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Monday, August 10, 2015

Sam As It Was Before

From the Food Vault Dept.: Here’s my account of my first review of Sam’s in Albany, an institution well deserving of its solid reputation. The “Dorothy” referenced below actually was the midwife, Vicki, who caught Lily during the homebirth that we weren’t officially supposed to have had – thus the anonymity.


YOU NEVER WANT GOING OUT TO DINNER to be a chore, but I was feeling bogged down by a relentless schedule. “I need to eat,” said my friend Dorothy. “Bring the baby with you.” My wife was working late, and enviously approved the plan–which is why my infant daughter and I met Dorothy at Sam’s one evening shortly before the restaurant’s recent vacation.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
This baby, who was born at the end of January, is still good for enough reasonably quiet behavior to allow for a meal, although I’m loath to take her into hardcore white-linen restaurants. Sam’s seemed a natural, because good Italian restaurants–the ones I term neighborhood joints, in the best possible sense–are family run and tend to celebrate the family. And this certainly was the case at Sam’s.

Salvatore “Sam” Rappoccio came to this country from Montemurro in 1956. He comes from a family of restaurateurs, with other establishments as close as Lenox and as far as Italy and Brazil. So it was natural that the grocery store he opened in 1965 should have evolved into a restaurant, which it did by way of a brief life as a pizzeria.

“Sam saw the supermarkets coming,” says his daughter, Carmella. “That’s one reason he changed his store into a restaurant, which he opened in 1971. It’s been remodeled three times since then. And I was literally born into this business.” She’s the one who greeted us on our way in, in fact, and checked to make sure our dinners were good. And praised my baby, which always wins points.

Sam passed away three years ago, but his wife, Angela, works in the restaurant with her son, Paul, who runs the kitchen. The family tradition is passing along to the next generation, too, as three of Paul’s sons are working in the restaurant now.

They know the secret to a good neighborhood restaurant is fresh ingredients (never mind portion-controlled freezer-pack stuff) traditionally prepared, with room for the chef’s imagination. For example: I like the fact that the mussels alla Sam’s, my appetizer, features a garlic-rich stock in which thick hunks of bread are soaking. And this is in addition to the generous portion of mussels, nicely flavored by the broth.

Fresh tomato, freshly chopped basil and fresh mozzarella are one of the most summer-y flavor combinations I know. Dorothy’s appetizer portion also included some greens to set off the plate for the eye.

She had no trouble settling on an entrée. Cavatelli Florentine was one of the day’s specials, homemade pasta with a spinach filling, served with a tasty tomato sauce laced with mushrooms. Like all good tomato sauces, this had a range of flavor that brought out all of the complexity of the basic taste of the tomato without imposing a big agenda of additives.

My own kitchen training was with a French-trained, Italian-born chef. Although his béchamel and espagnole sauces were second to none, his marinara was a labor of love the making of which he imparted only after I’d earned sufficient trust. I recognized the same care in the sauce that topped my eggplant alla Angela.

I had a great deal of trouble choosing an entrée–one of the liabilities of going to dinner too hungry. This one combined homemade meatballs, themselves masterpieces, with an eggplant parmigiana recipe that showed off how well eggplant responds to careful preparation–which in this case includes sautéeing thin slices of the vegetable dipped in an egg batter. My side order of penne rigate showed off the tomato sauce in a starker context.

We made even more of a party out of the event with a bottle of Freixenet, a low-priced Spanish sparkling wine that confirmed the restaurant’s assumption that I’d fathered this child with my much younger companion. Oh well. It’s usually more of a trial to protest such assumptions, so we said nothing.

Filling as the meals were (with large take-home containers), we were champagned into dessert-having mode. Homemade spumone I can never resist, and Dorothy had fond memories of a good bisque tortoni. Spumone is more than an ice cream mold: it’s a mousselike preparation in which almonds, cherries, and candied orange bits are mixed. Both that and the tortoni, an almond-flavored ice cream, were very nicely presented.

Sam’s menu is as wide-ranging as you’d expect from a good Italian restaurant, so your dinner can be as simple or complicated as you like. And look for five-dollar lunch specials Tuesday through Friday that include an entrée and your choice of beverage.

Dinner for two, with tax and tip, desserts and a bottle of wine, was $72.

Sam’s Italian and American Restaurant, 125 Southern Blvd., Albany, 463-3433. Serving lunch Tue-Fri 11:30-2, dinner Tue-Sat 4:30-9. AE, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 10 July 1997

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