SCHENECTADY — Maybe it’s because it’s the holiday season and everyone is putting in a bit more effort. Maybe it’s because patrons and staff were dressed up a bit more than usual. Grano, the new restaurant on State Street, looked terrific the night we visited, raising our expectations for the food and raising the bar. We were not disappointed.
Grano, in the space previously occupied by Aperitivo Bistro, is effortlessly stylish, and that night the atmosphere hummed with energy. Though the dining rooms were half full, reverberations made it feel buzzy. “I feel like I’m somewhere,” I told my friend Patrice.
A gentleman with a pleasant voice was crooning holiday songs in the bar and dining room. “Uh, oh, he’s roaming,” observed Patrice as we waited for our table. The host, noticing we didn’t care to be serenaded, led us to the other dining room.
When it opened in July, The Gazette reported that the restaurant is owned by Armondo Cioccke and Danny Petrosino, who are also chef-owners of Osteria Danny in Saratoga Springs and Armondo’s Villa Tuscan Grill in Rotterdam. They have deep roots in the region: Cioccke is a Schenectady native, and Petrosino was born and raised in Amsterdam. Both have contributed to — and improved — the Schenectady restaurant scene.
Grano’s decor is minimal and elegant, with padded banquettes and wood tables; black-and-white tile floor and exposed brick walls; and stylish details in smart-looking lighting and simply framed pictures.
Grano specializes in handmade pasta, grilled meats and seafood, and small plates. They feature local cheeses and a flexible menu that varies every few weeks. Prices are reasonable, and entrees include a salad and fantastic crusty bread.
It’s a simple menu that hits the familiar Italian themes with meatballs and veal Parm, and the small plates make grazing and sampling easy. Carnivores can get the full grilled ribeye experience and vegetarians can choose from freshly made rigatoni, spaghetti and fettuccine, among others.
We started with an order of Grano meatballs ($12) that were beefy and tender, topped with tangy house marinara that gets your attention. The bonus slice of garlic bread is thin, like a cracker but saturated with flavor. We broke off small pieces to make it last, dragging them through the sauce.
We also had an order of lemon basil ricotta fritters ($12) that were fresh and hot, with a minimal crust that was tasty but got out of the way so that the focus was on the soft interior. There was a strong, bright lemon note and we were surprised to find a kick of heat we couldn’t ignore. “The aioli calms it down,” observed Patrice. I tried another and it totally did. Each made the other better.
The lightly pickled tangle of vegetables on the plate tasted a little vinegary, but they weren’t quite flavorful enough and a little droopy. “Not a lot of flavor,” said Patrice. I liked them, but they could have been better — and usually probably are.
Our salads consisted of baby greens with small tomatoes, cucumber and red onion, all bite-sized, thank you. Their house red wine vinaigrette was smooth and creamy, the color of strawberry ice cream and tangy. The red wine vinegar was tempered by a little sweetness. I could taste the red wine vinegar, but it wasn’t overpowering.
Patrice, a good Italian girl raised in Albany, gave high marks to Grano’s braciole ($22). It was Schenectady-Italian-restaurant-size, meaning big enough for two. Or more. The flavor of the beef was admirably amped up with sausage. Their version is extremely thin and served over spaghetti with more of that marinara.
“Braciole can be tough,” said Patrice. “And it’s got a bit of a kick. Maybe it’s from the sausage,” she mused. She said the sauce was delicious. “Wow, this is really good,” she said, approvingly.
Now that I have finally gotten the coating just right, I can appreciate their excellent chicken Francaise ($22). The batter was eggy and perfect, the chicken tender. If the white meat was pounded thin, it would be even better. Still, an excellent dish with a pool of rich, thick and flavorful buttery sauce. Along with the creamy rice, it made for a luxurious dish. I only finished half, but I used up almost all the sauce, turning each piece over on all sides to coat it.
The broccoli rabe had just the right amount of bitterness, and points to them for getting it cooked but still leaving a bit of crunch.
You’ll want to leave room for dessert. All the choices that night were made in-house, and it was a tough decision, but the server made it for us, steering us toward the banana cream pie ($10).
We were almost full, but went back to finish off the rest of the delicious bread while we waited for dessert and for the server to make a fresh pot of decaf for Patrice. Then we were amazed by the banana cream pie.
Bananas are funny: The longer they ripen, the more flavor they have. The flavor of Grano’s banana filling was really concentrated. “Damn,” said Patrice who doesn’t swear, after taking a bite. “That’s one of the better things I’ve ever eaten.”
I agreed. The filling was intensely banana-flavored and just a little tangy, so delicious it commanded all my attention. A bit of caramel on the plate had a strong flavor that was a little nutty, a little toasty. “It adds another note,” said Patrice. “It really makes the dish.”
It was a dramatic end to a fine meal. Our server was friendly and efficient, and steered us through the menu, offering suggestions throughout the meal. Most impressive, though, was the kitchen, which made the food look effortless.
WHERE: 426 State St., Schenectady; 518-280-3059; grano schenectady.com
WHEN: 4 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
HOW MUCH: $103.48 with tax and tip
MORE INFO: Credit cards: Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover. Children’s menu. Parking on street or in public lots