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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Carmine-O Mio

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: This week’s Metroland food piece revisits a chef about whom I’ve written a few times before – and I’ve appended one such piece to the end of it, so keep reading.


YOU WALK INTO A RESTAURANT on what’s supposed to be a slow night and spot two eight-tops who have yet to order as well as some scattered deuces and you’re tempted to turn on your heel, an impulse countered by the chill of the night air and the amount of time it took to find a parking space.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Yet as our dinner at Carmine’s restaurant progressed, we not only were well attended but also watched, impressed, as the three waiters and hostess stepped up their tempo to accommodate the influx of more and more.

“We weren’t expecting it,” our waiter said, “but we’ll take it.”

Carmine’s Restaurant is the latest eatery to feature the culinary stylings of one of the area’s most dynamic and voluble chefs, Carmine Sprio, who first established himself on an uptown stretch of Central Avenue.

In 1996, he took over the Albany location of what had been Alteri’s. That version of “Carmine’s” lasted 14 years, during which time he also had success as an engaging TV cooking show host who tied in food with community activity. (And I’ll confess that I once was a guest on the program, when my hair was many shades darker.)

Carmine’ next venture was a churrascaria on Sheridan Ave., just off North Pearl St., across from Capital Rep. It was an excellent steakhouse in the Brazilian style, but it lasted only eleven months, my suspicion being that the price point was too high for the Capital Region’s cheapskate crowd.

In a breathtaking presto-change-o, Carmine closed the place, retooled kitchen and floor, and re-opened four days later in its present form. That was just over a year ago. He’s back serving the Italian fare that made his reputation, and he’s doing it with a creativity and sureness of touch that made my experience there as satisfying and memorable as such meals can be.

The dining room has a charmingly rustic look, with un-linened wooden tables and deep-red napery. It reminds me of the kind of place I’ve enjoyed on Mulberry Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy, but with lower prices, friendlier service, much more space between tables – and nobody on the sidewalk waving a menu in your face.

Carmine’s menu has been distilled from his favorite preparations from menus past along with innovative takes on classic dishes. “I didn’t want to go the spaghetti-and-meatballs route,” he says, “but we do offer chicken parm and it’s a steady seller. But I try to imagine what else I can do with an item.”

In the case of salmon ($20), for example, it’s a coating of crushed pistachios and, to complements the crunch, a flattened ball of seafood arancini beneath it. Traditionally an ball of crumbs-coated rice, its name reflecting its orange color, this take on arancini gives a tasty reinforcement to the flavor of the salmon. And it’s served over a white wine sauce touched with just enough vanilla to give the sauce a surprisingly cheerful edge.

Appetizers include traditional items like beans and greens ($11) and fried calamari ($13), the latter available with a blood orange sauce if you wish a marinara alternative. And the seafood arancini is available as a $12 starter.

We sampled the day’s bruschetta ($8.50), in this case a threesome, with impressively contrasting flavors setting apart this over-offered dish. On one bread slice: black beans with bacon. The next: artichokes with roasted red peppers. Beside it: a sausage compote. Never an easy dish to consume politely, we took a manners-be-damned approach and let the toppings fall where they might.

Pasta e fagioli ($6), another tiresomely ubiquitous dish, got just what it needed to make it (as far as I’m concerned) more desirable: more pasta and beans than broth, and a touch of heat.

You’d think adding sambuca to a dish that already sports chopped fennel would be too much, and you’d be wrong. The PEI mussels ($10) are wonderfully enriched by the combination, with a very light tomato broth keeping the flavors intact for the inevitable swipes of bread.

Among the half-dozen pasta dishes are old friends like Phil’s Pasta ($19.50), which we had during a visit to the Central Ave. restaurant that I wrote about in 2001 (rigatoni, sausage and meatballs).

This time we discovered another liqueur-livened combo: limoncello shrimp ($21), served over pasta, the sweetness of the limoncello a contrast to the spinach that’s also included. And the shrimp, of course, remain typically uninvolved in it all – but what a great vehicle!

Lamb ragout is served over fresh tagliatelle ($20), the wide noodles helping gather the essence of ground roasted lamb shoulder in the lightest of sauces, hints of tomato sweetening it. There’s a style at work here of keeping each dish light and broadening its flavor range to hit sweet as often as it heads into umami.

Amazingly (especially with my wife beside me), we completely avoided the chicken items, which include saltimbocca ($21, prosciutto and smoked mozzarella) and scarpariello ($19, sausage, pepperoncini). But oh my goodness the pork brasciole ($20), which bids fair to sway Susan away from poultry.

The cutlet is rolled around prosciutto and smoked mozzarella, with broccoli rabe for good measure, served over skin-intact garlic mashed potatoes, topped with a rosemary-scented white-wine sauce, its release of flavors symphonic in complexity.

Our appetites flagged; the takeout containers accumulated. A surprise dessert: a sweet panini. Pound cake, actually, two slices between which flowed nutella and marshmallow sauce, ice cream to moderate its intensity.

We outlasted the eight-tops. We finished with a profound and somewhat overstuffed sense of well-being.

“I think some people have a wrong idea about this part of Albany,” Carmine says, “but if there’s one problem I always hear about, it’s the challenge of parking. So we’re going to find a way to validate those tickets if you have to pay to park.” Making it all the easier to lure me back.

Carmine's Restaurant, 4 Sheridan Ave., Albany, 729-4477, Serving lunch Tue-Fri 11:30-2, dinner Mon-Sat 4:30-close. AE, D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 13 February 2014


Carmine’s Table

CARMINE SPRIO DOESN’T WASTE TAKES. He doesn’t rehearse what he’s about to say, but when the camera is on and the director gives him the cue, he looks into the lens (no prompter!) and talks, and with that ineffable charm given to few, he convinces us, on the other side of the TV screen, that he’s talking only to us. And he’s doing so with a warmth and accessibility that makes you feel as if you’ve drawn a chair up to his table.

Which is precisely the effect he’s going for. “I want you to feel like you’re sitting here with us,” he says. “Above all, I want you to be entertained.” The show features kitchen segments and conversations, and you’d never know, from the host’s self-effacing style, that he’s the owner and chef of the very successful Carmine’s on Albany’s Central Ave. Ever willing to take risks, he left the safety of a lucrative building trade to open a restaurant that has been a success in no small part because of his people skills; now he’s taking those skills to the TV-watching public with a program that airs in Time Warner Cable’s Albany, Saratoga Springs and Troy service areas, at 12:30 and 7 PM Mon-Fri, 11 AM and 7 PM Sat-Sun.

In its original half-hour format, the shows opening weeks were successful but, according to the host, constricting. Sprio pushed for an hour, and the debut program in that format taped last week on the set at the Time Warner Cable studios and in the kitchen of Carmine’s. The kitchen segments feature three courses that Sprio prepares on camera; these are then served to the guests, to be sampled amidst the far-ranging conversation.

But this week, Sprio was unusually nervous. His guests were three high-profile chefs, and cooking for your colleagues puts you at your most alert. You won’t see it during the show, however; by the time Carmine settled in at the table, he was relaxed and swapping stories with his friends. And this was even before the cameras started rolling.

From left to right, as you’ll see them on the show, were Paul Szakats from Milano, Melissa Kelly of the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, and Dale Miller, one of the country’s few Certified Master Chefs, now presiding over the stoves at Jack’s Oyster House.

Szakats has added to his already formidable reputation by hosting a restaurant-oriented talk show on radio station WROW Saturdays from noon-2; Kelly’s difficult-to-get-a-reservation-at restaurant is in even more demand since she recently won a James Beard Foundation Best Chef award.

A couple of publicity photos are snapped, then Sprio tapes a teaser for the show. In the control room, director Greg Bobbitt speaks to Sprio by way of a newscaster earplug that the host periodically threatens to remove. “He’s always talking in my ear,” Sprio laughs, “and you should hear some of the things he says!”

“I just tell him to keep it moving,” says Bobbitt. “The quicker we tape, the quicker we eat.” assistant director Henry Skoburn and audio engineer Jeff Ronner nod in agreement. Extra plates of each course are circulated throughout the studio so that everybody gets a taste.

Beginning with shrimp and champagne risotto in lasagna rolls with a shrimp bisque sauce. Plates are presented, except for Carmine’s, and “Quiet on the set!” is shouted. Carmine is served on camera, and conversation begins. Here’s where the host really shines. He keeps the conversation rolling, switching easily from one guest to the next even as he segues from one subject to another without consulting the notes he jotted earlier in the evening.

“Everybody at this table has a different style,” he says, looking around. His gaze settles on Szakats. “You and I might be said to have a similar style. Tell us about it.”

“It’s an authentic northern Italian, Tuscan-style menu,” says Szakats. “It’s done very well for us, and I have the freedom to create a small menu within the menu every night, which keeps it very interesting and creative. I like to concentrate on fresh food, not a whole lot of butter, more of the Mediterranean style of cooking.”

Carmine swivels to the other side of the table. “Dale, let me ask you. Where do you get your inspiration? I know I read everything, I watch things -- but you’re always looking.”

Miller grins and answers, “Going to the restaurants, having great meals – when I went to Melissa’s restaurant, I barged right into the kitchen. I had to meet her.” Kelly smiles; at her turn, she, too, credits other restaurants, and adds, “Fresh ingredients are always inspiring. We’re lucky enough to have our own greenhouse, when you go out and pick your own arugula, you want it to be as pristine as possible, and you want to totally enhance it.”

The segment ends; the guests relax. Carmine inspects the table. “Come on, eat!” he exhorts. The next course arrives: pork in puffed pastry with an apple and red cabbage slaw, finished with a Calvados and apple cider reduction. More wine is poured (it’s the real thing) and the guests relax, getting ready for the next segment.

Dinner ends with a dessert of a flourless chocolate torte with chocolate triangles and an Italian bing cherry sauce. The recipes will be posted on the show’s website and the dishes themselves will be specials at the restaurant when the program airs for the week beginning July 12.

“I’m going to have to do this again,” Sprio says afterward. “I mean, there are so many great chefs in this area. We’ve just scratched the surface.” And he was shrewd enough to invite me as a guest for the next program, focusing on childhood memories of cooking and food, where I presented (and cooked!) a surprising choice. But that’s another story.

Metroland Magazine, 1 July 1999

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