall, shines in part because it offers a lunch menu of well-prepared soups, paninis, flatbreads, salads and home-baked desserts from fresh ingredients served by friendly staff.
Creative paninis like Bacon, Pear and Gouda with garlic mayo are accompanied by a house-made side of salad (often macaroni). Wine and beer are available besides coffee, herbal teas and designer soft drinks at this smart downtown restaurant.
Ya Ya’s House of Southern Cuisine , 170 Lafayette St., Schenectady
Ya Ya’s House of Southern Cuisine, also located in downtown Schenectady, offers southern home cooking — the kind Ya Ya prepared in her own kitchen. The menu is definitely not sanctioned by Weight Watchers. A customer could quickly become a regular visitor to this small homey establishment. The menu includes fish, ribs, chicken, various sides and desserts, plus oxtails, turkey wings and legs, and macaroni and cheese on designated days.
Ya Ya’s food is meant to do more than sustain; it is a celebration of southern life.
Black & Blue Steak & Crab, 1470 Western Ave., Albany, 313-7388, www.blackandbluesteakandcrab.com
Black & Blue Steak and Crab is an elegant contemporary glass structure which appears to be misplaced on Central Avenue/Route 20 — as if a giant had plucked it from mid-city Dallas and placed it in the space where Coco’s used to be. Inside is even more impressive: lounge area/bar to the right, small private dining space to the left, and a floor-to-ceiling, 14-column wine rack behind glass stretching across the middle of the lobby area, accessible by an internal spiral staircase. Three dining rooms were partially hidden by the hundreds of bottles of wine vertically stacked like a soft drink vending machine.
A highlight of the evening was my fork-tender boneless short ribs ($33.75) served with blue cheese-laced mashed potatoes and thick rings of sweet Vidalia onion rings piled atop the meat under the shade of a miniature rosemary tree. Black and Blue is a perfect destination for intimate celebrations.
Armondo’s Villa Tuscan Grille, located just past Rotterdam’s Five Corners, feels as if it has been located there for decades, although it has been only a little over a year since Hostess/Manager Joanne Aragosa and Owner/Chef d’Cuisine Armondo Cioccke took it over from the previous owner. Family recipes presented with Armondo’s flair both intrigue and satisfy the palate. My favorite is the chef’s Hot Antipasto — an inspired combination of littleneck clams, shrimp, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, eggplant, roasted red and green peppers, and hot cherry peppers, finished with sherry wine and Armondo’s classic marinara sauce and topped with mozzarella cheese.
Civitello’s Italian Pastry Shoppe, 42 N. Jay St., Schenectady, 381-6165, civitellos.com
Civitello’s Italian Pastry has been thriving on Jay Street in Schenectady’s Little Italy for nearly a century. And no wonder. The exquisite pastries fashioned by the three Angerami sisters — Angela, Bea and Roie — attract followers of all ages and travelers from out of state. The effervescent sisters themselves, friendly staff, fabulous sandwiches (made on their house-made bread), salads and half dozen flavors of gelato made at Civitello’s pull in not only visitors from afar but also regulars who have loved the neighborhood restaurant since they were kids.
The Appian Way, 1839 Van Vranken Ave., Schenectady, 393-8460
We occasionally take treasures like the Appian Way on Van Vranken Avenue in Schenectady for granted. Chef/Owners — and sisters — Gina and Anna Mantova prepare all the food, from the house-cured meats to the bread and pasta, to the gelato. The evening childhood friend John and I visited, Gina’s son Salvatore and a fire in the large wood burning fireplace kept us comfortable so we could enjoy the dining experience to its fullest.
Our favorite course was the house-cured antipasto — a medium-size but densely packed plate of assorted in-house cured meats and pickled vegetables, mushrooms, roasted red peppers, cured black olives, fresh cantaloupe, and imported cheese drizzled with olive oil made from the olives grown on the family property in Italy.
May 2017 bring us another year full of gastronomic delights to enjoy and write about.
Caroline’s top picks:
The Ginger Man, 234 Western Avenue, Albany, 427-5963, www.albanygingerman.com
The Ginger Man restaurant in Albany’s Pine Hills neighborhood isn’t satisfied with just beautiful and delicious food, they go one better and put a terrific sauce on it. The servers here wear a confident, small smile particular to employees at very good restaurants who know you’re in for something special. Their chicken roulade was one of the best dishes I’ve eaten. Ever. Impossibly good food locally sourced, a wide and deep wine list and excellent service make for an extraordinary experience at this Pine Hills institution.
Chez Nous, 707 Union Street, Schenectady, 344-6393, www.cheznousschenectady.com
“Life doesn’t get any better than this,” said husband Eric, sipping the last of a perfect martini after finishing medium-rare chateaubriand with demi glace and various glorious accompaniments. Chez Nous makes French food accessible and uncomplicated, also outstanding, in a beautifully restored Victorian house on Union Street. Along with polished, professional service you’ll enjoy exacting preparations of traditional dishes like fricassee de poulet a l’agevine, coquilles St. Jacques, and escargot. Try them out midweek, when they offer their prix fixe menu. It will be l’amour à la première bouchée — love at first bite.
Innovo Kitchen, 1214 Troy Schenectady Road (Route 7), Latham, 608-1466, www.innovokitchen.com
Innovo Kitchen is different from ordinary restaurants. For instance, their lemon raspberry cake is the best dessert I’ve had in years, hands-down. The decor is smartly Industrial chic and sleek, but the menu is in plain language, with simple food taken to new heights. Burgers come with fries cooked in duck fat, there’s Parmesan Tater Tots, confit chicken wings, and pork buns. Their fresh-made breads and in-house cured meats and smoked fish make them extraordinary. We liked the place even before they brought out the chocolate bark with almonds along with the check.
U mundo E Ca, 98 Wolf Road, Colonie, 489-0089
The finest Italian food imported from places all over the world is here, but what I remember is the delicious smell of homemade Italian cooking and the warm and friendly service we got at this small restaurant-store. Fresh-made sausage, mozzarella and great home-style cooking would be welcome anywhere, but it’s remarkable to find on Wolf Road. Try it for lunch, with hot and cold heroes and panini sandwiches and San Pellegrino sodas, or bring home a meal of heavenly U Mundo lasagna or veal Parm with salad and bread. It’s a hidden gem, around the corner from the Hannaford store in Windsor Plaza on Wolf Road, it’s an oasis in a real-food desert.
Napolidon, 1614 Central Avenue, Albany, 389-6390, www.napolidon.com
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. It’s 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. Enjoy their casual, though beautifully prepared, Italian food and wood-fired pizza with accompaniment by Frank Sinatra. They make a beautiful antipasto, and their own veal stock for sauces you could eat with a spoon. Leave room for homemade desserts, if you can.