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Sunday, May 05, 2013

Cinco di Maggio

From the Vault Dept.: Here’s a review of one of the most unusual restaurants I’ve visited, a place to which I returned many times while Mike Iacobucci was running it. After he sold it, it went downhill quickly, and is long gone, a distant memory for those unafraid to try such fare as Mike’s mustard-enhanced Scandinavian pizza.


I’LL ADMIT THAT I LAUGHED when I first saw the name of the place. “Pizza Adobe” suggests an uncomfortable clash of cultures, but Mike Iacobucci combines them on his menu and adds a few surprises besides.

Mike Iacobucci
His restaurant is on a pretty undistinguished stretch of Schenectady’s State Street, nestling amongst bars and auto parts and turn-of-the-century stick houses. You park wherever you can.

Inside it’s bright and cheerful. There’s a small counter for pizza pickup. Beside it, a service bar with a few stools (Mike’s serves wine and beer). You could eat a dinner here if you’ve come in alone and want to chat with the help.

Very often it’s Mike himself behind the counter assembling dinners or pizzas or simply holding forth. He’s an opinionated guy whether the subject be food or travel or politics – and he’s an enthusiastic civic booster. He’s a power behind the Colonial Festival coming up next week as well as the annual Tuesday in the Park event held each summer.

He’s been a restaurateur for a couple of decades now, and added the Mexican items to his menu long before it was trendy to do so. He happens to like the food he serves – don’t laugh, that’s not something you can take for granted these days. The food he serves is healthful and consistent. And tasty. I’ve been over the menu and back during the past ten years, so my recent visit was only a confirmation of something I already knew.

You don’t go to Mike’s for truly ethnic Mexican or Italian fare: you go for his interpretation. Keep in mind that the best ethnic cooks don’t follow hard and fast recipes: they develop. Explore. That’s what Mike is doing, so his integrity is to be lauded.

We took a couple of friends there for dinner last weekend. They were up from New York and recalled that the last time they’d visited we went to a baseball game and sampled an astonishing amount of concession-stand fare. Patrick was particularly revulsed by the beer, so I promised a venue where the brew would be palatable.

There are two dining rooms at Mike’s, thanks to a recently-opened rear area. We sat toward the front and ordered a round of Dos Equis Amber. And a plate of Nachos Adobe to start things off.

Keep in mind that you get chips and hot sauce as soon as you order. But try the nachos anyway. Whole corn tortillas are slathered with melted cheese – nothing from out of a pump – and our deluxe order is garnished with pinto beans, jalapeno pepper bits and scoops of sour cream and tangy guacamole.

Which is to say we were getting pretty filled by the time the entrees arrived. My wife is usually admirably adventurous when it comes to dining out, but she goes to Mike’s for one reason: the Eggplant Burrito. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know we’re supposed to try different stuff, but . . .”

A few years ago, it was a special. An experiment that people ordered week after week. I don’t know if you’ll find it in many Mexican cookbooks, but it all makes sense on the palate. The strips of eggplant are folded with sauteed mushrooms into a large flour tortilla which is then topped with tomato sauce and melted cheese and served with a side of rice.

Another meatless dish (Mike himself is a vegetarian) is the Broccoli Burrito, another former-special-gone-regular-menu item that Christine ordered. This time the vegetable is cooked with onions and mushrooms, then wrapped with cheese in its flour robe before being presented with Spanish rice.

The challenge with all-vegetable dishes like these is to bring out the inherent flavors with enough intensity to rival what we expect from meat. Without depending on that most boring seasoning, salt. It’s done here with a good hand on the herb tiller. You may think Italian when you taste the oregano and basil, but, again, it’s part of the melding of cultures here.

There’s meat here for you, and plenty of it, as Patrick discovered with his Rib Stickler, my favorite name for an entree. I have yet to discover where Mike gets the sausage he uses, but it’s got a snappy flavor complemented by refried beans and plenty of sauteed onions, wrapped with the necessary cheese in another of those huge flour tortillas.

Me? I ordered Eggplant Parmigiana, just to check in on the European side of things. It was cooked as domestic tradition requires, with crunchy hunks of eggplant topped with tomato sauce and cheese in a small but very filling serving. That, by the way, is a bargain at $5.25. Each of the burritos is priced under $8.

I’m an unabashed fan of the place – you guessed that by now. It’s the place I usually bring my visiting friends, and Patrick and Christine were well fed and well satisfied by the time we rolled out of there. There’s nothing pretentious about its ambience, and service is a matter of getting the stuff on your table when it’s ready – not a lot of fuss.

A word about the pizzas before we head off for coffee. You can get the pies of tradition, but try one of Mike’s originals. I like the Vegetarian Delight, a white pizza with eggplant, broccoli and onions, which Mike will decorate with jalapeno pepper rings if you ask. Get the Fresh Garlic Pizza if your whole table goes along with it, or, if you’re willing to veer away from the crowd, try the Scandinavian Pizza with its mustard and sauerkraut topping.

Trust Mike. It works.

Dinner for four with a round of beers, tax and tip was $60.

Mike's Pizza Adobe, 1471 State Street, Schenectady. Open Monday 11:30 AM-9:30 PM, Wednesday and Thursday 11:30 AM-10 PM, Friday 11:30 AM-11 PM, Saturday Noon-11 PM, Sunday 1-10 PM. No credit cards or personal checks.

Metroland Magazine, 1 February 1990

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