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

Monday, April 4, 2016

Doing Dishes: Veal Sorrento - Lo Porto and Red Sauce Joints

How can I have lived in the Capital District for more than 30 years without making a study of the red sauce joints?  Honestly, I don't know how it happened. What was wrong with me?  Well, I actually know the answer to that one.  It's the contrarian thing. Yeah.  I'm a non-conformist. But you'd think my pals would have dragged me there eventually.  So that's it - it's THEIR FAULT.

In the study of red sauce joints, one thing that must be surmounted is the superlatives.  For years I tried to believe the raving about "the BEST ITALIAN food" being here or there.  I went and tasted a couple times and thought "If this is the best, I don't want to know about the rest."  And many people use the term "red sauce place" in a pejorative manner, insisting on classifying them all as mediocre or uninspired. But in the end, to me that's all a lack of understanding what the whole thing about red sauce joints is.  They are much more than just the food. I'm feeling may way along, and finding many very interesting dining experiences.

Enter Lo Porto Ristorante Caffe.  It's not my first red sauce joint, now that I've begun to shop around and see what the red sauce joints do with an Italian American dish called Veal Sorrento or sometimes Veal Sorrentino or Veal Sorrentina.  At Lo Porto the dish is Veal Cutlet Sorrentina. There's something esoteric going on here, no doubt, but in essence it's a style of veal that involves eggplant and red sauce and cheese on top.  You wouldn't find it on menus in Italy because it would perhaps be called simply veal or perhaps veal with eggplant and it's just done in that regional style around Sorrento. But in Albany, nonna made the veal with eggplant (and sometimes ham) and if nonna made it, they're making it from her recipe and they had to call it something for the menu. Just so.

At Lo Porto they have advanced from nonna's recipes to professionally trained talent over the most recent two generations, but the ideas are the same. They also chose a store front in Troy rather than  an old house, and started in the 1980s, which is a bit later than many in the Capital District that started more like 40 50 or 60 years ago.

I slipped into Lo Porto early on a Friday night and got a table that was freezing cold due to a melange of fans, so the hostess had mercy and moved me into the back room. That was right after they had seated two huge tables, so the kitchen was now officially backed up. I'm glad I had nowhere to go after my meal, because it took a really really long time to have dinner.  The huge tables were filled with people who for some reason were compelled to yell at each other the entire time - it was friendly and everything but they had no idea how to talk at a normal volume.  It was exhausting, and there was no way I was going to get out of there soon. I had a martini (very well made), however it would have taken three to drown out the din. I was grateful to have my phone and all its distracting entertainments so that I didn't go nuts. If I had had a companion we would have had to scream at one another to be heard, so I was glad to be dining solo. The service was attentive and polite and while it took more than an hour for me to get to the entree, they were professional and kept water etc. well maintained.

Murals in the back room - a cozy spot

The bread was the delicate soft white variety, a little loaf that was warmed.  They don't go for the olive oil dip at Lo Porto.  They served whipped butter that had been piped onto doilies - fancy! The salad was fresh and light and those in the know appreciate that it was enough to begin to satisfy the immediate hunger, but not very filling due to the anticipated onslaught of the entree. And it was every bit the typical red sauce joint entree - enough for three people.

At Lo Porto they do the mound presentation rather than the medallions.  Very thin (pounded most likely) tender veal that is breaded, eggplant that is breaded and mozzarella are put on the plate in layers to form a mound that is then blanketed with mozzarella and doused with tomato sauce. I find the combination fascinating. In spite of this rather simple list of elements there is endless variety  among the different kitchens and of course the sauce makes most of the difference.  At Lo Porto it's a  puree with a straightforward combination of garlic and herbs. The tartness of the tomato creates a delicious  sharp top note over the  mellow savory smoothness of the meat, cheese and vegetable.

And I suppose any giant size entree such as this would feel naked and alone without a side dish, so red sauce joints are compelled to present the classic pasta in a bowl.  I am inclined to choose something else besides a long noodle because all that sauce flying around on  strands of pasta poses a danger to my clothing - especially post martini. So I try to end up with penne, which I enjoy and which can be consumed with a fork.

I may never actually get to a dessert at one of these places unless I tell them to bag the bread and salad.  But I assume they are wonderful.

I don't know yet what it is about these places that makes me fond of them.  Is it the family owned and operated aspect?  Is it the recipes from nonna that are lovingly reproduced decade after decade?  Is it the cramped dining rooms in converted old houses with hugs for the regular customers? Is it the old world food that they insist be cooked to order? As I go along in the series maybe all that will be revealed.  I recommend going to lots of them.  They are tucked into neighborhoods all across the district and no matter how many you know there always seems to be another one you never heard of.

And please don't hesitate to recommend your favorite, especially if they have Veal Sorrento on the menu.  I want to try as many local variations of this dish as possible.