Since we were dining unfashionably early, there were plenty of parking places on North Jay Street in front of Cornell’s Restaurant in Little Italy. Before we were even in the front door, we were enthusiastically greeted by two staff members at the hostess station situated at the top of a gradually inclined ramp adjacent to a short set of steps.
I had requested a table in the small room in front where the bar is located because the space had always seemed cozier to me. There are two other dining rooms as well as a small banquet room.
We were seated immediately at a small table next to the partition that separates the actual bar from the dining area of about a dozen tables and booths.
Deena, our server with an engaging smile, brought us menus along with a short list of the day’s specials.
A small bottle of Saratoga Olive Oil decorated the crisp white tablecloth. A black metal breadbasket lined with a Merlot napkin filled with home-baked bread (from Perreca’s or Tribeca Bakery according to the menu) soon appeared.
The two-sided laminated menu was divided into five general areas: Antipasti, Minestra and Insalata, Secondi (Macaroni), Contorni (side dishes), and Entrata (entrees) further divided into meat, poultry, fish and beef. Descriptions read like well-written prose, making choosing difficult.
With more than a dozen appetizers ranging in price from $8 to $15, we nibbled on crusty bread and finally decided on two — the Risotto of the Day ($8) with short lengths of asparagus, and fried Brussels sprouts ($10) tossed with walnuts, Romano and ribboned with aioli.
John’s risotto was creamy but properly al dente, and he remarked with a smile “It’s exactly what I wanted! I loved it when I was in Milan, Italy [and I love it as much now].” My little hemispheres of Brussels sprouts were seared but still crisp-tender green with a touch of creamy pale lemony aioli.
There was plenty to share and still some to take home.
With great deliberation John settled on one of the day’s specials, sautéed sea scallops, ($24) with roasted cauliflower and roasted red peppers set on a bed of penne pasta. After finishing his meal he vowed, “there is liquid in the bottom of this plate and it’s not going back to the kitchen!” Whereupon he placed a single slice of bread in the bottom of the dish, leaving it until it became saturated. Cutting the bread into bite-size pieces, he enjoyed his entrée literally to the last drop.
I tend to be a creature of habit, but after studying Cornell’s menu I decided to be adventurous. Spaghetti with crab and chilies ($24) intrigued me. It was a combination I had not previously experienced and since I liked all the ingredients I thought, what could be wrong?
And I was right.
Small strips of banana peppers, red onion and crab were tossed in a light tomato wine sauce with spaghetti and seasoned with a sprinkling of chili flakes. Twirly pasta acted like so many fingers picking up the ingredients. One did not have to work to create a balanced mouthful of heaven complete with a touch of heat.
Focus on dessert
After the dishes were quickly cleared from the table, Deena delivered the dessert menus. I ordered an espresso ($4) and we studied the menu with deep concentration. All Dolci (desserts) are $8.
Deena advised me that the zeppole (cinnamon sugar coated spherical fritters with salted Carmel dipping sauce) would be perfect with my hot espresso.
John chose the Limoncello Flute — lemon gelato swirled with Limoncello liqueur. It was light and not too sweet — a perfect ending for a perfect meal.
Cornell’s is a restaurant that has boasted a fine reputation since 1943. Executive chef Mike Pietrocola has fine-tuned the menu to include creative dishes such as Shrimp Luciano ($10), Spedini alla Romana ($8), Cornell’s Homemade Cavatelli ($22) and Garofalo’s Hot Italian Sausage in Red Sauce ($8), Maple Leaf Farms Duck Scaloppini ($26), along with out-of-the-ordinary desserts like Toscanella (puff pastry, pastry cream and Chantilly cream with orange cubes, cream puffs and a chocolate ribbon).
At one point during the evening, owners/hosts Connie and Jack Hume visited tables to chat with diners. An exciting menu, skillfully prepared food and excellent service in a gracious Tuscan setting, upscale without being pretentious, guarantee frequent visits to Cornell’s will be a certainty.
I noticed that Chef Pietrocola used aioli (literally, garlic and oil) in a number of his dishes.
Similar to mayonnaise, aioli is prepared from garlic pounded to a paste and whisked into egg yolk, lemon juice, mustard and olive oil. My hunch is it would elevate any food (from hard-cooked eggs to vegetables to fish) several notches above ordinary.
WHERE: 39 N. Jay St., Schenectady, 370-3828 www.cornellsrestaurant.com
WHEN: Tue.-Thur. 5-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-10 p.m., Sun. 4-8 p.m., Mon. closed
HOW MUCH: $84.00 for two people without tax and tip
MORE INFO: Accessible, parking on street and in private lot, all major credit cards accepted, reservations suggested (www.opentable.com), outside patio available in warm weather, private banquet room