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Friday, November 15, 2013

Miss Utica

Ripped from the Pages Dept.: What’s my current restaurant review? Glad you asked!


THERE ARE THOSE who welcomed the rescue of the Miss Albany Diner. There are those who insist they’ll now never set foot in the place. It’s a classic conundrum for the sentimentalist. Would it help to know that, back in the heyday of the classic diner, there were at least 10 Miss Albanys throughout the city? And that the diner at this location wasn’t even one of them?

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But there’s a connection. Besides the obvious one, that is, which is that the place most recently named Miss Albany gained that moniker only when the film of Ironweed came to town in 1986. Talk to Deborah Cote, who may be making your pizza at Sciortino’s, and you’ll learn that her father, Harold, managed the Miss Albany No. 3 in the late 1950s, a (long-gone) silver diner at 48 Central Ave. So there’s still a living Miss Albany link.

Matt Baumgartner didn’t know this when he hired Cote last year to work in the latest of his string of eateries. He knew her from Jack’s Pizza, across from Albany’s arena, where she was turning out some of the best pies in town. Having explored southwestern and German fare with Bombers and Wolff’s Biergarten, Baumgartner turned to his maternal grandparents, for whom Sciortino’s is named, and from whom many of the recipes have descended. The restaurant also salutes Utica, where Baumgartner grew up, which is why you find three varieties of riggies on the menu.

You Uticans are either swooning or snickering, I suspect. The casserole of chicken, rigatoni, cream sauce and cheese that you know so well has attracted a fiercely partisan following. I have nothing to which to compare it, so I didn’t try. I’m counting on you to sample the Sciortino’s chicken ($13), sausage ($14) or shrimp ($15) version and let me know. (And keep in mind that you can get any of the entrées for $10 weekdays between 3 and 5.)

What I sought was pizza, fond memories of Jack’s still in mind. I made a wholly unscientific comparison between what’s available by the slice and as a freshly baked pie, and drew an unsurprising conclusion. To begin: The pizzas are all rectangular, divided into four giant slices when they’re offered on the per-slice basis. So you’re getting a bargain whether you’re paying $3 for the tomato pie, $4 for cheese or $4.50 for a slice with toppings. I chose sausage and ricotta, and the reheated slice was further divided into six smaller squares, making it easier to share when my fellow pizza detective finally arrived.

Malcolm hadn’t been to the restaurant in any of its guises, and thus was tremendously impressed by the look of the place. It’s been cleaned up, so its art-deco charm is all the more apparent. It’s been decorated with family photos. The booths are topped with multicolor plastic (what would have been oilcloth in an earlier era).

Other menu options include starters of chicken wings ($9), fried artichokes, mozzarella or ravioli ($6 apiece), Utica greens ($6; $9 as an entrée) and garlic bread with cheese ($7). There’s a daily soup—it was beef-barley when I visited ($5), a house salad for $5 and antipasto for $10. But my server eloquently sold me on Uncle Frank’s tomato salad ($6), a big bowl of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, onions and basil. It’s more of a chunky soup, an opinion confirmed by the fact that it’s presented with a large spoon for its consumption.

Tomato pie is another Utica phenomenon, a pizza topped only with tomato sauce and a sprinkling of pecorino ($10 for a full-sized pie). Even in my most dietarily conscientious mindset I can’t see my way to enjoying pizza without what I think of as its most compelling ingredient: a covering of melted cheese. And I’m not going to tell you that I tried it and it made a convert out of me, because I plan to go to what no doubt will be an early grave clutching a bouquet of warm mozzarella. We ordered a pepperoni pizza ($15). I believe that pepperoni’s true and only mission is to top a pizza pie. And I was delighted with what was presented, served atop a simple rectangle of cardboard, with paper plates that we never found it necessary to use.

The pizza is divided into 16 smallish squares, each with its own large pepperoni slice at its center. There’s no droop of the slice’s far end; there’s no need to (horrors!) use a fork, Donald Trump-style. These are small, hot squares that merit at most four bites, and you’re on to the next. This is poker-player’s pizza. The crust is yeasty, the proportions of sauce to meat to cheese as they should be, each complementing the other with what becomes a coordinated release of flavors. We ate more than we should, which is the norm.

By comparison, the reheated slice was very good. I’m keeping this in mind for a quick snack fix when I’m in Albany’s downtown but I’m keeping in mind that I can call ahead and have a full-sized pizza waiting. Delivery is also an option. Saturday nights they hang a disco ball and play music from that era.

Baumgartner is shrewdly developing this stretch of Broadway. Wolff’s sits to one side of Sciortino’s, the Olde English Pub is down the street—another example of an historic building repurposed—and other businesses are filling in the other spaces. Which means that good pizza is needed, and good pizza is here.

Sciortino’s, 893 Broadway, Albany, 465-9148, Serving 11-10 Tue-Wed, 11-11 Thu, 11-1 Fri-Sat. D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 14 November 2013

Deborah Cote added the following comment online:

Thanks for the great review, B.A. Nilsson! Just wanted to let you know, though, that my dad, Harold Coté, leased the Miss Albany from 1955 until 1972, so I grew up steeped in Diner Life. Stillman Pitts owned all the Miss Albany’s starting in the 20s, I believe, and leased all of them. He never had a hand in running them. After my Dad left the Miss Albany, he ran the Park Side Luncheonette on Madison Ave across from Washington Park until he retired in 1974 due to ill health. Of course, I went to college and tried to become an actress, but I still wound up in the food biz after all. It’s very tough to get the food business out of your life! Thanks again for the review, Nilsson!

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