What’s new, what’s still great, and more
Photos by Eric Frick
945 Kenmore Ave., Kenmore
sinatraswny.com or 877-9419
Not that long ago, I heard the fairly seismic news that Kenmore stalwart Sinatra’s was relocating. As it turns out, the news was rather anticlimactic, as the move consisted of mere yards, directly across Kenmore Avenue. But as I sat, snowed in at its old cozy marble-topped bar on a stormy January night, I looked across at the shiny new building, and I promised I’d give it a shot when it opened in the spring.
The old place certainly had character with mottled, stucco walls, drop ceilings and shelves and shelves of collectable cars and trains. It had a nostalgic, homey feel. While the cramped dining room made for lively, raucous meals, winding your way to the bathrooms while uttering “excuse me,” convinced you that the space had outlived its utility.
The new space may be close in proximity, but couldn’t be further away in every other aspect. Warm is now cool, cozy is now chill, nostalgic is hip and modern, and cramped is now spacious. The dining room is robed in chic layers of grey, ebony lacquered wood, brushed nickel light fixtures set to dim, and bounded by walls softened with padded seat backs that resemble ladyfingers in tiramisu.
While the outside veneer has been updated, the foundation remains largely intact. You’ll recognize the faces of the mature, efficient, and professional barkeeps and waitstaff. The ubiquitous red sauce with its vibrant color and jammy flavors is as close to perfect as ever. And the menu of Southern Italian specialties is all in order.
While the bar has its share of Edison bulbs, don’t expect to get lost in a list of cocktails that reads like a tasting menu, or rattled by an excessive hard shake with flare. I had the perfect conversation with the distinguished gentleman behind the bar who made my aperitif. It went something like this: What can I get you? Manhattan. Whiskey or rye? Rye. Up or rocks? Up. Sweet or dry? Dry. Cherry or twist? Twist. This level of professionalism and attention to the diner’s needs is consistent throughout any evening spent here.
Table service commences with slices of crisp and airy italian bread studded with sesame seeds and served with a tart caponata of stewed tomatoes and zucchini. Casino alla Sinatra are an acceptable choice off the antipasti side of the menu: a pair of clams share a shell and are buried under a mound of browned bread crumbs soaked in rich shellfish butter, a bit of snappy red pepper and onion, and topped of with a sizable square of smokey bacon. Artichoke bottoms Francese display an expert-level breading and frying technique and are slicked with a lemony sauce and a scattering of capers. Escarole, available as a starter, a side, or on top of pasta as an entree, is a rare treat: gently braised until the greens are soft and buttery, with the pleasant crunch of the ribs preserved, and tossed with hearty gratings of parmesan cheese. A hint of bitterness is retained to entice but could no way intimidate the shyest palate.
A small romaine salad comes complimentary with many of the entrees. It’s nicely outfitted with cherry tomatoes, red pepper, garbanzo beans, and sliced radish; crumbled blue cheese can be added with an up charge. For Caesar fans, Sinatra’s version does not disappoint. Served on a chilled plate, the dressing is generously seasoned with salted anchovies, worcestershire sauce, and aged cheese. A lemon wedge is offered to allow the diner to adjust the acidity. You may also encounter a burrata salad, offered as a special, accompanied by crudites and a drizzle of reduced balsamic vinegar, proving even Sicilians can’t put down this distinctly Northern Italian condiment.
Pasta dishes display the exceptional attention to detail required to elevate humble to haute. Instead of being a mere conveyance for sauce, Sinatra’s pasta carries its own weight. Thick or thin, every noodle is amply seasoned from the use of a briney boil and are the definition of el dente–the polar opposite of limp and lifeless. As a special, wide ribbons of homemade pasta shine under a savory bolognese overloaded with nuggets of veal (it’s a point of pride that they use veal exclusively in this dish). Pasta Michael stars the braised escarole turned into a sauce through the addition of olive oil and a bit of the starchy cooking water to help glaze a bowlful of spaghetti. Additions of capers and olives help enliven the dish.
Unceremoniously tucked away as the last entry in the pasta selections is likely one of Sinatra’s best offerings, eggplant Parmigiana. Not at all fancy, but a textbook example of what eggplant Parmigiana should be: creamy eggplant is lightly breaded, fried until edges crisp, and smothered under melted cheese and sauce. The sauce is added last, which nicely preserves the integrity of the breading.
Sinatra’s take on braciole: pork filets wrapped around a finely textured farce, inlaid with hardboiled egg
Entrees described as “Italian Specialties” consist mostly of standard preparations (Milanese, Parmigiana, Marsala, and Francese) of veal and chicken. Veal cutlets are pounded thin and tender enough to yield easily to the side of your fork. As prepared Francese, they are dipped in an eggy batter before a quick fry that leaves them juicy with barely a trace of excess oil. Along with some seafood options, there are a few dishes that don’t follow the previous formula. Pork braciole comes as a pair of roulades coated in red sauce. Thin pork filets are wrapped around a finely textured farce, inlaid with a quarter moon of a hard boiled egg.
You may be looking to end your meal with cannoli; however, the cheesecake is a stellar substitute. The cake filling is delicately browned on top, dense and rich with just enough sweetness to remind you you’re eating dessert without feeling like you need a shot of insulin for a chaser. The base is a robust crust that speaks notes of caramel and brown butter. It’s garnished with a few spring berries and a dash of powdered sugar so you don’t forget you’re eating at an Italian restaurant, and a mighty fine one at that.