Now That’s Italian
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.
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.