The Mystery of The Albany Caprese
This blog is a reflection of my life. It is. That’s just how it works. I have experiences with food out in the world, those spark ideas, and then things rattle around in my head until I can get to my keyboard and expunge them.
Except of course for the ideas that just fade away. One of these days I’ll have more discipline to write down some of the more interesting thoughts that emerge from energetic conversation about food with people.
But because I’ve been spending more and more time with the Yelp gig, a lot of my current thoughts revolve around those activities. If I’m finding the blog to be a little too Yelp-centric these days, I have to imagine that other people have felt the same way too.
And it’s not like I don’t have other ideas floating around. I’m sitting on a story about two mayonnaise alternatives. Obviously, I’ll have to come up with a better hook for that piece, but it’s coming.
However, today’s rant is another Yelp-inspired tale, and it’s all about the dreaded Caprese salad.
Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with the Caprese salad. It’s perhaps one of the world’s most glorious dishes. Brilliant in its simplicity. Sliced tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil, olive oil, and salt. Some might say black pepper. I’d disagree. But we don’t have to split hairs on that one point.
A cheesemonger in the Bay Area once told me that the most remarkable thing about this dish is that everything in it, including the cheese, shares the same peak season. Yes, cheese has a season as well. Apparently, the summer grasses make the buffalo mozzarella its very best.
There’s one problem with a dish that’s this simple. There is nowhere for inferior ingredients to hide.
The only way the Caprese works is when every single component of the dish is working its hardest. And that’s why I say you don’t need any black pepper, because you should get all the peppery bite you need from the exceptional olive oil you use to punctuate the dish.
But here in Albany, the quality of the oil is a tertiary concern at most because far too many restaurants still have a Caprese salad on the menu all. year. long.
Last night I just turned some Roxbury CSA tomatoes into a bread salad. They were quite good. However, even these local August tomatoes were still not Caprese level good. I’m hopeful to find some even better ones down on the farm in Pennsylvania next week.
The fact that restaurants continue to sell a Caprese salad in the depths of an upstate winter led me to believe that people in the Capital Region must love this dish. They must go gaga for it. They must enjoy it so much that they demand it’s continued presence on the menu.
It’s the only sensible reason to drag this great dish’s noble name through the mud for most of the year. At least as far as I can see.
So I thought it would be easy to find raves about this dish on Yelp. But you know what I got instead? Crickets.
My hope had been to find a few good local examples of this classic combination, so that when tomato season hits in earnest, people could venture forth and try a version that’s worthy of its name.
But nada. Nothing. The best I could come up with on Yelp was a picture of the tomato and mozzarella salad that’s served at Cafe Capriccio. And they use a third of the real estate on the plate for arugula. Sure, the restaurant grows its own tomatoes, which is admirable indeed. However, tomatoes, mozzarella, and arugula isn’t a Caprese salad. It’s just not.
So what gives? Did I miss something? Surely someone in the Capital Region making a Caprese salad in summer that’s worthy of the name.
And maybe it’s a lost cause. Perhaps there is such burnout from poor out-of-season Caprese salads that people have lost their love for the real thing. And maybe its presence on the menu is simply a dying vestige of the past.
I have no idea. Any thoughts?