Search This Blog

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Lo Porto Forever

From the Vault Dept.: My recent review of Troy’s Lo Porto Ristorante Caffè is actually my fourth such essay. I’ve tried to visit somewhat regularly since the place opened, and have accumulated some 3,000 words on the place, not counting the latest. To give you a unique historical perspective on the place, I’ve gathered those words below.


PROCTOR’S THEATER – the one in downtown Troy – represents the city itself to a certain extent. It has an attractive, old-fashioned facade but there’s nothing within. The fact that Troy has been neglected for so long (try explaining to your kids why it still calls itself the “collar city”) is working out to its benefit: it’s so good-looking that it boasts an inadvertent attractiveness.
Photo by B. A. Nilsson

It was chosen to represent turn-of-the-century Manhattan for Martin Scorcese’s new movie, based on Edith Wharton’s marvelous novel The Age of Innocence, and, as Scorcese himself discovered, it features some of the area’s best restaurants.

One of the newest of which is Lo Porto, open for just a year. Having earned a number of rave reviews already, the business is so good that you must have a reservation for one of the seatings if you’re trying to dine there on a weekend.

Part of the problem – if indeed it is a problem – is the restaurant’s limited capacity. With only 50 seats, split between the main floor and a small balcony, you’re in close quarters. But it’s a charming, cafe-like appearance. “Just like you’d find in Manhattan,” says chef-owner Michael Lo Porto, which is true.

Except for the pricing. While it’s more expensive than a neighborhood Italian restaurant, it’s nothing like what you’d pay downstate. Pasta entrees are $6 to $9 or so, meat entrees average $12 to $15.

We sat in a downstairs corner, beside a wall hung with plaques that boasted Michael’s many accomplishments – one of the most recent of which was a contest sponsored by the Escoffier Society that brought together a number of the area’s best chefs, a contest which won distinguished honors for Lo Porto.

“People think it’s so different, French and Italian cooking,” he explains. “But I was born in Sicily and learned to cooked from my family – my grandmother ran a restaurant there that had been in the family for four generations. Sicilian cooking is different from the rest of Italy. There have been a lot of different influences because Sicily has been under so many different nationalities over the years, including the French.”

Don’t expect an Escoffier-rich menu at his restaurant, though. Two large pages cover all the expected categories, with lots of freshly-made pasta and seafood among the offerings.

There are specials, too, which your server will explain in as much detail as necessary. It’s nice to dine in a place where the floor staff doesn’t have to dash away immediately. In fact, we watched as one of the waiters went through a specials description for a large party as Michael stood by, nodding approval. He’s insistent about having his staff involved.

Although it took a while for our order to get taken and processed, once we got underway it was an unhurried pleasure. The first taste of Susan’s soup--a tortellini in brodo, featuring a lovely, lovely broth of subtle, not at all salty, deriving much of its flavor from the freshly chopped parsley and sprinkling of tarragon we tasted.

Mussels Casino is a great variation on the familiar clams recipe, which is fine with me (I’m much more enthusiastic about mussels for reasons of appearance that I won’t go into in case you’re eating). It’s a regular menu item that presents a small plate of the mollusks, opened and cleaned, topped with breading and bacon and baked until the juices flow into the topping and make it all moist and crunchy. And tangy with an appropriate combination of herbs.

Fresh radicchio is featured in a salad that tastes like it was just wrenched from the garden. Lo Porto later told us that the tomatoes right now are coming from Florida--“but a week ago I was getting them from Chile. Sometimes it costs a little more, but that’s what I have to do.”

The sense of well-being that goes with a good meal is rounded out by an appropriate bottle of wine. Don’t go looking for it just yet, however. For some complicated reason, the state liquor authority is giving Lo Porto a runaround. Evidently it will still be a while before alcoholic beverages can be served there.

Susan ordered one of the evening’s specials for her entree: a kind of shrimp marinara made with huge shrimp placed atop a pasta bed and nestling with chunks of fresh tomato marinara peppered (if I may use the word) with chunks of garlic. Lots of garlic. The way it should be prepared.

On our waitress’s recommendation, I chose the bilingually-named Fettucine con Cognac Sauce, which sports much, much more. Fresh fettucine alone has an unmistakable flavor and texture; added to that is a saute of vegetables and chopped prosciutto, finished with a cream sauce reddened with chunks of fresh tomato.

Notice how the word “fresh” keeps coming back? It’s such a simple secret. Good food preparation should keep us close to the garden.

We finished with fresh cappuccino and a pair of diet-destroying desserts: Lo Porto’s version of tiramisu is served like a slice of pie (soaked in espresso to add to the caffeine kick), while Susan had a kind of chocolate-covered tortoni we’ve seen dubbed elsewhere a “bocce ball.”

Although he also runs Michael Anthony’s in Lake George and has worked in New York and San Francisco, Lo Porto says his heart is right here in Troy. He proves it with a superior restaurant. Don’t be surprised when Marty shows up during the next few weeks.

Dinner for two, with tax and tip, was $61.

Lo Porto Ristorante Caffe, 85 4th Street, Troy, 273-8546. Serving Tuesday-Friday 11 AM-11 PM, Saturday-Sunday 4-11 PM. Call for reservations. All major credit cards.

Metroland Magazine, 5 March 1992


SIX YEARS AGO, Lo Porto’s was the toast of the town. Troy was making a major comeback, especially as a restaurant city, and Martin Scorcese and crew had just been in town to film scenes for The Age of Innocence. And when Lo Porto’s got the Scorcese seal of approval, there was no getting into the place on weekends.

One of my least favorite jobs is revisiting the scene of such triumph. How can it be expected to persevere? Troy’s restaurant scene has diminished, and Michael Lo Porto also has taken on the task of running The Sign of the Tree at the Empire State Plaza.

I visited on a recent Sunday with my editor friend, Susan. We were hoping for a meal of at least some adequacy. We were shocked and delighted to find the standards just as high as ever, and the meal was excellent. So much for assumptions.

It’s still the same tiny place, with 50 seats divided between the ground floor and a small balcony. We were given table 7, upstairs, which gives a view of the whole place. Beside us were the sounds of a party – since our last visit, Lo Porto added a large room upstairs to handle banquets and extra business, but it’s discreetly placed so that none of the intimacy of the restaurant has been affected.

Selections on the two-page menu are grouped as you’d expect, with hot and cold appetizers listed separately, 13 pasta specialties and five forms of baked pasta, and entrées divided by type of meat. Appetizers start at $6.50; pasta at $9.95, and other entrées at $13.95.

Below the listing of seafood specialties are five seafood mugnaia dishes, and this caught my eye. As described on the menu, they’re “created with capers, black olives, basil and black pepper in a light cream sauce.”

To start, however, a $16 bottle of Rosso di Montepulciano, and an order of hot antipasto – the costliest appetizer on the menu, at $18, but certainly more than enough for the two of us to share. Fried calamari dominated the plate, with a dark dipping sauce on the side. Around them was a ring of clams and oysters, stuffed with a light, buttery mix of breading and herbs. Poking around further we found large scallops, stuffed mushrooms, roasted red peppers and a decorative artichoke heart in the middle. Not a dressed-up-fancy dish, but the flavors were wonderful. The portion size was a tipoff to hold back from finishing it.

House salads were good, with a good selection of dressings served sparingly. As she has done in so many of our meals together, Susan used her litmus test of eggplant parmigiana to judge the place, and was mighty impressed. “This is really good,” she kept insisting as if she weren’t expecting it. And what a simple dish! But it needs a correct prep of the eggplant so it’s not chewy or bitter, and a proportion of sauce and cheese that doesn’t turn it into pizza.

Mugnaio, Lo Porto explained later, means “miller,” and mugnaia is the miller’s wife, evidently primed to serve a meal of subtly-flavored seafood once the grinding is done.

“But you think about these recipes,” says Lo Porto, “and they’re all rooted in one tradition or another. For instance, the fisherman, who go out when it’s still dark and have only a small oil lamp to cook over in the boat, had to learn to make simple meals. But they wanted them to taste good, too.”

Seafood sauté mugnaia featured mussels, clams, scallops and shrimp, and the added flavorings were perfectly proportioned. No overwhelming cream, no excessive thickness. Entrées were served with sides of linguine that we both took home intact.

When the restaurant opened in 1991, it was Lo Porto’s show. Now that he’s branched out more, he brought in skilled chefs to run the kitchen. Tony Bonaquisti is a Culinary Institute grad who wrote to Lo Porto just before graduation saying how much he like the restaurant and asking for a job. “I asked him when he was graduating, and he said in a week. I told him to take another week off, then come to work.” Lo Porto laughs. “I told him it would be the last week off he had for a long time.” Also in the kitchen is Jason Eobbi, both of whom have been there for three years.

Lo Porto was born in Sicily, where his grandmother ran a restaurant that had been in the family for four generations. “Sicilian cooking is different from the rest of Italy,” he told me on an earlier visit. “There have been a lot of different influences because Sicily has been under so many different nationalities over the years, including the French.”

We finished with an ungodly rich slice of tiramisu and a couple of cappuccinos before rolling out into the cold Troy night. Dinner for two, with tax and tip, wine and dessert, was $90.

Lo Porto Ristorante Caffe, 85 4th St., Troy, 273-8546. Serving Tue-Fri 11-11, Sat 5-11, Sun 4-11. All major credit cards.

Metroland Magazine, 5 February 1998


ONCE UPON A TIME, when Troy was poised to become the area’s dining Mecca, Lo Porto Ristorante would have been one of the top destinations. With Italian cuisine a well-entrenched commodity, chef Michael Lo Porto provided his own interpretations of classic dishes, featuring a lot of northern fare, and became an instant favorite.

His secrets were simple: fresh ingredients, which unfortunately exacts a higher price, and a skilled hand at sauces. Lo Porto is actually of Sicilian descent, and learned from cooking from his family, a family that ran a restaurant there for several generations. The influence of French cooking upon Sicily explains part of this skill; Lo Porto’s own love of food and family accounts for the rest.

And so he opened in Troy in 1991, in a cramped 50-seat space that came to life as crowds jammed it for enjoyable dinners. With time and success came expansion, both to the restaurant – a room was added to double the capacity – and into another, when Lo Porto took over the Sign of the Tree at the Empire State Plaza five years later. He still spends much of his time there, and has placed his nephew, Carmelo Lo Porto, as executive chef in Troy.

There’s no diminution of food quality. During a couple of recent visits, I was delighted to learn just how excellent the food remains, listed on pretty much the same menu as has always been in place. It’s just been re-priced to keep up with the times.

Where the two visits contrasted was in service, which later was acknowledged as a problem at times. Evidently it was busier than expected on my Thursday visit, and the staff had to struggle to stay above water. We were seated in the back room, a boxy, unattractive space that acted as a megaphone for a rambunctious six-top at the room’s rear; after ten minutes of neglect, we were able to get enough server attention to get us moved to a table near the bar, which was gloriously quiet in comparison. After that, dinner proceeded slowly but consistently.

On a Friday visit, I was overjoyed to discover that Maurilio Gregori is the weekend host. Onetime chef-owner of the Quackenbush house, he knows his way around fine dining and the customers for same, and helped make the experience very pleasant.

My current dining strategy (besides eating less of what’s served) is to order items different from my usual choices, I thought, and so chose mussels casino ($8). Later, I discovered I’d ordered the same appetizer during my 1992 review visit. I noted that I was served “a small plate of the mollusks, opened and cleaned, topped with breading and bacon and baked until the juices flow into the topping and make it all moist and crunchy. And tangy with an appropriate combination of herbs.” And that’s how they are today.

Seafood figures into most of the appetizers. Oysters Rockefeller ($10) gets a slightly different spin with mozzarella and Romano cheeses atop the spinach; fried calamari ($12) offers no surprises but it offers no disappointment: hot, crunchy, tender – even those little leggy bits are tender – with both cocktail sauce and a hot marinara for dipping.

A black bean and sausage soup ($5) leaned toward the salt for its finish, but the combination of ingredients was nicely proportioned.

Salads precede the entrées, so you may wish to moderate your appetizer intake. On the other hand, we emerged with so much in the way of leftovers that several subsequent meals were thus derived.

Plain old spaghetti (or linguine, or ziti) is available with a variety of the usual toppings –  meatballs, sausage, mushrooms, clam sauce and such – for $10-$11, and baked pasta, like lasagna or eggplant parmigiana, are each $13.

Veal dishes dominate one menu column. Scallopine and cutlet variants, even a dish named for Martin Scorcese, who fell in love with this restaurant while he was in town filming The Age of Innocence some years ago. I forgot to ask for whom Veal Giuseppe ($17) is named, but he was a lover of rich food: the rolled veal is stuffed with crabmeat and provolone cheese, wrapped in prosciutto and covered in a roasted red pepper cream sauce that would make a great pasta companion. But the plate, like most entrées, comes with potatoes and vegetables, and there’s a side dish of marinara-sauced pasta!

As a representative chicken dish, my wife enjoyed the chicken sauté sec ($16), adding oranges and raisins to a super-rich cream sauce that she only grudgingly shared and also hoarded in its leftover state.

On my Friday visit I was accompanied by an Atkins dieter, who expressed some anticipatory terror about Italian cuisine. He pounced on the rack of lamb ($23), which was as fine a preparation as I’ve tasted, combining a rich marinade with the kind of seasoning that springs to flavorful life under the grill. Having confessed his diet to our server, Brian had extra vegetables replace the potatoes. (And I scarfed his side of pasta for a later lunch.)

Mugnaia are seafood dishes with pasta, taking there name from a word that means “miller’s wife.” Priced from $15 to $19 and featuring scallops, sole, trout, red snapper or a seafood combo, they’re huge portions that sport a creamy sauce flavored with such Mediterranean mainstays as capers and olives, with a sprinkling of basil. The scallops version, as expected, boasted plump, juicy seafood.

When the city installed the mediocre Fresno’s chain into the former Castaway’s space instead of welcoming a locally owned business, it verified its lack of vision. Chez Sophie Bistro was going to move to Troy. The Capehouse once reigned as seafood house supreme. The Allegro Café is gone. Thank goodness the River Street Café and Lo Porto persevere as Troy’s fine-dining venues.

Lo Porto Ristorante Caffe, 85 4th St., Troy, 273-8546. Serving dinner Tue-Sat 5-10 (July-Aug: Thu-Sat 5-10). AE, D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 13 May 2004

No comments: