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Old World Italian fare in Old Forge

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OLD FORGE — It’s a bit of a hike to Billy’s Restaurant in Old Forge, but as we found out, it’s well worth the trip.

From Watertown, take Route12 through Lowville and continue on toward Utica. Hook a left in Port Leyden onto the winding Moose River Road. When you hit Route 28, go left and it’s just a short drive until you’re in the tourist town of Old Forge.

On Main Street, a modest sign for Billy’s Italian-American Restaurant directed us to an almost-secret storefront behind a liquor store in an unpretentious “you-have-to-know-where-it-is-to-find-it” off-street location.

On what we expected to be a quiet weeknight, we landed in the midst of a filled-to-capacity dining room bustling with activity. Maybe the heavy rain was driving people indoors; maybe it was the fact that Billy’s was donating a healthy percentage of the evening’s receipts to a local organization.

Or maybe it was Billy’s reputation for fine food from the old country — red sauce, pasta, cheese, sausage, green salads, crusty breads — woven into familiar dishes like chicken riggies, veal Parmesan and shrimp scampi, or for more adventurous diners, veal Francaise, chicken and scallops Dijonaise, and a pasta dish called “hats a la broccoli.”

Out host, Billy Burns, was there to welcome us, and his sister-in-law, Adrianne, introduced herself as our waitress. Luckily, we had called ahead to make reservations, so the last unoccupied table in the room was ours.

The dining room is compact and comfy, with a dozen or so tables at best. It is modestly decorated, the highlight being thousands of corks from wine bottles lining the walls.

We began our culinary journey with appetizers: calamari ($8.95), stuffed mushrooms ($7.95) and “greens” ($9.95), Billy’s version of Utica greens.

The Utica greens were faithful to the “greens” or sautéed escarole element, but rather light on salami, roasted red pepper, breadcrumbs and mozzarella per the menu description. Depth of flavor was simply not there.

Hot cherry peppers, usually an integral part of this dish that originated in Utica, are offered as an option. We ordered them on the side. Perhaps we should have just had them sautéed with the greens, as they are in the original recipe.

Calamari was lightly hand-breaded in-house, quickly deep-fried in fresh oil, tossed with a judicious amount of hot peppers and seasonings, and served tender and delicious with a lovely homemade marinara sauce. Yummy.

The mushrooms were another story. Tiny mushrooms were filled with a pasty mush devoid of any taste of the alleged sweet sausage. A bit disappointing.

But things were about to change in a hurry.

The entrée menu is approachable and sophisticated, extensive without being overwhelming. We entered our order for pork a la Billy’s ($15.95), ziti a la Adrianne ($19.95), frutti di mare ($23.95) and chicken Marsala ($16.95).

While our dinners were being prepared, we ordered a bottle of red wine from Billy’s thoughtful and nicely priced wine list, a 2010 Coppola “Rosso.”

Billy himself presented, opened and poured the lovely California wine, a blend of zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and syrah, rich with juicy flavors of plum, cherries, mocha and strawberry jam.

I didn’t figure all that out. It says so right on the label.

Salads preceded our entrées. They were simple and effective, made with fresh, chopped, dark-green romaine lettuce dressed with Billy’s own balsamic vinaigrette. Adrianne brought a bowlful of crumbly blue cheese to the table, allowing us each to add the desired amount to our salads.

If you put your name on a dish it darn well better be good. Billy’s pork creation was more than good — it was fabulous.

Slow-roasted pulled pork was mixed into a marvelous marinara sauce, tossed with al dente ziti and dusted with Pecorino Romano, a classic Italian sheep’s milk cheese.

Who would have thought of pairing pulled pork with red sauce? It really, really worked.

The ziti entrée was another winner, generous chunks of tasty sweet sausage sautéed with roasted red peppers in a rich and creamy blue cheese sauce. A delectable lick-the-dish entrée.

It’s named after our server, Adrianne, who, by the way, is experienced, efficient and well-trained — and, being part of the family, helps create the restaurant’s family atmosphere.

Billy’s menu offers frutti di mare with marinara or shrimp and scallops fra diavolo. Ordinarily the seafood dish we ordered is not prepared fra diavolo, but the kitchen was happy to accommodate us. Another family member, Adam Taft, is the kitchen’s culinary manager.

The preparation was perfect in every way, fresh shrimp, scallops, clams, calamari and mussels, each perfectly cooked, in an incredible seafood/tomato broth with just the right amount of heat — warm without the burn — intermingled with al dente linguini. This dish was exceptional.

Chicken Marsala was pretty straightforward, several moist and tender chicken breasts lightly sautéed with mushrooms, garlic and sweet Marsala wine.

It was a rather thin sauce with the distinct flavor of the Marsala. Someone expecting a thicker, richer “gravy” might be disappointed. We were fine with it.

Desserts, priced at $4.95 apiece, were quite good, a nice complement to an excellent meal.

Tiramisu was made on-site, nice and light with the customary components: liquor-laced lady fingers, mascarpone cheese and coffee essence. Cheesecake and carrot cake were perfectly acceptable confections from one of their restaurant suppliers. Molten chocolate cake was predictable and just fine, as well.

Dinner for four cost $139.45 before tip. The bottle of Coppola wine added $23 to the tab.

All in all, the food was excellent — freshly prepared, wonderfully seasoned and generously portioned, and served hot from the kitchen.

Adrianne’s service was pleasant, efficient and accommodating.

Our Billy’s experience was quality food and service with a gentle ambiance and a good value, living up to their motto “Great Food and Hospitality.”

correction

Last Sunday’s review of BIN-427 in Cape Vincent incorrectly stated the history of the various restaurants that have operated on the site. It was the Market Street Inn between Sleepy Hollow and BIN-427.

You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: wsiebel@wdt.net.

Billy’s Italian-American Restaurant

3047 Route 28

Old Forge, N.Y.

369-2001

A menu of approachable and sophisticated Italian dishes.

HOURS: Open at 5 p.m. Monday, Thursday and Friday and at 4 p.m. Saturday

APPETIZER PICK: Calamari

ENTRÉE PICKS: Pork a la Billy’s, frutti di mare, ziti a la Adrianne

DESSERT PICK: Tiramisu

RATING: 4 forks

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