wireless_kitchen (2007-02)

Seduce Me Already

Altruda’s still has it


by Gay Lyons

I met my husband Bill in 1990 on a highly participatory blind date masterminded by my friend Connie and Bill’s daughter Laura. Eight people went on this date: me, Bill, his son Matt and daughter Laura, Connie, Connie’s husband Ralph and their sons Ralph and Rob. As if we were not well enough chaperoned, the venue—a hibachi table at Kanpai of Tokyo—added to the participation level. It was fun, but, luckily, our second date was in cozier circumstances: Altruda’s. By the third date, also at Altruda’s, we were sharing the same side of the booth.

We loved Altruda’s so much that we returned almost every Saturday night of our five-year courtship. We’ve been happy, but how have the years treated Altruda’s? Is it still as good? Time for a return trip. We recently took Matt to dinner there to celebrate his arrival home for Christmas.

The booths are still popular. There were none available in the non-smoking section, so we agreed to sit at a booth in the smoking section, which worked out well because it was deserted the whole time except for a brief appearance by two guys who ate, smoked and ran.

Among the antipasti choices are pasta e fagioli, fried artichoke hearts and stuffed mushrooms. In preparation for another column, I’ve been sampling calamari locally, so we decided to advance my research by trying the calamari. It’s amazing the variations you’ll find. Altruda’s calamari is reminiscent of little onion rings, breaded, fried and crunchy. The seasoned rings were tasty with or without the two sauces: marinara and a mild horseradish sauce.

The salad at Altruda’s was as good as we remembered. Diners serve themselves from a communal salad bowl delivered to the table filled with lettuce, cucumber slices, tomato wedges, sliced mushrooms, garbanzo beans, sliced beets, onions and shredded mozzarella lightly tossed in vinaigrette. They’ll offer you more salad. We declined this time, having happily munched the entire plate of calamari rings. The rolls, which are brought to the table in small bowls, are served in butter so garlicky that specks of garlic stud the bottom of the bowl. You can also ask that the little pillow-shaped rolls be served plain, but if you like garlic, go with the buttery ones.

I ordered an entrée that I remembered favorably, pollo canzanese. It was a tough choice between that dish and two other old favorites, snapper parmigiana and snapper al limone. Bill bypassed the eggplant nicole, his favorite date-night choice, for manicotti alla romana. Matt decided to try the scallops florentine.

I was pleased that the entrees were not delivered before we were finished with our salads. Am I the only person who finds crowded tables annoying? Our conversation was lively, so we didn’t immediately notice that the entrees didn’t show up as swiftly as they should have. When we noticed and the delay was explained, we understood—and, frankly, approved. It turns out the scallops were judged to be overdone, so the dish was made over. As compensation, we were offered a complimentary dessert, which wasn’t necessary, but it was a nice touch. A kitchen concerned with quality, a manager concerned with customer service. There are a few places in town that could learn a lesson from Altruda’s.

The pollo canzanese was just as I remembered it. The breaded fried chicken breast in red wine sauce is layered with ham and mozzarella cheese and topped with sliced mushrooms. The ham adds a pleasantly salty taste. The other two entrees, served in piping hot dishes, were each topped with a thick layer of melted, browned mozzarella cheese, which completely concealed the scallops and the manicotti. Underneath the cheese, Matt found large, tender scallops and lots of creamy spinach and parmesan. Bill’s manicotti was soft and creamy, surrounded by a meat and tomato sauce. Of the three, pollo canzanese remains my personal favorite, but the other two entrees were tasty and well-prepared, especially if you like cheese.

The sides of pasta always seem superfluous. The traditional little dishes of spaghetti topped with marinara are pleasing. It’s just that the entrees—especially when preceded by an appetizer and a generous helping of salad, not to mention a roll or two—are so filling that a few bites are all I can manage. In the past we rarely ordered dessert for the reasons just described. Salad, rolls and entrée provided such a satisfying meal that we generally eschewed both appetizers and desserts and took leftovers home.

Dessert options include cheesecake, cannoli, spumoni and peanut butter pie. We ordered the tiramisu mainly because our server recommended it. Like calamari, tiramisu comes in a few variations. Altruda’s is very traditional, a delicious moist square of layered espresso-soaked ladyfingers, mascarpone custard and cocoa.

Little has changed at Altruda’s. The menu is almost identical to the one we saw over 15 years ago. The prices have increased, but not much. Most entrees cost $14-18. And you get a lot for the money. I recommend it for a romantic date. It certainly worked out well for us.