Utica, a destination that makes other towns GREENS with envy!
You know how they tell you to never judge a book by its cover, well that’s exactly how I felt the first time I visited Utica New York. No disrespect toward the Empire State’s 10th largest city, but when I drove into town, I immediately caught “there’s definitely a dive bar on the outskirts of town with a bouncer named Dalton” kinda vibes. And while I never saw Ben Gazzara driving around in a monster truck tormenting store owners, Utica’s storied history of organized crime and corrupt politicians makes it an excellent setting for a really excellent, cheesy B movie.
But when you shake the dust off the cover, you’ll find that Utica is not just a city with an interesting past but it’s also a foodie mecca that no one knows about. It’s almost never mentioned with the culinary juggernauts Chicago, New York or New Orleans despite having an equally impressive resume. Let me throw a “per capita'' qualifier in that previous statement but here are some facts. Utica is home to O'Scugnizzo's, the second oldest continuously owned pizzeria in the country and is the birthplace of several regional dishes like chicken riggies and tomato pie to name a few. And my new favorite Thanksgiving side dish Utica greens.
Not Your Nona’s ‘Scarole
If you’re of Italian heritage or ever ate at an old school red sauce joint, chances are you’ve heard of sauteed escarole in olive oil. The slightly bitter, garlicky dish was brought to Utica along with the wave of Italian immigrants that came over to work the mills and railroads in the early 20th century. It is universally accepted that chef Joe Morelle is responsible for elevating the traditional recipe into Utica Greens while working
at Chesterfield's Restaurant in the late 1980’s. He added crispy fried prosciutto, spicy cherry peppers and topped it with a mound of broiled seasoned breadcrumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The appetizer became known as Greens Morelle, a tradition of naming the greens after the preparing chef that continues today.
Soon after, many other restaurants started making their own signature versions. Georgio Frattasio learned to make the greens while working at Chesterfield's and now makes Greens Georgio with salami and fried potatoes at Georgio’s Village Cafe. Depending on where you go, sometimes sausage, garlic and even pickled peppers are substituted. Unfortunately, Chef Morelle is no longer with us, but his original recipe lives on at Chesterfield’s Tavolo. This dish is amazing and is my favorite bite of 2022 so far. The charred topping, salty cheese and crisp prosciutto makes for one excellent bite after the other. And it's a vegetable so it's totally healthy, right?
Riggies and Tomato Pie
Despite an influx of new immigrants that have settled in Utica over the last 30 years, Italians still make up 20% of the population. A vibrant "Little Italy" once ran along Bleecker Street packed full of pastry shops, butchers and restaurants has slowly disappeared. Only a sprinkling of remnants remains. Roma Sausage & Deli which opened in1999 is one of them. Store made sausages, salami and imported cheeses hang from the ceiling like stalactites. Frozen orecchiette ready to be turned into the locally beloved "hats and broccoli" fill the freezers along with other homemade pasta. Owner Steve Broccoli, no relation, added a bakery which serves meat and vegetable stuffed rolls, breads and their critically acclaimed tomato pie. The thick, Sicilian Style crust is airy with a chew that mimics a focaccia. It's covered with a zesty tomato sauce and a heavy sprinkling of cheese and is served room temp.
Tomato pies are sold throughout town so make sure to try Holland Farms, Napoli's Italian Bakery and the aforementioned O'Scugnizzos.
Chicken riggies, as in rigatoni, is a local pasta dish of tender chicken chunks and hot peppers served in a luxurious pink cream sauce. Unlike Utica greens, chicken riggies
has a contested origin story with both The Clinton House and Chesterfield's claiming ownership. The spicy pasta is sure to put a little precipitation on your upper lip and is enjoyed throughout the Mohawk Valley region. Teddy's in Rome NY adds mushroom and black olives to their recipe. Others flock to Venice Pizzeria in Yorkville for their 30-year-old rendition. I can't understand why this hasn't caught on nationally like a vodka cream sauce, but I can assure you it's equally as good.
If this is the first you've heard of Utica New York, you're welcome, but this is just a taste. I haven't even talked about the half-moon cookies, pusties or mushroom stew yet! If you are already familiar with all these great regional specialties, tell me some of your favorite spots because this won't be my last visit.
To Be Continued...