Troy’s well-known entrepreneurial duo of Vic Christopher and Heather LaVine recently opened their newest venture – Donna’s Italian Restaurant – in the former location of Minissale’s Wine Cellar Cafe. When the preliminary menu was released in September, it seemed like people’s reaction mostly centered around the prices. The menu contained classic Italian dishes like meatballs, spaghetti, chicken parm, and lasagna, but at a price point that was quite a bit higher than other local places. Proponents argued that the culinary talent leading the kitchen (Nick Ruscitto, formerly of Peck’s Arcade) would elevate these dishes to a level deserving of a higher price point, and that everyone should wait to see before rushing to judgement on a menu alone.
Perhaps the owners saw the comment threads reacting to their proposed menu, or perhaps they just reevaluated on their own, but the final prices are a little lower. They still seem to be on the high side for Italian food, but not completely unreasonable, depending on the quality. So I was curious to make my own opinion about the value of the food, and to see if the creativity that dominates the offerings at Peck’s Arcade would shine through in somewhat standard Italian-American staples.
For an appetizer, we tried the potatoes and eggs. I asked our server what this was, and he described it as “like a frittata.” Curious about how this would translate into an appetizer, we took the plunge.
It was a good portion for two people, and definitely had a frittata feel to it. In fact, I’m still kind of convinced that this is a breakfast dish, although it was interesting to try. The egg and potatoes were well cooked and seasoned, but neither of us were crazy about the toppings, which primarily included a big mound of garlic mayo. Mayo on top of baked eggs is probably not a combination I would have thought of, perhaps for good reason. The plate was also seasoned with fresh parsley, which happens to be an herb that I have a strong aversion to. Both toppings could easily be scraped off based on personal preference, and the underlying egg component wasn’t bad. I would say we left this course with a “hmm, that was….interesting” kind of feeling.
For an entree, I chose the eggplant parm. My main goal here was to test the hypothesis that the kitchen would transform an ordinary Italian-American dish into something spectacular. I love eggplant parm and have ordered it at countless places across the region, so I felt like I had a good base of knowledge for comparison purposes.
The eggplant portion of this dish was absolutely lovely. The eggplant was cut in thick hearty chunks, and cooked beautifully. It had a little bit of firmness to the bite, but the pieces melded together with a perfect saucy warmth. The edges were cooked to a light crispiness. And even the cheese was flawless, with a smooth consistency that was enhanced by crumbles of fresh Parmesan. My final verdict was that this dish definitely justified its price tag ($17).
Unfortunately, this plate was also topped with an overabundance of fresh parsley that was a little harder for me to remove because it started to mix with the sauce. I also felt like the red sauce itself was nothing special. It was fine, but it didn’t really have a lot of flavors that stood out to me. So the rigatoni part of the plate was a little forgettable. But man, that eggplant was great.
My dining companion chose a special for the evening – pasta with lobster ($24).
You may have an inkling about what I’m going to say about this dish. I know I’m being a little bit of a broken record, but holy parsley. It was completely mixed into the sauce of this dish and pretty much the only flavor that came through. The sauce was otherwise pretty watery and thin. There was a an adequate amount of lobster dispersed throughout in small chunks, which were cooked decently. And then a puzzling scoop of ricotta on top, which was similar to the presentation of the gnocchi I tried at Peck’s Arcade. Overall, this dish was really a miss from our perspective, and I heard another nearby table complaining about it as well.
Final Rating: 6.5/10. I agonized a little over how harsh to be, given that the restaurant just opened and I wanted so badly to love it. I truly appreciate how much work Vic and Heather have put into all of their businesses, and they bring such an enthusiastic presence to redevelopment in Troy. But at the end of the day, we had one dish that was great, one that was mediocre, and one that was pretty unenjoyable. For a restaurant that is trying to present itself in a higher tier, I don’t think you can have those kind of results.
I also felt like some of the flavors fell a little flat. Debate about the prices aside, I want Italian-American food to be totally rich and luscious and full of the big flavors of garlic and basil and tomatoes. The only real flavor that I got was fresh parsley, which happens to be one that I don’t care for. Maybe someone who loves parsley will come away with a different perspective. But for me, the strength of the eggplant parm alone probably isn’t enough to make me return when there are quite a few other Italian restaurants in the area that offer really solid versions of classic dishes (and with a smaller bill).