SCHENECTADY We denizens of the Capital Region just can’t get enough Italian food. Johnny’s is new and it’s hopping, as diners embrace another Mallozzi restaurant.
We arrived before the rush, when the bar in the front room was bustling but the dining room was just coming to life. Be sure to make a reservation — I called two days ahead.
It’s so conveniently located to Proctors that we could read the marquee from the dining room. We noticed tables of mostly dressed-up women, and concluded that they were probably enjoying an early dinner before going to a show. Our server said that diners attending Proctors usually show up between 5:30 and 6 p.m.
The atmosphere at Johnny’s is sophisticated and fun. The dining room is warm and sleek, with what my teacher friend Lisa called “pasta tutorials” on the walls: oversized black-and-white line drawings of pasta shapes with descriptions beneath.
WHERE: 433 State St., Schenectady, 982-5657, www.johnnysdowntown.com
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday for lunch; 5 to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday for dinner; closed Sunday, except when certain shows are at Proctors
HOW MUCH: $66.70, with tax and tip
MORE INFO: Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express. Children’s menu. Reservations recommended.
The dining room is separated into sections with a divider. It has tables that can be pushed together and, along the walls, some booths. We were lucky enough to get a table at the wall of windows overlooking Jay Street, which made for awesome people-watching.
Bread and olive oil
In short order, a basket of flour-dusted ciabatta arrived, served with a strong-tasting green olive oil that the server decanted onto a small plate. The bread, with its characteristic large holes, had a brittle crust and moist interior and it was very fresh, but wasn’t very flavorful.
It won’t interfere if you’re using it to help sop up sauce, but it doesn’t quite hold its own. I brought home two slices and can tell you it’s much improved when toasted and slathered with butter, but for table bread it falls a bit flat.
There’s a lot to choose from, but the menu is not overwhelming. Of the antipasti, there’s ubiquitous fried calamari ($9.95), but also that old-school favorite clams casino ($8.95). We toyed with the idea of ordering arancini, deep-fried breaded risotto balls stuffed with ground beef and peas ($9.95). Chicken parm will set you back $15.95 at Johnny’s, reasonable enough so that you can still dine well after paying for your theater ticket. Add a salad for $1.95 more. I would have preferred a lighter, less robust Pinot Grigio than the house brand, but at $6 a glass, I had two. Except for a few seafood dishes, the entrees are under $20.
You have to be a little insane to order Johnny’s Italian Nachos ($9.95). Deep-fried lengths of pasta serve as nachos and the usual suspects, olives and chopped fresh tomatoes are accompanied by red onion and chunks of sweet Italian sausage. I didn’t notice much mozzarella; there were no strings of cheese trailing as I pulled a nacho from the bowl, but I didn’t care because the whole thing was covered with Alfredo sauce.
The first bite was of the crunchy pasta, softened slightly in places where the Alfredo sauce had soaked in. This is crazy American food; who else would top fried pasta with sausage and Alfredo sauce? We made an impressive dent in it and guiltily wished for even more sauce. We especially liked the sweet Italian sausage, walnut-sized pieces you had to split with your fork, fried until the fat turned slightly sticky, and covered in Alfredo sauce. Crazy, and crazy good.
I couldn’t decide on my entree, so I asked the server what was popular. The filet medallions Madagascar in Cognac sauce ($18.95), she said, and the sausage and eggplant Capri al Vincenzo ($16.95). The fennel and anise flavors lingered, and I wanted more of that sausage.
It was a good choice, although the sausage performed better the first time around. Now it was formed into two patties, topped with layers of thinly sliced breaded eggplant, marinara sauce and melted cheese. It was an impressive mound, easily enough food for two, covered with tempting-looking melted cheese with toasty brown spots from broiling.
The sausage patties necessitated a knife, there was no fork-splitting now. The eggplant layers slid here and there while I tried to get at the sausage. It was a delicious dinner, and one I’d be proud to produce myself, but I think it would work better with pieces of sausage instead of sturdy patties.
I don’t know how they got Mom’s recipe for marinara sauce, it tasted just like it but they added a bit more salt. Johnny’s pasta is homemade on premises every day, a delight for those of us who love soft, silky fresh pasta, and at over an inch wide, the papardelle was luxurious and wonderful.
Soaking up the sauce
Lisa ordered shrimp scampi ($17.95), which came served on a colossal white plate with a deep bowl in the center which held the entire entree. Johnny’s knows that oversized plates add extravagance and glamour, which is part of the fun of eating out. The scampi was delicious, made with five enormous shrimp in a white wine and butter sauce served over tagliatelle.
“The sauce is thicker than you’d expect,” Lisa said, “I like that.” She enjoyed it very much, and noticed the same thing that I did about fresh pasta: It soaks up the sauce like a sponge.
That’s just the way it is. Add rice or pasta to soup, and you know that by the next day it’s taken up half the liquid. Fresh pasta is even more efficient; by the time Lisa reached the end of her meal, the sauce was all absorbed. My pappardelle had done the same thing. But you don’t want to drown your dish in sauce, either. That is a small price to pay for homemade pasta. The pasta takes up the flavor, but you lose the feel of the sauce in your mouth. Eat fast.
You know desserts are going to be good at a Mallozzi restaurant, but we were astonished at how good ours were. Lisa chose the many-layered sfogliatelle, ($5) just-baked warm flaky pastry clamshells with citrus-scented filling. I ordered a relative, the crunchy aragosta ($4.50) a lobster-tail-shaped delight filled with vanilla cream.
“The filling tastes like vanilla ice cream,” said Lisa. It was especially fresh and crunchy, adorably perched on a doily beneath a dusting of powdered sugar. I took a few bites and agreed: They hadn’t held back on the vanilla. Johnny’s gets points for excellent authentic Italian desserts.
We left happy, delighted with our meal and bags of leftovers. Johnny’s was enjoyable, reasonably priced, and delicious. It’s as good as you’d expect a Mallozzi restaurant to be. Again, Schenectady scores a top-notch Italian restaurant, making it the epicenter of benchmark Italian cuisine in the Capital Region.