SCHENECTADY — “It’s my wife’s birthday,” said Kenny Hoffman, who was waiting last week to pick up dinner-to-go at Johnny’s on State Street. “I always take her to Johnny’s.”
But not this year. With the spread of COVID-19, restaurants are trying to adapt to changing circumstances and reduced revenues. Gone are the large parties and tabs. Now there’s takeout. Hopefully it will carry them through.
The Hoffmans were going to her mother’s house, just a small group, with takeout from Johnny’s. “We usually have 10 people here,” he said, nodding toward the darkened dining room. “Drinks and all, it’s actually saving me money.”
Johnny’s has made it easy to order. I called the day before, gave them my credit card information and selected a time to pick the order up.
Johnny’s, like many other places, limits what you can order from the regular menu. But it also offers dinners for four to go, with a choice of three entrees — chicken parmigiana, 10 meatballs, or eggplant rollatini — plus a house salad with Johnny’s house Italian dressing, bread and four cannoli. On Fridays until Easter there are fish specials.
“Stay home and feed your family of four!” shouted the ad that showed up in husband Eric’s email a few days ago. It tempted, especially since they have wine and beer to go — Copper Ridge Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon for $10, or Josh Cabernet Sauvignon for $24, a steal. Bottled beer goes for $4; nothing fancy, but hey, it’s beer and it’s right there with your dinner.
We showed up at the appointed time to find manager Dylan at the checkout counter and neatly arranged bottles of wine on the counter. The restaurant, normally spirited and full of energy, was silent, with chairs stacked on tables.
Enticing boxes of chocolate, lined up next to the wine bottles, were from The Cocobar, opened in 2017 by Olivia Mallozzi. At $8.99 each, it would be easy to add them, in cute brown tote bags, to your order.
In the couple of minutes it took Amanda to retrieve our order, we chatted with Dylan. How was business? “Busy, especially on the weekends,” he replied. If they’re scrambling it doesn’t show, because everything was organized.
While we didn’t add the chocolates, we had opted for the $10 bottle of Copper Ridge Cabernet and added a tip. In return we got a big brown box and a plastic grocery bag, with the bottle of wine to go. By this point, other folks also were waiting for their orders, all respectfully standing 6 feet apart.
Johnny’s made it easy to transport, even with the wine bottle. I could have handled the chocolates, too.
Inside the box were two large aluminum covered trays called half pans, the kind we’re getting used to with takeout meals these days. One held the chicken parmigiana, the other, a gargantuan pile of rigatoni with Pomodoro sauce. The pasta and sauce clocked in at nearly five pounds on my kitchen scale.
We started, as usual, with the crisp green salad and bread. The bread was dense and chewy, freshly baked, flour-dusted, with cornmeal on the bottom.
“Wow, good,” said Eric as he drowned his salad in dressing. “I really like the dressing,” he explained. I did, too. Johnny’s homemade Italian dressing is tangy, with tiny red bits and other spices. It’s emulsified, which means it doesn’t separate somehow, and makes it easier to apply evenly. The greens were fresh, different kinds of colorful leaves along with grape tomatoes, julienned carrots and thin slices of very wonderful marinated red onion. “It’s delicious,” Eric said.
The half pan with pasta was filled to the brim, cooked just right, mixed with their delicious pulpy Pomodoro sauce, and topped with grated cheese and chopped parsley. Their sauce is tangy — it carries a lot of flavor with it.
The other pan held 11 pieces of chicken parmigiana, each topped with melted mozzarella and sauce. It was attractively arranged, topped with a sprinkling of chopped parsley. You can see they’re trying to make it as appealing as possible.
Not that eye appeal is needed; the food stands on its own. Even though we’d driven home and kept it warm for an hour before we ate, the breading was still in place on the chicken and the mozzarella was melty, almost creamy. You get all the parts in one bite. Johnny’s uses good chicken, a nice change from chewy, dried-at-the edges stuff we’ve had elsewhere lately. Eric had three pieces, I had two and we could have eaten more. It was that good.
If you’re wondering what we did with all that food, we shared with our neighbors. I sent a large portion to Dennis and Dawn, and a smaller one to Sue. Dawn is particular about things. Later, she texted me: “The chicken was perfectly breaded and the sauce was spicy and the right thickness. The pasta was perfectly cooked for both of us.” Dawn gave high marks to the sauce. She compared it favorably with her own, which she makes with whole tomatoes. Sue: “Chicken and pasta very tender. Cooked perfectly. Delicious sauce.”
Bread and desserts are from Villa Italia, another downtown Mallozzi property. The cannoli shells were still crunchy later when we ate them. “Wonderful,” said Eric. “Crisp, and sweet.” He liked the chocolate chips. Dennis absolutely loved them. He ate two and said they tasted so fresh.
We’ve gotten takeout from a few different places with mixed results. One place gave us the wrong, soggy pizza. Another’s chicken parmigiana fell short of what we’re used to, basically a compromise for getting takeout.
Many restaurants are still adjusting to the suddenly critical takeout market the best way they know how. We want to support them, but we also want good food. Johnny’s food is not a compromise.
After dinner, Eric topped off his cabernet. “It’s good wine,” he said. “I’m pleasantly surprised.” Copper Ridge Cabernet is rated 3.3 out of 5 on Vivino.com. It’s an inexpensive table wine, but they don’t hate it. “Good value for money. Similar wines usually cost 80 percent more.”
We’d all rather be out to dinner — Kenny and his wife and big family, the Mallozzis, all of us. In the meantime we can make the best of things by supporting restaurants that offer takeout. Buy gift cards, top off the takeout with some drinks and don’t forget to tip.
WHERE: 433 State St.,
Schenectady; (518) 982-5657; johnnysdowntown.com
WHEN: 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Open at 10 a.m. to take orders
HOW MUCH: $40 for dinner,
$64 with wine, tax and tip
MORE INFO: ADA compliant. Delivery through Grubhub and DoorDash, though restrictions apply. Credit cards: Mastercard,
Visa, American Express, Discover. Parking on street.