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.


Steve N. said...

I have a love-hate relationship with Italian-American restaurants. It's true, the vast majority of red sauce joints are fairly mediocre. But what's worse is the lack of creativity. And after eating at one or two, or three, their sameness becomes maddening.

If I had to pick three, these three are standouts. The food is very good, and they're more creative than the rest.

I'd suggest Caffe Italia in Albany, Paolo Lombardi's in Wynantskill, and Johnny's in Schenectady. All three have some version of veal Sorrento on the menu.

LorreS said...

Thanks for your recommendations! I think two interesting responses to the classic red sauce joints are Milano up in Newtonville and Cafe Capriccio in downtown Albany. I think both of these places acknowledge the heritage and take the food forward in very delicious ways.