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Friday, March 16, 2018

Portion out of Control

From the Food Vault: Ten years ago, I wrote about this strip-mall restaurant, which endured for several years before giving way to the Mexican eatery that now occupies its space.


AS THE NAME SUGGESTS, it began as a takeout business. This was five years ago, when chef-owner Gerry Cunsolo decided to offer customers the opportunity to enjoy at their own homes the cooking he grew up with at his home. But people do like to dine out, so about a year ago he took advantage of a newly-empty next-door space to expand and offer table service.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The result is a comfortable hybrid, with anything from pizzas to full dinners crossing the take-out counter, which is what you’ll see upon entering, to a more relaxed dining room where you’ll enjoy the same meals but with a styrofoam delay.

And that’s because the portions are so gravity-defying large that you’ll still leave laden with take-out containers.

Carmen Plaza sits on a stretch of Route 146 between Guilderland and Schenectady, home to the usual strip-mall array, and it’s obviously a work in progress, with several vacant spots awaiting tenantry. The huddle of cars in front of Chef’s Take Out when we visited made it easy enough to find, although the huge signs promising pasta and pizza also helped.

We were put through an interesting phenomenon I’m sure you’ve noticed often. Despite the several empty tables in the dining room’s center, any one of which comfortably would have seated our threesome, we had to wait until a booth was cleaned and re-set. Booths run along two of the room’s walls, and that’s where most of the diners were seated (the exception was a six-top at the back of the room).

Once there, we settled in comfortably and did a small amount of follow-up waiting. Once we placed our orders, however, food came out right on schedule and we had plenty of between-courses attention.

There’s no better way to showcase homemade bread than with sandwiches, and a list of $8 panini features sausage and peppers, chicken or eggplant parmigiana, grilled chicken, an Italian cold cut mix, an eggplant-based vegetarian sandwich and more.

As we studied the menu, what looked like a small bus going by turned out to be somebody else’s order of lasagna ($13). It’s in the baked specialties section, where you’ll also find baked ziti ($12) or tortellini ($13), stuffed shells ($12), eggplant ($14) or chicken ($15) parmigiana and the item I ordered: chicken gondola ($15), which our server noted was one of the more popular dishes.

I can see why. It’s really for the customer torn between parmigianas, because it features chicken wrapped in eggplant, stuffed with ricotta, and served with meat sauce and melted cheese. There’s little it doesn’t accomplish. Served with a side of penne and more meat sauce, it’s a total carbs fest, something from which I mined two more meals.

Although my daughter is a fried calamari fan, it has more to do with the crunch than the critter. She ordered an appetizer plate ($9) and was daunted to see far more in the way of tentacles than of rings, but nevertheless made a brave show of dipping them in the accompanying sauce and enjoying them. I liked the breading, which tasted of both cornmeal and flour.

Garlic bread, garlic knots, fried mozzarella and greens & beans are other starters, in the $4-$7 range; we also ordered a plate of bruschetta ($7), another showcase for the restaurant’s bread.

Huge portion. No surprise. Awkward to eat, with the chunks of tomatoes and garlic cascading off the tops of the thick-sliced bread. Worth the effort. And they stand up to at-home reheating if you reheat just the bread in your oven.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Most of the entrées come with a soup or salad and a side of pasta, so pace yourself. The four $18 veal dishes have it prepared parmigiana, Sorrento, marsala, or cacciatore; the last three are repeated with chicken ($15) in addition to some other poultry preps.

My wife, the chicken fiend, ordered the Sorrento, which proved a close cousin to my entrée: this time the chicken was layered with eggplant and finished with sauce and cheese. Given the obscuring pools of topping under which the ingredients sit, we couldn’t easily tell the leftovers apart.

Those side salads are straightforward compotes featuring fresh Romaine lettuce, but I want to give a special nod to the  pasta e fagioli soup we sampled. It’s a common enough brew for a place like this, but here the flavor was more outspoken than usual, which a hearty soup like this requires.

And let me also praise the meat sauce. When you’ve been red sauced to death in restaurant after restaurant, it’s a struggle to get noticed. This one is dark and rich with a compelling sweetness that reveals itself slowly.

This is the sauce behind the Bolognese, available on the pasta menu with your choice of noodle. My daughter had penne and added a couple of meatballs ($13). Pasta also can be prepared with a marinara ($10.25) or garlic and oil ($12), or try the fettuccine Alfredo ($13), fettuccine carbonara ($14), linguine Florentine ($13) or tortellini della casa (mushrooms and tomatoes in a cream sauce, $14), among others.

We passed over the steaks (two preparations of sirloin, $21 each) and seafood dishes (shrimp, clams or calamari, $17-$18). And we regret not sampling the pizza. We saw one go by after we already were at capacity.

Every community needs a good restaurant like this. Based on the customer traffic we saw, it’s clear that this one has become a Guilderland-area favorite.

Chef’s Take Out, 3770 Carmen Rd. (Carmen Plaza), Guilderland. 357-xxxx. Classic red-sauce fare in large portions, with tables enough for you to stay and enjoy it. Serving Tue-Thu 11-9. Fri-Sat 11-9:30. MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 15 May 2008

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