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Now That’s Italian

July 9, 2009

There are a couple of big questions that inspired me to start this blog.
1) Why is the food not better in Albany?  And
2) What can be done to improve it?

What may be even more vexing is that many people think the food in Albany is not just good, but very good indeed.

My job is difficult.  Because on one level I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade.  You like something, and that’s fine.  Taste is a very personal matter, and if it’s good to you, then it is good.

I tend to be very selective about where I eat.  Some may say fussy.  And as I result, I do a lot of research before deciding to spend significant amounts of money at a restaurant.  In doing so, I read a lot of menus and a lot of reviews.

My mind boggles when I look at local Albany restaurant menus, and I see the prices they are charging for what appears to be rather uninspiring food.

But how can I demonstrate this?  I think the answer is by direct comparison.

So here is what I propose.  Let’s take two menus, and compare them.  Let’s look at the back to back.  One will be from my new home and one from my old home.  I will try to keep them as similar as possible.  And hopefully at the end of the exercise, the people of Albany, NY will understand why my feathers are in a bunch.

But you need to promise that you will actually click on the links to the menus.  And that you will open them in two different windows so you too can compare them.  Then either tell me I’m crazy or I’m on the money.  Promise?

Today I have prepared an Italian comparison.

The Albany Times Union has given 3.5 stars (out of a possible 4) to four Italian restaurants.  One is in Saratoga, which is out because my beef is with Albany restaurants.  One does not have their prices posted on their online menu.  And I have been falsely accused of having a bone to pick with the third.  Which leaves MezzaNotte as the restaurant to represent Albany.

In the Bay Area corner we have Oliveto.  I suppose I could have selected Delfina.  But I wanted to stick to a suburban locale.  Plus the menu prices at Oliveto and MezzaNotte line up very nicely.

Here are the menus: MezzaNotte & Oliveto.  Go there now.  I’ll wait.

When I look at these two menus here is what I see.  Immediately one looks like a fine dining restaurant, and the other does not, simply as a matter of design and presentation.  Then I notice that the Oliveto menu is seasonal, whereas MezzaNotte is fixed in time.  Seeing this makes me question the wisdom of offering figs and garden tomatoes in the dead of an Albany winter.

The other major difference is the use of adjectives.  If you look at Oliveto’s menu, almost every single dish contains special ingredients.  And by that I mean it is specifically sourced.  You are not just getting cherry tomatoes, but Terra Firma Farm cherry tomatoes.  The pigeon is from Paine Farm, the lamb is from Watson Farm and the rabbit is from Jones Farm.  One dish uses Monti Iblei olive oil and another uses Gerbino olive oil.

But this is not just about marketing or fancy words.  It’s about a commitment to using the best quality ingredients the chef can find.  To me, it is the difference between food and restaurant-food.

The only thing that remotely compares on the MezzaNotte menu is the house-made mozzarella on their Caprese salad and their “Americana.”  Unless you see anything else?

For lack of a better word, the menu offerings at Oliveto are just more interesting.  These are dishes that would not be found in many other Italian restaurants.  Yes, some of them are challenging and may only appeal to adventurous eaters.  But shouldn’t eating be an adventure?  Trying new tastes and preparations, in the comfort of knowing they are being expertly prepared using only the finest ingredients?

Part of me wants to proceed section by section.  Breaking down the differences between the two menus.  But I don’t think many people would find that terribly interesting.  Hopefully with what I’ve covered so far, you get the big picture.

I would like to make one thing perfectly clear.  Fundamentally, I have no problem with MezzaNotte.  I am sure their food is tasty, their ambiance is relaxing and their service is attentive.

I just don’t understand how they can justify the prices they are charging for the food they are serving.  Especially when you look at a place like Oliveto that is nestled in one of the priciest real estate markets in the country and where the cost of living significantly exceeds the Albany area.

What gives?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. joni permalink
    July 9, 2009 11:44 am

    can’t speak for Oliveto, altho there was a little place named Concerto we used to like in the Bay. my husband called mezzanotte and asked if they had soft shell crabs, they told him to reserve a table for that coming weekend. now soft shells are one of my pet faves and i have had them in many locales. the chef at mezzanotte dipped them in cornmeal in place of the customary seasoned flour. ah, bliss! we have not yet been disappointed at mezzanotte. (maybe they include their seasonal offerings with the specials).

  2. brownie permalink
    July 9, 2009 12:26 pm

    Regarding MezzaNotte’s menu, I once emailed the creator of the ComicSans MS font. In terse, seething prose, I damned him for contributing to society’s decay. I still haven’t received a response. Perhaps I was too fussy?

    Sadly, the MezzaNotte menu is head and shoulders above Italian food where I live in rural NY. I think it’s just East Coast culture, because I commute every day to NYC and have eaten some ridiculously expensive meals there that don’t come close to dinner at some hole-in-the-wall in the Bay Area. The Profussor articulates this so much better than I do, but after living in food Nirvana and being on the cusp of understanding what I eat, I was whisked away to a purgatory of chain restaurants, steakhouses, and overpriced pomp.

    Eating out is so touch-and-go here that I had to form a rule. Any restaurant with a beer sign in the window is no restaurant at all, but a drinking establishment that serves food. The quality of the food decreases proportionate to the number of signs. The subtleties of fine food may escape me but I know bad when I taste it, and so far my beer sign rule stands. If you’re reading this Mrs. Raf, I call BS on your delicious tilapia at our local three-beer-sign “Restaurant and Tavern.”

  3. Mama Ass permalink
    July 9, 2009 2:12 pm

    Thanks for the exercise.
    Though we are close to Philadelphia, the food in our town isn’t that good. But the town about two miles away has some really excellent restaurants. So it isn’t an issues of supply or location, but inspiration.
    Perhaps your local restaurant could take the cue to make the menu more seasonal and more descriptive. If the food is already good, why not present it that way?
    P.S. Homemade potato chips threw me off. Is that really Italian?

  4. July 9, 2009 4:00 pm

    never sampled mezzanotte. as a resident of Sch’dy and coming from an Italian family, i go to Italian places. if you want good and plentiful, check out Petta’s. It’s the Sch’dy GHETTO, but it does not disappoint

  5. Vanessa permalink
    July 9, 2009 5:28 pm

    I think that Mezze Notte may need a bit of work on the semantics of their menu…but my husband and I eat there frequently and have yet to be disapointed. The food is fresh, and delicious. They do source from their own gardens (from what I remember) and for a local (within 5 minutes) we love it.

    Yeah, it might not stand up to the Bay Area..but this is not the Bay Area..it’s Albany.

    p.s.maybe we should double date sometime

  6. Vanessa permalink
    July 9, 2009 9:15 pm

    http://toscagrille.com/spring_menu.pdf

    getting closer..still not as adjective heavy..but more descriptive and adventurous (?)

  7. July 10, 2009 12:47 am

    Oh Fussy, you break my heart. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly agree with you that places like Mezza Notte (btw, the location of the place makes me laugh as I am a life long Guilderlandian), and in fact most Albany area “fine dining” places, deliver over priced plates of shite. Am I wrong for finding this endearing? It makes me laugh that Creo with all of its pseudo-modernity stands in the former location of an orange roofed Howard Johnson’s (ma and da’ took me there for a milk shake or two in my halcyon youth). In the Bay Area we are not. We are smack dab in the middle of, in my opinion, one of the stodgiest and most conservative food-cultural areas of the nation. You are going to need to stop expecting culinary sophistication and start enjoying our post industrial, New England-esque, culinary stubbornness as bleak as it may be. But hey, I am from here, I have been everywhere, I come from a culinary trained family, and goddammit all I love our local restaurants. Warts and all.

  8. omaxwell permalink
    July 10, 2009 10:35 pm

    I am new here, from the bay area like you, and trying to fit in. I do notice the prices in the cap district–and not just at restaurants but for salad fixins at a farmer’s market, or a hour of a moving company’s time–approach or exceed those in one of the most expensive metro areas in the world, and I wonder why that is when the cost of living is overall significantly lower.

    Part of this is volume: if you are going to sell a few pounds of mesclun or a couple of chops rather than carloads, the per transaction cost is going to be higher. But that doesn’t explain everything and certainly doesn’t explain why a fine dining establishment is going to charge big-city prices but make compromises on variety and ingredients. Especially when there are a few places (I’m thinking of Max London where I’ve eaten a number of times as well as the apparently legendary meal I missed at Top of the World, as documented on the Slow Food blog at http://slowfoodsaratogaregion.com/blog/ ) that really are trying hard to be inventive and getting their patrons to come along.

    And the real irony is that we live in the middle of a rich bounty of local farms, many of which truck their goods to farmers markets in NYC because they assume there is no local demand. When we expect more, perhaps the restaurants will deliver more. There are certainly chefs in the region that want to do that.

  9. appauled permalink
    July 11, 2009 3:45 pm

    I’ll start off by saying that I respect your endeavor, but I can tell you that you’ll probably always leave your heart in the Bay Area. I’ll explain something to you from two perspectives; one being a person who has lived and worked with a good deal of San Francisco-Berkeley-Oakland people who have relocated to Boston/NYC/Albany. There tends to be a great deal of dissatisfaction at certain things; one of them being food and the other being personal space. We’ll deal with the first one. People from the Bay Area seem to really enjoy knowing a lot about where their food comes from. People in the Northeast – and perhaps this is a part of the cold, bitter windswept, puritanical culture that has left its mark. We’re not exactly like folks from Mississippi who will shovel pork rinds down our throat and wash em’ down with a big gulp of Mountain Dew, but knowing that our ingredients are organic is usually sufficient for the most discerning Northeastern, whether he lives in Saranac Lake or Brooklyn. The other thing is that we sometimes, when relocating, tend to see the flaws and the shortcomings in our new place. A few years ago I moved to Utica from Brooklyn for several months. It was the ultimate culture shock for me – and I was born and raised in Upstate New York. The things people heralded as groundbreaking and hip in Utica were well worn in Albany even. Part of it is just becoming comfortable I suppose in the new area, perhaps doing your own garden (I know I enjoy stealing items from one shared by my brother and father) and maybe trying to see what you can grow that’s native to the Bay Area. Good luck with your adjustment.

  10. omaxwell permalink
    July 13, 2009 12:34 am

    I wouldn’t mind a side conversation on personal space and how it is different in Upstate vs. the Bay Area. Fussy, I’ll bring it back to food in a minute so you don’t think we are off topic.

    I have missed a kind of abstract “freedom” since arriving in Saratoga, and didn’t realize till I read appauld’s post that I am probably thinking about personal space. In SF, people live their lives as they wish as long as they are not blatantly criminal or antisocial, and tolerance prevails. Upstate, folks seem much more concerned about each others’ business and can be ready to report in some detail on the comings and goings of some 3rd party that may not truly merit the attention.

    The upside of this is situations like when I’m at the beer store getting my growler refilled, and a guy I’ve met once at a friend’s hears I am moving and offers to help for the afternoon; that would never happen in SF.

    But I do miss the opportunity to disappear when I want to, though maybe that’s a matter of personal perception. My own view is tinted by growing up in the South where people could be branded as “bunny no-goods” who were “beyond the pale” with no prospect of redemption if they violated some obscure social tenet. I’ve always felt I was somehow in danger of falling into that “bad” group, while being unsure how to avoid it.

    Appauled et al, am I making sense here? Oh, and the food angle. I’m out to dinner last night in SF at a rather expensive restaurant, with good friends who happen to be from NYC. And over the hours the guy is insistent on building a jovial relationship with our waitperson, bringing them into each others’ personal space as it were. I’d never thought about it before but maybe that is “acting like a New Yorker” as opposed to a Bay Arean.

  11. Mike permalink
    August 4, 2009 1:35 pm

    Do adjectives make the food better? Or do they simply make the place seem more pretentious? In a large market like SF, you can afford to alienate people by putting on airs, in Albany you don’t want to appear snobbish or off-putting. Is a Sanitation Removal Teamworker worth more than a Garbage Man? A Petroleum Dispensing Specialist more desirable than a gas pump jockey?

    Stop doing yourself and readers a disservice, why not report on the food and actual dining experience at a restaurant rather than get caught up in judging the value of a dining experience based solely on menu verbiage?

  12. Sysonby permalink
    March 6, 2010 1:25 am

    I just came to this post via a link. Sorry so late to the party, or funeral as the case may be. Allow me to defend by town, Guilderland. As nice as it may seem to note the farm of origin for the tomatoes or the eggs at a location in California, what chance does a restauranteur have in upstate NY?
    Meza Note may get much of it’s produce and dairy and meats from local farms, but … a) this area doesn’t have a close “relationship” with such providers and b) for 8 months of the year nothing is coming out of the ground but mud and ice. No restaurant in the Albany area can say “tomatoes from X farm” when that farm is only harvesting for 5 months.
    Sure the foodies at Oliveto may understand what it means to get vegetables from “X farm” but most don’t know or care as long as it’s good food, well prepared. The hardcore foodie tends to think that everyone else in that restaurant is just like they are but most of us are not. We like the experience of a meal cooked by someone else. We like having the chance to linger over coffee or a glass of wine and not having to jump up to do the dishes. We don’t care if the cherry tomatoes are not the best we ever had or if the salad had too little arugula.

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