Thursday August 30, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- After more than a quarter-century running Elizabeth's with his wife, Eliz abeth, chef and owner Tom Ellis admits it can be a very demanding task.

"This is an extremely physical job," Ellis said. "We get here at 7 in the morning, leave at 10 at night, (and take) a couple hours off in between. Every single thing is made from scratch, especially in the summer when we sell out of food almost every night and have to peel garlic, make soup stock, cut mushrooms, make sauces, make appetizers. ... My wife cleans the whole restaurant herself. But we love doing it. We take great pleasure in our independence."

"We have a different attitude," he said. "We have a real attention to people. We do it in a complete way: You can change side dishes, and everything is done individually by one person, so we're never going to say no to anybody. You kind of have to experience the culture of the place. If a customer likes soup, the waitress might bring him more without asking me. We take as much pride in our hospitality as we do in our food."

Indeed, I was quite impressed with the service I'd received during my meal a few days before the interview. The res taurant itself is a tiny house, with half of the tables downstairs amid the open kitchen and the rest upstairs in a quieter room with a small mobile overhead.


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And when I hemmed and hawed over my menu, admitting to our waitress that I couldn't decide between the lasagna and the sausage special, she replied, "They're both really good; why don't I bring you a lasagna and then throw a couple pieces of the sausage on the side?" And no, I wasn't charged extra for it.

As an indecisive orderer, I often will ask my server to help me choose between two dishes. I never have been offered a chance to have a taste of one dish alongside my order of the other. At a table nearby, a family with two picky young children made a litany of inquiries and special requests to get food the kids would eat. Their waitress was infinitely patient and seemed happy to do what she could to make sure everyone was satisfied.

Of course, even the best service (which this pretty much was) is not useful if the food isn't good. But no worries on that account either. The bagna co ada ($8) was a hot bath of anchovies, garlic, olive oil, and sweet butter served with bread. It smelled great, and tasted even better, served in the bottom of a large bowl perfect for dipping. I soaked the bread and let the deep, rich flavor dance over my tongue, a salty anchovy delight that left me craving more, and more and more.

Some time later, I noticed a strange object in front of me, which was my glass of water; I'd gone through two plates of bread pretty much inhaling the bagna coada and had only looked up because I temporarily ran out of bread.

All main entrees are $21 and come with the house salad. The standard menu is vegetarian, but there are nightly specials with meat. The aforementioned fantastic wait staff described all the food with familiarity, both with the ingredients and the chef. (I repeatedly heard "Tom made...")

The house salad, an ever-rotating blend of fresh ingredients along with the lettuce, for me contained orange cherry tomatoes, large chunks of cheese ranging from feta to Swiss, chickpeas, cranberries and ap ple, all topped with a sweet and tangy balsamic vinaigrette.

My Four Cheese Lasagna was a giant plate overflowing with sauce and cheese, accented with caramelized onions, spinach and even capers. The cheeses blended together perfectly, but each still stood out with its own flavor, from the sweet ricotta to the mozzarella. The sausage from the other special was homemade, bursting with flavor from the fennel and a hint of lavender. Apparently, you can have it all.

My dining companion ordered the Baked Eggplant Provencal, cooked to the point of falling apart and covered in wild mushrooms that were equally tender. No knives required. The mushrooms were delicate and lightly herbed, and the touch of mozzarella on top with a light sauce was a definite contrast with the sheer rich mass of the lasagna.

There is no good reason anyone should need dessert after eating at Elizabeth's, but I was so intrigued by the Red Velvet and Cheesecake Layer Cake ($5) that I ordered a slice. A bizarre combination, but the dense cake nicely complemented the light and fluffy cheesecake, which had a cream cheese frosting. De licious though it was, though, it still paled in comparison to the rest of the meal.



What: Elizabeth's Restaurant

Where: 1264 East St., Pittsfield

Hours: 5 to 9 p.m., Wednesday to Saturday

Reservations: Required

Handicapped accessibility: No

Price range: $21

Credit cards: No. Cash only, but IOUs are accepted.

Information: (413) 448-8244

Rating: 5 chef's hats

Chef Hat Rating (an explanation of the ranking system)

1: Avoid

2: Decent

3: Good food, no reason not to try

4: Worth repeat visits

5: Take your visiting friends here to impress them