Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Doing Dishes: Bongiorno's and Veal Sorento

I love my neighborhood restaurants in the abstract because it’s great to be able to stroll over to a place for a nice meal. I love Bongiorno’s in particular because in the warm weather there are a few tables outside with red checked table cloths and neighbors having dinner there greet neighbors strolling by as they take in the evening air. Being a couple blocks from the heart of state government, there are always a few staffers enjoying a dinner together and sometimes the place is chock full of them. So this is another Italian restaurant that is more than the food, but a part of the social fabric of its location. It’s teensy, so no matter how much of a stranger you were when you entered, you must work at it diligently to stay a stranger when you leave.

The staff is friendly and attentive, greeting quickly and getting everyone seated, then always on the lookout to take away plates and glasses or to check to make sure you are having a good experience.  In my last visit I asked the staff member to completely rearrange the meal in several ways - hold the sauce on the pasta, bring the salad at the end and other little adjustments to personalize it.  Each request was handled immediately and exactly the way I needed, and it was lovely. Several times I have been dining beside a table for eight or ten and each guest was treated with the same attentiveness, often with a full room of smaller parties as well.

It’s serviceable Italian fare, with the common categories of antipasto, pasta, salads, meats, poultry and fish. These are  preparations by the children of Italian parents, so there is a little spin on the "nonna's recipes story". They are also, however, classic preparations that are common in our Italian-American family owned red sauce joints, served in a transformed old house for the past thirty or more years.  So- it’s truly a neighborhood Italian place with all the same intentions as similar institutions so pervasive in our little town. Which is to say there’s a sense of predictability that is comforting and we know in our hearts when we need a dinner like this.

My Veal Sorento was described uniquely as veal and eggplant parmesan. It was a heap of medallions, which is a sort of blending of the heap presentation and the medallion presentation. The breading was the most outstanding feature - there was too much of it in my not-so-humble-opinion.  The flavors were all there and balanced, once the predominance of the breading was inevitable. It was tender and moist, easily cut with a fork, which unfortunately is not all that common in this dish. The sauce was strikingly plain with no added dimensional flavors in the form of herbs or vegetables. I personally prefer the kitchen to add a signature in the form of special combinations in their sauce.  I know that this kitchen does do this for many of the sauces, but apparently the other flavors of the dish are sufficient in their opinion.

So even though I love this place and have tasted my way through most of the menu, I think it’s imperative that they close for a couple weeks and overhaul the  inside of the building.  They’ve let it go for too long, and they have to update the carpet, the paneling, and the furniture.  Sure it’s cozy, but there’s a difference between cozy and skeezy, and Bongiorno’s is learning too far toward the latter. The good staff and good food won’t compensate for this shortcoming in the long run.

My recommendation for you, dear readers, is to go in the warm weather and sit outside when the local tomatoes are at their peak ripeness and you will have a lovely and typical Albany Italian experience.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Villa Tuscan Grille

If you think life in Albany is boring, you’re doing it wrong. - The Profussor, Fussy Little Blog

One thing that's nice about driving around with a Goddess of Fire who is a superhero is that she needs to replenish her energy after dueling with all those super villains, so we go to cool places for dinner.

As we tooled into the parking lot of Villa Tuscan Grill, the outside mystified us.  What kind of a place were we getting ourselves into? We had driven practically to Duanesburg. A large party was gathering around the door and we wondered what effect this would have on our experience. We were tired and hungry and didn't like to think about waiting while the staff took care of a huge party, when we were only two people.  Well, one person and a Goddess of Fire.

But when we were ushered into the very large dining room, there was no sign that a large party would put a dent in our good time.  They had been led into the deep recesses of what was obviously a space set up for parties of all sizes. Our friendly welcome continued into the service for all of our stay. We love to ask questions and all our questions were answered, glasses filled, and dishes served with a professional touch.

The extensive menu gave us plenty to ponder as my goddess companion sipped her "forgettable" sauvignon blanc and  we took in the crowd.  It's obviously a very popular place, with young couples sharing a special dinner as well as big families out to celebrate nonna's birthday. I chose their shrimp scampi and Zena chose veal saltimbocco from the standard Capital Region Italian menu.  Most of the standards are there, organized in the typical European categories. VTG makes salad  dressings on site, so we were pleased to choose ours from among several of those.  They also make fresh pasta, so I ordered the cavatelli as my side.

The sauce was lemony and I was very glad that there was a lovely toasted bread  beneath the shrimp for mopping as much as I could. The shrimp were perfectly tender and beautifully complemented by the chopped tomato and herbs. I wish I could say that the side of fresh pasta fulfilled all my dreams.  While I was dunking it in my superb scampi sauce it was good - but everything was good in that sauce.  Once left to its own devices, it didn't stand up very well. Maybe the flour was not well considered that night.

The veal was served in a bit of a scattered heap rather than in medallions, with prosciutto akimbo, but it was nicely sauteed with mushrooms.  Zena could have done without the bed of frozen spinach, but was more than satisfied.  Even though she'd been out saving the world and using unbelievable amounts of energy, this dish provided enough for a second meal.

Due to ample salad, bread and main course we weren't interested in dessert, but the list contains many favorites, and deserves a look.

In the Capital Region we have dozens and dozens of Italian restaurants. Villa Tuscan Grill has friendly and professional service, ample space for parties of all sizes and all the Italian classics you could desire.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"The Emergent Agriculture" - Gary Kleppel's Personal Story

It was a room full of mostly students and academics, a couple of farmers, and one Goddess of Fire who was NOT the center of attention.

Gary Kleppel gave a fascinating lecture this week at the University at Albany based on his recently published book "The Emergent Agriculture: Farming, Sustainability and the Return of the Local Economy". A professor of biology, Dr. K told us the story of his and his community's transformation to becoming successful farmers after what was, for some, many years far removed from the land. And while it's fun to think of smarty-pants lawyers having nervous breakdowns and ending up in the dirt, I think they did it for some very good reasons.
Dr. Gary Kleppel talks about his book, "The Emergent Agriculture: Farming, Sustainability and the Return of the Local Economy" at the University at Albany (May 3, 2016)
First, Dr. K made us all really, really depressed. He started with getting us to think about two fundamental assumptions many of us make about the food we eat: (1) it is safe, and (2) it is a commodity. Short answer: NO it is not safe (48 million cases of foodborne illness a year in the U.S.), and (2) NO it is not a commodity (everything is NOT the same, except the price). Monocultures of both plants and animals, the move away from family farms to industrial agriculture, the push for more production and yield and profit, has come at a cost: loss of diversity and overuse of pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers and antibiotics, feed lots and the mistreatment of animals, food that is old and poor quality and tasteless, huge investments in moving food across the globe, negative effects on climate, and sucking up all the water that isn't in California. He attests that it is wars, politics, and policies that prevent everyone in the world from getting enough food.

After a good cry (not that I cry, mind you), we were given hope that there are alternatives.

The bottom line: we need to be more sustainable, and we can do this by supporting local farms and farming and buying local, and by truly being part of this big change in terms of the way we produce and consume food. Local food that connects consumers and food producers in the same geographic area will make us self-reliant and improve local economies, our health, and the environment. Dr. K gave all kinds of data suggesting that local is emerging as a viable means of feeding the planet.

So he decided to try life on the farm, with a couple of sheepies to start and two cute herding dogs, looking at "the whole system", thinking environment/economics/ethics, and worked with other neighbor farmers to learn even more as he built his business (while not quitting his day job, I note), and Longfield Farm was born. Dr. K described farmers as "gritty, creative, smart" - a real community.

Farmers Only, here I come.

Anyway, while many of the students were likely inspired and may go "wwoofing", here's some things YOU can do to be part of this revolution:

(1) Go to the Farmer's Markets - Delmar, Troy, Schenectady, the Plaza, many more - be part of the action, be part of your community - and buy what's in season or produced locally BEFORE you hit the mainline grocery stores. It will be tastier, too.
(2) Consider a CSA (Fox Creek, Roxbury, etc.) - there's more out there than just veggies. Denison has fruit and egg shares, for example, and Blackhorse has meat.
(3) Join a community garden, or replace those perty flowers with some vegetables in your own back yard. Dirt is good.
(4) Stop at the farm stands and farm stores every chance you get. Note to Self: Try not to buy a pie EVERY time.
(5) Get involved with Field Goods - they have a service that's convenient and affordable and includes more than just produce if you wish. I like that you can buy for a family of four or just a single.
(6) Smarten up about what you buy in the grocery store. I bought some AMAZING cocktail tomatoes from Backyard Farms, ME in Hannaford's two days ago (closer than FL, anyway). Try one of the area food co-ops, Whole Foods, or Fresh Market to find local food.
(7) Oh yeah, learn to cook. Really.

Gary sells bread at the Farmer's Market in Delmar on Saturdays
Zena, Goddess of Fire

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Chritos Anesti: Greek Easter Celebrations

Zena, Goddess of Fire, is only half Greek. That should explain everything.

As a rotten kid I would gloat when Easter and Greek Easter were on different Sundays, because then I got more chocolate. Even on a solemn, religious holiday and all I could think about was food. Nothing's changed.

So my big, wonderful, loud, crazy extended family gathered this past weekend to be together, laugh, love, drink and eat too much. We always start with about two hours of appetizers, this year featuring Humbolt Fog cheese (creamy, delightful), wild caught U.S. shrimp from the Korean market (jumbos, with cocktail sauce), taramasolata from somewhere near Pleasantville (whipped and light, not too salty), and more. I tried not to overdo it, but, of course, I did.

At top, eggplant, taramasalata and hummus. Below - a lovely selection of cheeses, shrimp, nuts and salami. 
Then the loukaniko hits the grill - pork and lamb sausage laced with orange and fennel - served straight up or with a hit of hot mustard - this is always such a treat.

Loukaniko sausages - made with lamb and pork - amazing
Then a load of grass fed lamb ordered direct from a farm in PA - loins and lollis - marinated simply in olive oil, salt and pepper and oregano, burned on the grill (controlling the heat with a spray of beer) and finished with fresh lemon. The best lamb I've ever had.

This is just one tray of the lamb

The fire went out. It was an emergency so we called the Fire Chief to start it up again.

This is an action shot. Beer nicely controlled the flames. Really.
After a mad scramble to clean up the first round (I didn't help) dinner is served - spanakopita, green beans, a Greek style salad with sweet peppers and cuke and feta and tomatoes (dee-lish), bread from the store because I burnt what I made to bring (typical), grilled veg, orzo, sliced ham, and lots and lots of lamb. A feast!!!
A feast!!! Lamb not shown for some reason...
Then we bop eggs - butt to butt and pointy end to pointy end - something to do with the resurrection - and s/he with the last intact egg gets good luck. Me, I lost and ate the egg. It was good.

Time for dessert - sesame cookies, baklava, fruit salad, and even "extra dessert" - one wonderful cuz had his 50th birthday. That's a Napolean cake - the entire thing. Amazing. I skipped the fruit....

Happy birthday, Cuz!!!  
This is not a selfie
It was and always is wonderful to share a special day with those I love, and so I share my love of food and family with the rest of you. Christos Anesti!!!

Zena, Goddess of Fire

Everyone is smiling, even Cooper the dog, who kept the carpet clean of crumbs

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"But I mean, where do people eat?"

In the local food blogs and rags with food columns there's an ongoing conversation about the passion that Capital Region denizens have for chain restaurants. Predictability, convenience and plenty of parking are perhaps higher than attributes of the food being served on the lists of many of our friends and neighbors.

So when someone piped up with the question above in a local cafe recently I asked "Applebees?" and smiled a goofy smile. The room developed a distinctive negative tone. Several others in the conversation offered similarly unsatisfactory responses.  So the question stayed in mind and I've been pondering it on and off.

For a different reason in the past couple months I began to look at Albany's heritage of family Italian restaurants.  Some scorn these places as uninspired "red sauce joints". I have looked past that generalization and have begun to seek out these places. I have also included newer Italian restaurants that have gone a bit beyond nonna's recipes from Sicily and have taken on trained chefs. I have a list in process that argues for the idea that these Italian places are the places in our region where everyone eats. This is a list of 79 restaurants, and it doesn't include (as far as I know) chains, pizzarias and delicatessens.  Please feel free to add ones that you don't see, or clarify if any of these are not restaurants but pizzarias or delis in the comments.

Check it out:

Amo La Bella Behind times union ctr
Angelo’s Tavolo Scotia
Anthony's Canal Riverside in Rotterdam Junction
Appian Way Schenectady
Barcelona in Albany
Bellini’s Slingerlands
Cafe Calabria (Guilderland
Café Capriccio
Caffe Italia
Ca'mea (hudson)
Chianti il Ristorante
Ciao Italia
Deangelos Ristorante Crisler Ave.
Dorato’s 20 Mall
E.K.’s Cibo
Forno Bistro
Johnny's in Schenectady
Il Faro Menands
LaBella’s Wynantskill
La Cucina (amsterdam)
Lanie’s Italian Café 471 Albany Shaker Rd Albany, NY 12211
La Perla
Lombardo's, Albany
Lo Porto’s
Lorenzo’s Italian Cafe Schenectady
L’Ultimo, Amsterdam
Mama Mia’s on Rte. 50 in Saratoga
Marisa’s Place
Mezza Notte (Guilderland)
Minissale's Wine Cellar Cafe
Mio Posto
Moscatiello’s in Troy
Nona Maria’s in Halfmoon
Nove Italian Restaurant (gansevoort)
Paolo Lombardi's in Wynantskill
Pasta Pane, located at 18 Park Ave. Clifton Park
Pennell’s Saratoga
Ralph's Tavern
Randy Loren’s Dolce Vita
Riccitello John Schenectady
Ripe Tomato
Ripepi’s St. Johnsville
Romo's, Glenmont
Rudy’s Rennselaer
Sam’s Italian American
Scotti’s in the Upper Union Street district of Schenectady
Tesoro (Guilderland--I assume the Tesoro's above is referring to Schenectady)
Three Vines Bistro
Two Brothers East Greenbush
V&R on Madison Ave
Villa Tuscan Grill Schenectady

We also love going out for breakfast in the Capital Region, and so I just began a list of breakfast spots. This one is very rough at this point - I'm sure there are dozens more to add.  Soon this may overcome the Italian places, but for now it's a bit shorter. Brunch is often only on Sunday or weekends, so go to the website of the place or call. 

Please do add more places or make corrections in the comments, but no chains.

Breakfast and Brunch
76 Diner
Angelo’s Tavolo at Glens Sanders Mansion brunch
B-rads in troy
Bellevue Cafe in Schenectady. They open at 6am
Blueberry Hill - New Lebanon
 Bob's in Watervliet
Bubbles Restaurant in Mechanicville
Buckley Farms, Ballston Spa
Burnt Hills Café
Carol's Place in Troy
Chuck wagon
City Beer Hall has Saturday & Sunday brunch
Daily Grind Albany
Daily Grind Troy
Delmar Bistro
Duncan's in Troy
Gideon Putnam Hotel, Saratoga Springs brunch
Good Morning Cafe in Ballston Spa
 Halfmoon Diner
Homefront Cafe in Altamont
Illium Cafe in Troy
 Indian Ladder Farms Yellow Rock café
innovo kitchen brunch
Iron gate
Jake Moon. Clarksville
Jimmy's Egg in Clifton Park
Johnny B's in Glenmont
Karavalli in Latham and Saratoga brunch
Lakeside Farms in ballston spa
Manory's in Troy
Max London's
Midway Cafe Rt 9W Ravena
Oliver's in Glenville
Over the Moon Cafe and Bakery in Schuylerville
Park Side Eatery in Saratoga
 Perreca's in Schenectady
Ravenous Saratoga
Ripe Tomato
Scallions in Saratoga
Settles Hill in Altamont, NY brunch
Silver Spoon in Ravena
Skyport Glenville
Spillin the beans - downtown Troy
Sweet Mimi’s
Tanzy's in Hudson 
The breakfast spot in cohoes
The Iron Roost Ballston Spa
The Low Beat monthly brunch
The stockade inn  brunch
The Ugly Rooster, Mechanicville
The Window Box in Slingerlaands
Treviso by Mallozzi’s at the Italian American Community Center brunch
Union Cafe, Upper Union Street, Niskayuna
Village Cafe & Bakery Greenwich
Wellington's Albany
Whistling Kettle - Ballston Spa
Whistling Kettle Troy

So there is my empirical evidence that we spend our mornings in cafes and we love eggs, waffles, toast and home fries.  Also we love our Italian heritage so in the evening we go out to the red sauce joints and their step children here in the Capital Region.  And I challenge you to throw down your own answer in response.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Zena the Lab Rat: Pangea at CIA

Pangea, a self-described "pop-up" restaurant at CIA promising plant-forward plates and thoughtful use of meat and seafood, all student prepped and delivered, felt like a school science experiment.
Pangea is only supposed to be open until the middle of June. Then what???
And I was the lab rat.

Being the happy, docile type, as you well know, I was more than willing to run through the maze, hoping for a taste of something delicious if I found my way.

The dining area is bright, noisy and funky. Nice heavy furniture and tableware. 
The wine/beer menus were clipped but thoughtful. The Cleaver IPA, from The Brewery at the CIA ($5) was a delicious treat: a hoppy, amber ale, rich and classic. And the Syrah du Moracco "Syrocco", Thalvin, Morocco ($7), hit dry but with a tangy, fruity aftertaste. That one was an easy round. But we were still running around chasing something that smelled good.
This was a delicious, big beer
The mashup fusion menu was a real test, and was hard to choose - savories and/or sweets. The Mistress of the Hounds started with Goat Cheese, Wine Braised Carrot, Chestnut - a beautiful board that teased your tastebuds with quince under the crispy nut, a sweet carrot laced with maple syrup, fresh, fluffy cheese and a pairing of roasted squash on a squash puree. I had the Chipotle, Pecan, Sweet Potato Soup - presented soupless so I could see the add-ins - surprises of crunchy nuts, hits of fresh herbs (tarragon) and fennel seed, a mild smokey heat - what else was I tasting??? I think I did okay on this part of the study: this was a sultry soup that felt like a prize.
The soup was prettier before the soup was poured in 

This board does not get points for pretty but it was very tasty
In the second round of experiments Mistress had Roasted Vegetable Stew, Couscous, Almonds - the sauce was awesome but it was mostly a bowl of chickpeas, with root vegetables, almost no couscous, and yeah, I get it - upstate NY, April, the only thing green got eaten by the deer and bunnies last night while you were sleeping - but it needed something. I was served the Roasted Rutabaga, Thyme, Bacon - a great combination with a sweetened pan sauce, sauteed spinach, smokey bacon and a tender rutabaga - a delicious combination. I think the "test" was accepting this humble root as a main.
The vegetable stew was another big bowl of chickpeas in my life that I can do without

The roasted rutabaga was worth the race through the maze 
Round 3 of the science project and Mistress cut into a Poached Pear, flavored with cardamom and citrus, a scent of alcohol, a bit of creme fraiche - light and refreshing. I went for Oxtail Pie (another savory) - served fragrant and beefy with a hit of black truffles, super rich, salty, and piping hot, with a side of squash puree - beautiful and rich. I think I hit the bell on that one.
The oxtail pie was amazing - black truffles in the sauce

The poached pear was light and refreshing

There were a few specials, which we didn't try, and a few extras brought to the table - a display of bread and flatbread with a pea and spinach hummus that was very good, a bowl of fried chickpeas and candied crickets that I ate only to appease the scientists but the bugs tasted like dust so I don't really care if it has 2x the protein per oz as beef, and a final note of brownie "petit fours" and Nutella cookies that were both quite delectable.
The bread board was beautiful

Surprise chocolate finish!!!
Then the final written examination: questions like "Was the meal vegetable forward? and "How much do you care about how commercial meat is raised (paraphrasing)", "How often do you eat meat", and so forth. I had to keep changing my answer. I'm not sure how I did. But I think the food and the creativity and passion behind the experiment were wonderful.  I was bred for this.

Fried chickpeas with dusty candied crickets that I thought tasted like desiccated flies. Not that I would know. 

Pangea is a casual setting - bright, noisy, and friendly - all with a student smile. Lunch was $18/person plus a 17% fee that goes towards scholarships and student activities. Beverages extra.

Zena, Goddess of Fire
(squeak squeak)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A Night in Tuscany (on a student budget.......)

I got lucky. I got reservations to a special themed event "A Night in Tuscany" at Creo on April 6th. Executive Chef Eric Sell together with wine aficionado Joe Armstrong wove together an inspired dinner that carried me all the way to Italy in a flood of flavors that left me feeling loved.

And I loved right back.

We started with a Del Professore Vermouth Blanc - not Tuscan but in the spirit of - sweet and smooth and enticing like a possible date, it didn't need ice or lemon or gin to make it wonderful. Nice start.
The pourings were delicious and well considered - BRAVO!
The first course was a fettunta - crispy hard rosemary bread rubbed with garlic and topped with chicken liver pate, capers, and anchovies. The flavors just about blew my cover they were so strong, rich and salty - served, interestingly enough, with a dry, light, floral, even grassy white, San Quirico Vernaccia di San Gimignano DOCG (certified organic - nice touch). Puppy thought that a red would have been a more intuitive choice, but the pairing was a great date.
First course: Zena's cover is almost blown by the strong flavors of the fettunta
Next was Ribolita - bean soup with bread topped with fresh kale, laced with smokey ham and tomato, this was earthy and wintry, with reminders of summer in a hearty winter bowl of happiness. This with an Altesino Rosso IGT 2014 (Joe explained that this one was made from 80% Sangiovese grapes and a 20% mixture of Merlot and CabSav) - dry, rich bodied, and tasting of cherry - gently holding hands with a simple but tasty dish.
Ribolita - simple and tasty, with kale, which I can do without

A Wild Boar Ragu served with house made fennel parpadelle was a good idea but not as well executed as it could have been (I wanted more of that delicious sauce and the pasta could have spent another minute in the pot), but it got a quick kiss from a Valdipiatta Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG that was delicate and velvety smooth. TBB, sitting to my right, just sipped and smiled.
The Wild Boar Ragu was tasty but fell short so it got kissed by the Valdipiatta Vino Nobile
The best part of the meal was the Bistecca all Fiorentina - a thick cut of porterhouse from Kilcoyne farms hugged and held close with olive oil, salt and pepper - buttery, powerful beef, served rare and tender with a side of garlicky broccoli rabe. The wine was Pratesi Carmignano DOCG - robust and hearty - together this pairing was certainly like an all nighter - I'll never forget that beef - ever.

Chef presenting the bistecca - rare and tender (the meat, not Eric, or maybe he is, I'm not sure, but he was very nice)

We wrapped up with Zuppa Ingles, layers of cake flavored with liqueur and custard, topped with berries and cream, and a Vin Santo dessert wine that was cold and sweet and refreshing, like a hot date that ended well, leaving you full and happy, petting your own belly. I had to skip the Biscotti and Poli Moscato Grappa digestivo - too full by now to do much more than roll over and close my eyes and remember my amazing night in Tuscany.
No way I could eat all my  dessert but I took a few might big mouthfuls and closed my eyes with joy before I called it quits

Tuscany, on a student budget:  per person the meal was only $40 plus tax and tip. I got lucky. I love these events - such creativity and passion went into everything. Grazie e buona notte.

Zena, Goddess of Fire