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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Taste of Innocence

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: This week’s review is a re-visit to Lo Porto Ristorante Caffe in Troy.


I FIRST WROTE ABOUT Lo Porto in 1992, a year after the restaurant opened. Martin Scorcese had just chosen the city of Troy for exterior shots for his movie The Age of Innocence, representing Manhattan in the 1870s. This, I noted, was a tribute to the Collar City’s neglect of itself, sparing the historic buildings from the wrecking ball of “progress.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
What I wasn’t supposed to write was that Scorcese had also discovered Lo Porto, and was making himself at home in the restaurant. I hinted at it with, “Don’t be surprised when Marty shows up during the next few weeks.”

By the time of my next review visit, six years later, chef-owner Michael Lo Porto had taken over operations at the Sign of the Tree at the Empire State Plaza, and had put a CIA grad in the Troy kitchen. The food was as excellent as ever, but Michael himself more often was at the other restaurant. The next time I checked in was in 2004. The Lo Porto sense of family had been reinforced with the addition of Michael’s nephew, Carmello, as executive chef. The small (50-seat) restaurant had expanded into an adjoining space to gain a banquet room. During that visit, I sampled one of the mugnaia dishes that still are offered, which puts your choice of seafood (scallops, sole, trout, red snapper or a mixture) in a light cream sauce with olives and capers.

A decade later, I’m happy to report, very little has changed. You still enter through the forbidding black door, beside which a large window is obscured by venetian blinds. You’re still faced with the same 50 seats—a large booth by that window, a row of tables along the wall opposite the bar, a handful of tables on a balcony above.

It still feels as if you’ve just walked in off Mulberry Street. However lifeless Troy’s 4th Street may seem, inside Lo Porto you get a welcome suggestion that your visit has been anticipated and will make the evening a success. Michael gave up his other restaurant nine years ago, so you well may see him. We did. Carmello is still master of the kitchen. I visited with a food-savvy friend named Jim who makes any dining experience festive.

The menu has changed very little over the years. Prices have crept up, no surprise, but the costliest items are steaks (filet mignon is $37), and you don’t come here to eat steak.

You come for the seafood. Michael is from Sicily, where his family ran restaurants for many years. He notes that there’s a French influence among the recognizably Italian threads. He talks about the recipes devised by fishermen and their families to accommodate long days in the dory and a simple approach to celebrating those fresh flavors (hence the mugnaia dishes).

Jim wanted seafood and he wanted pasta. There are seafood dishes offered such as shrimp Michael ($24), with mushrooms and tomatoes and garlic, or scampi ($22), or sole Veronique ($24), a menu rarity that adds grapes to a cream sauce; sole Vannini and stuffed trout ($25 each) both include crabmeat and shrimp, and there are preparations of calamari ($19) and red snapper ($25) as well.

Over on the pasta side of the menu is fettuccine frutti di mare ($26), and Jim’s serving was a hefty bowl in which tender calamari and large shrimp joined scallops and clams in the pasta mix, rounded out by a marinara seasoned to suit the seafood mix. It’s a dish that profits from a most simple approach.

Other pasta items include linguine with clams in a red or white sauce ($19), linguine with shrimp ($20), fettuccine Alfredo or Bolognese ($15 each) and spaghetti carbonara or simply with pesto ($15 each).

Your cheapest option is a dish of spaghetti (or ziti or linguine) with tomato sauce ($12), while the addition of meatballs or sausage or mushrooms will drive the price up a couple of bucks. And there are baked dishes like lasagna ($16), baked ziti ($15) and eggplant parm ($16).

Let’s get to the veal. The list begins with piccata and Marsala ($25 each) and includes saltimbocca ($24), cacciatore ($24) and, of course, parmigiana ($22). “But the first time Mr. Scorcese came in here,” Michael recalls, “he said to me, ‘Make me something with veal. Something that’s not on the menu.’ So I went into the kitchen and put some things together. Some mushrooms, some artichoke hearts—I love artichoke hearts!—a little prosciutto, some capers. And he loved it. He said, ‘This should be on the menu,’ so he took a menu and wrote it on it. ‘There,’ he said. ‘Now it is.’” (The menu hangs on a wall. Scorcese himself is pictured on one of the imaginative murals in the banquet room.)

Veal Scorcese ($25) endures, an impressively original showcase for the subtly flavored meat, and I chose to neglect the side dish of pasta in order to make vanish what was on my plate.

Dinners come with salads, which we received despite the fact that we split an antipasto as appetizer. I’ve been to other places that offer creative substitutions in such a case, and challenge Lo Porto to do the same. Because the antipasto ($14 for one, $21 for two) is a handsome platter that doesn’t skimp on the meat and cheese, offering a salumi variety with excellent provolone and a flavorful mix of greens.

It’s all very old school, but old school done right. Service was professional and attentive. Our sense of well-being was profound. The restaurant has endured through the city’s ongoing vicissitudes, but as the city once again learns that it can be home to some fine restaurants, Lo Porto will remind us who got there first.

Lo Porto Ristorante Caffe
, 85 4th St., Troy, 273-8546, Serving lunch 11-3 Mon-Fri, dinner 5-10 Mon-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 24 April 2014

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