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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Travels with Sam

Metroland Retrospective Dept.: Where did I dine two decades ago? At Sam Zoleo’s newest restaurant. He ran Sam’s Place in Saratoga before opening 95 Ferry in Troy, but took that name with him when he returned to Saratoga. He would go back to Troy with a couple of different ventures before leaving the business, as far as I can tell, in 2008, although I see he recently has offered cooking classes at the Troy Arts Center.


SAM IS A PLEASANT MAN who gets very serious when the subject is food. “I use what’s fresh,” he says. “That’s why menu is written the way it is. There’s no swordfish on it, no tuna. How can you put things like that on a menu without having to bring them in frozen?”

Nothing to do with Sam's, but it's pretty
Fish, in fact, is a special obsession. Having worked for several years in New York’s Fulton Fish Market, Sam knows fish. “I get in a box of fish from someone I never bought fish from before, first thing I do is turn is upside-down. Open it from the bottom. Then I see what kind of fish they’re really putting in there.”

So the talapia I sampled the other night was fresh. In fact, I got the last order for the night. It’s a sturdy but slightly sweet salt-water fish, reminiscent of scrod. And everything assembled around it was fresh – the onions, the parsley, the basil. The black olives came out of a jar, but they need a little curing.

Sam used to run 95 Ferry Street in Troy, and Sam’s Diner on Route 9 just south of Saratoga before that. Now he’s back in Saratoga, but downtown, in a building that also houses a steakhouse and a sushi bar.

If you remember 95 Ferry Street (the “95" carries over in the new restaurant name as a gentle reminder), you’ll be comforted to see the same style of decor. The walls are dark, and hung with photos of friends and heroes. I was especially pleased to see five photos of Toscanini on the wall of the first room, the bar area.

My recent visit was in the company of Susan, my wife, and our keep-that-meat-away-from-me friend Liz, who was especially interested in discovering the vegetarian possibilities of Sam’s 95. It was one of those near-December nights that decided suddenly to go beyond chilly to outright cold, so we were glad to slip into the warmth of the place. And while the others seltzered and sodaed themselves, I warmed myself even further with a glass of good Merlot.

Sam’s menu is designed for diversity and economy, but it’s important to understand the context. The restaurant would be classified as Italian, but it’s more specifically the Mediterranean side of Italy that influences Sam’s cooking. So along with lots of tomato and garlic are fresh basil, olives and capers. You’ll find pasta dishes with imaginative combinations of those and other ingredients; there also are entrées of eggplant, chicken, veal, calamari, and much more. And none of it is priced higher than ten bucks.

There are specials, of course. That’s where the really fresh stuff is presented, and on a typical day you’ll find escargot, clams, mussels and lots of other fish. Including, if you’re as lucky as I was, that talapia I mentioned. “I sautée it first,” says Sam, “then finish it under the broiler to dry it out a little. It releases a lot of liquid when it’s cooking.” It’s served on a bed of pasta, and was far too much for me to consume at one sitting..

He wouldn’t tell me any secrets for the “poor man’s caviar,” however, because it’s a signature specialty. That’s the appetizer I started with, an irresistible blend of gorgonzola and black olives. We sampled it with an order of Sam’s garlic bread, which is seasoned with much more than just garlic, so the flavor combos got pretty wild. Don’t stint yourself: give it a try.

A column of light meals features stuffed pepper, a variety of eggplant dishes, grilled chicken, beef kebobs – even a filet mignon. Also look for veal, lamb chops, shrimp and a fish (or two) of the day.

Susan ordered a salad Caprese, which is a simple dish of fresh mozzarella, tomato wedges, and chopped basil. True to his word, Sam uses fresh tomatoes, and somehow came up with something better than you usually find this time of year.

Liz and Susan both ordered from the pasta side of the menu. Liz’s pasta Mimi features plum tomatoes highlighted with garlic and capers, while the pasta Piselli heaped in front of Susan was similar, but added prosciutto, peas and mushrooms and the ubiquitous fresh basil. And those flavor combinations, developed under the Mediterranean sun, complemented each other wonderfully.

In keeping with Sam’s dark decor, the food comes out attractively arranged on black plates, and the portions are generally such that you can expect another meal out of them. We were pacing ourselves, anyway, because the chilly night inspired tea and dessert ambitions. Sam’s gets his desserts from J & S Watkins, a virtuoso outfit in Clifton Park, and we sampled two different cheesecakes and a Linzer torte. Okay, we ran up more of a tab than you really need to, but what a delicious variety of flavors we got to sample.

Service is prompt, although our server wasn’t very familiar with the specials and could therefore describe them only haltingly.

Dinner for three, with tax and tip and a couple of glasses of wine, was $88.

Sam’s Ninety-Five
, 10 Division Street, Saratoga Springs, 587-xxxx. Serving dinner daily from 4:30 PM. AE, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 29 November 1995

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