Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Hidden Gem

My wife and I had an evening without our little one. Usually we eat out when we don't have our daughter, it allows us to eat anywhere we want without worrying if the restaurant is kid friendly, and whether there's something she'll like on the menu.

We had a hard time trying to decide where to go. It was a beautiful evening, and my wife suggested we eat somewhere that has a patio. So the search began. I remembered All Over Albany has an outdoor dining map. Unfortunately, their list is getting out of date, and none of the restaurants on there appealed to us that night anyway.

What I really wanted, was to eat someplace a little unique, someplace small and out of the way. We racked our brains and bandied about some ideas, but came up with nothing. I turned to yelp.

The idea to have Italian came up, and I started searching yelp for an Italian restaurant. It pains me to say it, but the Albany area, with some exceptions, is a wasteland of mediocrity when it comes to Italian-American food. But thankfully, I did find a place that caught my eye, and looked on paper at least, to be making good food.

E.K.'s Cibo in Schenectady.

It has only 5 reviews on yelp. All 5 of them 5 stars. All of them raving about the place, yet I'd never heard of it. But I immediately became skeptical. I'm just so bored with Italian-American fare. It's all the same. From one to next there's not a lot of difference. But I looked at the menu and it's small, with a couple of interesting items on it. Most Italian-American restaurants have huge, sprawling menus. Then I looked at some pictures of the food. The food looked really good. So we decided to take a chance and check the place out.

E.K.'s is in a strip mall on Chrysler Ave, and if you're not looking for it, you'll never see it. It's a bit hidden. And well, it's in a strip mall surrounded by a bunch of other typical strip mall businesses. The restaurant is small, with a small bar and a couple of tables in the bar area, and a small dining room off to the right.

When we were seated our waitress brought out a small dish of balsamic and olive oil with some slivered shallots in it. When the bread arrived I was pleasantly surprised. The bread was really good. Dense, chewy, with a flavorful, crunchy crust. That was a good sign. So many Italian restaurants completely blow it on the bread. They serve what amounts to wonder bread pretending to be Italian bread: soft, spongy, and bland. We asked the waitress where the bread came from, and she said they get it from a bakery in New Jersey. By the way, the bread also came with a good sized cup of softened butter. I hate those little butter packets most places give you, they're so tacky, and they're always rock hard. Bravo E.K.'s!

Our entree's came with salad. Like the bread in most Italian-American restaurants, the salad is an afterthought. It's usually flavorless iceberg lettuce, drenched in a gloppy, industrial tasting Italian dressing. This salad was better, romaine instead of iceberg with a big hunk of roasted red pepper, among other veggies, (and no canned black olives!) Yay! The Italian dressing though was the star of the show and it was fabulous. I knew right away it had to be made in house, there's no way something that good comes out of a bottle.

So again, I asked, and the waitress said yes, it's made in house, and she added, "He showed me everything that goes into to it, and it's a lot." It's creamy, with lots of herbs, fresh garlic and shallots, and the perfect amount of acidity. It's worth a trip to E.K.'s just to have the Italian dressing. I wanted to get a glass of the stuff and drink it. I later spoke to the chef, and he said he makes all his dressings in house, except for the ranch. My suggestion to him: take the ranch off the menu. If the other house made dressings are as good as the Italian, he doesn't need the bottled ranch on the menu.

Excellent bread, and a fantastic house made Italian dressing. So far the meal exceeded my expectations. At this point I couldn't wait for my entree, my hopes were very high, and the anticipation was killing me.

I ordered the pappardelle with bolognese sauce. It did not disappoint. It arrived to the table piping hot, topped with grated cheese and fresh parsley. (Thank you for not sprinkling the parsley all over the plate).

Damn, it's delicious. I loved it. I could taste the wine in it. It had big chunks of a very mild sausage, and diced carrots, which were al dente and not mushy. The pappardelle was cooked perfectly too, and it was tender and a little silky, like good homemade pasta is. I don't know if it's made fresh, I forgot to ask, but you could fool me into thinking it is.

My wife ordered the tagliatelle with seasonal vegetables, their take on pasta primavera. She was not a huge fan of it, but I thought it was delicious. It was loaded with vegetables in a very light lemon/garlic/butter sauce. It had far more veggies than pasta, which I liked, and the whole dish came together wonderfully.

I'd like to get back and try his red sauce. I'm generally not a fan of the long cooked Italian 'gravy' most restaurants serve. I prefer something that tastes more of fresh tomatoes, that's cooked for a shorter time. I'm hoping his sauce leans toward the latter.

Finally! I've found an Italian-American restaurant that's elevating itself above the sea of mediocre red-sauce joints that litter the Albany area.

They're doing a lot of things right, like the excellent bread, the house made dressings, and the limited menu. But it's not perfect, I'm not a fan of the carpet in the dining room, and I worry that there may be some other items on the menu not made from scratch. Nevertheless, everything I had was very good, fresh, and certainly better than you're going to find at most typical red-sauce joints.

If you're in the Schenectady area, and are looking for Italian-American food, definitely check E.K.'s Cibo out. Hell, if you're looking for good Italian-American food period, E.K.'s Cibo is worth the trip.




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