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Alone In Utica

October 10, 2017

Friday I left home. I just hopped in the car, and I left.

No wife. No kids. Just a tank full of gas, a couple of bags, and a dream of meeting up with regional food bloggers to learn about beef and veal production in New York. Hey. You have your dreams. I have mine.

Oddly, I packed a lot of shoes. Usually I just travel with the sandals on my feet. But I needed boots for a rainy day on farmland, closed toed shoes for kitchen work, and a pair of sneakers now that I’m all into sweating for fun. That’s four pairs of shoes. For me. To cover a time span of fewer than 48 hours.

What have I become?

The shoes were not the only strange thing about this trip, because usually I travel with the family, and we’re in a rush to get wherever we are trying to go. Which means there’s never typically time for culinary adventures on the road. This time, I had no such restrictions. And I found myself passing through Utica. Twice.

There must be people who blow past Utica on route 90 without stopping all the time. I just don’t know how they have the willpower. Maybe they don’t know about Utica Greens, or Chicken Riggies, or hats in sauce, or tomato pie, or pusties, or any of the other delicious things you can find in this amazing old town.

From the pizza parlors to the fine dining Italian restaurants, the crushed hot pepper on the tables is Utica grind pepper for crying out loud. It’s fantastic stuff. But in Utica, they just call it pepper.

Much like it would seem that Utica Greens are simply greens.

I pulled out of the Capital Region a little after noon, and even though I was hungry, eating was not an option. My plan was to hold out until I could get to Utica. Because more than anything else, I wanted a plate of greens, dammit. I was craving for greens.

After a little bit of research I decided I really wanted to try the Greens Ala Ventura, at Ventura’s. After confirming they would be open, I set my coordinates for this classic old school Italian restaurant.

When I arrived, close to 2pm on a Friday, the dining room was surprisingly packed. Apparently I stumbled into the reception after a funeral. But the staff was more than happy to serve me at the bar.

An order of greens is listed as a hot appetizer, but it’s more than enough food to be a meal for one. Really, I didn’t need to finish the whole thing. But what was I going to do? I couldn’t really take it with me, and I didn’t want it to go to waste. So I kept on eating.

Truth be told, I’ve had better Utica Greens, but I’m glad I finally got to try Ventura’s take on the dish. And it was a great decision to have a giant plate of greens before arriving at a weekend of meat.

The downside of traveling alone is that I couldn’t possibly dream of eating another bite after finishing off that plate of greens. Which is unfortunate, because a slice of tomato pie would have been ideal. I couldn’t even contemplate a pusty.

So I hit the road out of town. Syracuse wasn’t far enough away for dinner. There was no way I would be hungry by that point. But while in the area, I might as well pop into a Wegmans. And it was there that I gathered some ingredients for a lovely picnic meal at the hotel. A brioche roll, some prosciutto san danielle, an organic apple, a bottle of water, and a bar of chocolate.

What else could anyone want? Okay, I did check out the beer selection, but there wasn’t much that I couldn’t get around these parts. And I didn’t quite feel like committing to a four pack of something off the radar.

I do love a good Wegmans shopping trip. That store is fantastic.

The town I arrived in was Canandaigua. I pulled in around 5pm on Friday. By 3pm on Sunday I was back on the road heading home. This time I was leaving with a belly full of beef and veal. Eating was the last thing on my mind.

Usually on road trips with the families there are no stops at breweries along the way.

This time there was nobody to stop me from making a little side trip to Prison City Brewery in Auburn. The small operation was entirely off my radar until Paste magazine determined in a blind tasting that this was the best IPA in America.

Like a lot of small craft breweries, the thing you are looking to try is rarely available when you visit. But I did walk away with a couple of crowlers filled with two different single hop pale ales. And I have to say, I’m more of a pale ale fan myself. Anyhow, those went into a cooler and it was time to get back on the road.

This time, as I drove towards Utica from the other direction, all I could think about was tomato pie. Because believe it or not, I’ve never had a slice of tomato pie in Utica.

On a Sunday evening in Utica, one’s choices are limited. And I’m not even sure if what O’Scugnizzo Pizzeria makes would even be considered tomato pie. All I know is that when I got there, alone, there was a sad sign hanging that read “no slices”.

Which meant I had to go for a whole pie. And I think I screwed this up.

What I should have done was ordered a large, so I could experience this pizza in the rectangular form that God intended. Instead, since I was alone, I went for a small which would still be more than double the amount of bread and sauce that I wanted.

Remember, I still had a belly full of beef and veal. That stuff sticks with you.

The sauce. The cheese. The sausage. All excellent. The crust? I wasn’t feeling the crust. And now I’m left with pangs of doubt and regret. I could easily see a crust cooked in a rectangular pan coming out better, even if made with the same dough. The small pizza indeed came in the shape of a round pie, and the crust was just stiff, dry, and bland. This tasted more like a frozen pizza shell than anything else.

Utica Pie Crust Detail couplet

But I blame myself. I will have to return to this beloved local institution with people. Because while traveling alone can be fun, it can also be severely limiting. I would have loved to try the wings at this pizza place which smelled amazing. Not to mention the fact it serves chicken riggies, a steak and greens sub, and a meatball sub. And of course, on each table is a shaker of Utica grind red pepper.

Man, I love this town. I’ll return for some more eating. Hopefully next time, I’ll remember to bring an eating posse along for the ride.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2017 10:29 am

    Road trip!!!

  2. Karen O permalink
    October 10, 2017 11:57 am

    Tomato pie! I’ve had it several times, a few from my husband’s coworker who’S from that area. It sounds just like the homemade pizza that I was told my great grandmother made.

  3. -R. permalink
    October 10, 2017 11:58 am

    Meh. I grew up outside of Utica and still have family there, and can state that it just isn’t what it used to be. That whole strip of Bleecker St. used to be littered with excellent Italian restaurants (ie, Grimaldi’s), but they’re mostly gone at this point (Ventura’s is still there). Same with bakeries – Utica used to be littered with great Italian, Polish and German bakeries, but only the Florentine Pastry Shop remains. Times change.

    Personally, I’d be more interested in checking out some of the Vietnamese, Laotian, Bosnian, and Somali places that have opened in the last 10-20 years – much more reflective of the recent waves of immigration to the city. Chicken riggies, hats, Utica greens, half-moons and tomato pie are, alas, relics of the past.

  4. October 11, 2017 7:22 pm

    While on a work trip to Utica, I also visited O’Scugnizzo Pizza and had a very disappointing meal. However, my day was totally redeemed later that day by a visit to the Nail Creek Pub and Brewery, right next to FX Matt Brewery. They had an excellent chicken sandwich with greens on them and instead of a side dish, you could have a Utica Club (probably cheaper to buy than potatoes!).

  5. Lauren Darman permalink
    October 13, 2017 12:02 pm

    Roma’s is the only place left that has decent tomato pie – which used to be sold at small corner stores and no one bought it unless desperate (.25 a square). Roma’s is closed on Sunday, and closes at 2:30 PM on Saturday. The only good bakeries left are Carusos on Bleecker Street and Holland Farms on Oriskany Blvd. Here are some more food places – Venturas is the best and last of the old school Italian: Symeon’s for Greek, Pho’s for Vietnamese, Polish deli on Lenox Ave, Hapanowicz Meat Market in New York Mills or
    a fish fry at Tiny’s. Voss’s for a pulled pork sandwich – ask for it “all the way”. Best greens/riggis at Chesterfields or at someone’s house in East Utica. best cheesecake used to be Manny’s cheesecake – burnt down. Best chicken used to be Hillman’s – retired. Best rye used to Bazan’s – burnt and closed down.

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