The red and white, turnip-topped tower stood on the edge of the hill above Route 5, two miles east of Amsterdam. “Stop!” I yelled as we passed Cranesville Hollow Road. Obligingly, John backed up and drove the short distance to the top of the hill.
The restaurant looked like an adventure just begging to be undertaken.
Small gardens with rosebushes, herbs and perennials were neatly laid out on the hill overlooking Route 5 and the Mohawk River. A fence, a trellis and a patio welcomed us. I have seen gardens like this, lovingly tended, in the Italian section of Schenectady.
Entering the front door, the dim quiet interior made us feel as if we were possibly in the wrong place. But when co-owner Esther Valentino greeted us with a smile, we knew we had arrived somewhere special. A banquet room lay to the right of us, the restaurant to the left and the Valentino’s living space ahead of us straight up the dark wood stairs.
Esther showed us to a table for two by the window. I caught sight of the specials posted for the evening: roast leg of lamb ($14.95), baked ham with raisin sauce ($13.95), turkey cutlet ($14.95), stuffed eggplant ($13.95). We were encouraged.
It was early on a quiet Thursday evening and we had Esther’s full attention. She brought us water, menus, a basket of warm home-baked bread and a small plate off pepper biscuits.
The Valentinos have run the restaurant and banquet hall for 35 years. A seven-day-a week affair, the operation is a labor of love. Since it was a cold spring day and I was recovering from a brief illness, a cup of hot chicken soup ($4.95) seemed like a good immune booster. The sturdy broth was chock-full of small, tube-shaped pasta and chunks of white meat chicken. I felt my antibodies increasing exponentially with every spoonful. John’s onion soup ($7.95) was a perfect version of the French classic.
Our salads were standard. Crispy greens punctuated by carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers, with just a hint of red onions. John chose the bleu cheese ($1.25 extra), which he uncharacteristically gushed “was the best I have ever had.” I opted for the Italian dressing. My choice turned out to be a minor miscalculation because my artichoke heart appetizer ($7.95) had been marinated in the same Italian dressing — a bit of a redundancy. I should have asked how the artichoke hearts were prepared.
John’s entrée of stuffed eggplant ($13.95) was listed on the board of daily specials. The slices of eggplant had been rolled around a stuffing of ricotta cheese, and then cooked with chef Valentino’s excellent marinara sauce. John’s only (minor) complaint was that the skin of the eggplant was a little tough.
Because I rarely see one of my favorite dishes, veal osso bucco, on a menu, I jump on it when it is available. A tender 2-inch-thick veal shank packed with marrow had been slowly braised with fresh vegetables, wine, tomato, broth and fine herbs. It was fork tender and a special treat for this diner.
Both dinners were accompanied by a large nest of angel hair pasta prepared al dente and hugging a large ladleful of marinara. Flat Romano green beans nicely balanced the dish.
If John and I had any complaints at all, it was the kitchen’s overuse of the saltshaker. The soups and sauces were all seasoned well enough to stand on their own without additional salt.
Sated, we skipped something sweet at the end of the meal and chose instead a regular coffee for John ($1.95) and an espresso ($3.95) for me. Next time.
I recently heard someone describe the decor of Valentino’s as “dated.” I chose to view it more as old world, retro, classic and charming. The food, service and ambience reflect a time when cooking was done with a reverence for tradition, skill and love.
Valentino’s Restaurant and Banquet Hall
WHERE: 119 Riverview Drive, Amsterdam, (518) 843-0592 www.valentinosamsterdam.com
WHEN: Mon.-Sat. 4-9 p.m., Sun 12-8 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $65 for two people without wine, tax and tip
MORE INFO: accessible (ramp), parking lot, all major credit cards accepted, daily specials, banquet facilities