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Monday, November 29, 2021

No Coincidence

From the Food Vault Dept.: It took over fifteen years to discover why there was a job opening that enabled me to get hired for my first job cooking in a professional kitchen. The piece below describes the reason. The Quackenbush house has since gone through several incarnations, including a couple of French-cuisine stints on into its current impression of an English pub.


HE MIGHT AS WELL HAVE BEEN reciting poetry. Everything Maurilio said as he described his menu and his restaurant agreed perfectly with my own ideas of excellent food. To properly appreciate the broad range of restaurants in existence requires a flexible standard, but what Maurilio Gregori has done to the Quackenbush House is exactly what I’d do were I to open my own place.

The Quackenbush House, in a
more recent view.

Although Marina, my literary companion, and I came in unannounced early last week, Maurilio lavished the kind of attention on us you’d expect would be reserved for a wealthy regular. When he got down to cases, describing the evening’s specials, I was astonished. A native of northern Italy, he shuns the pasta-and-sauce emphasis of much Italian-American cooking. “You could call this continental,” he says, “but I’d hate to have it labeled.”

“It’s exactly how I was taught to cook,” I told him, describing the Italian chef who gave me my start in the kitchen and insisted on the same care and consistency. And then this shared attitude turned out to be no coincidence at all: Maurilio got his start at the same restaurant, the Elms Inn in Ridgefield, Conn., several years before I worked there. The chef who proved so influential was a brilliant, temperamental man named Mario Scala, who taught us that a sincere passion for life was the only proper context for the love of food that lures you into the business. That celebration is a hallmark of Maurilio’s restaurant.

You’ll understand if I’m somewhat prejudiced, but you and I both are going to reap the bounty of it. Reopened since October, the Quackenbush House now takes the elegant art of fine dining and personalizes it with a warm family feeling. And it treats the customer with intelligence, beginning with a menu that dares to depart from the gotta-please-everyone style of so many.

Yes, as you may have heard, there’s alligator and wild boar, along with calamari, frogs legs and paella, unusual items that almost obscure the safe-at-home filet mignon or shrimp. But you’ll do best to let Maurilio or one of his knowledgeable staff take you through the day’s specials. Had I not done so, I would never have had the pleasure of sampling the “drunken” tripe.

Whether you’re cooking or eating professionally, you have to overcome the childhood prejudices that cause us to grimace at the thought of certain foods. The last time I’d dealt with tripe was when I served it, à la mode de Caen, in a French-style bistro. I didn’t care for it then because I didn’t expect to.

Drunken tripe is similar to what I used to serve, although Scotch replaces cider and the meat and vegetables are cut smaller. The first bite was. . . unfamiliar. Thereafter, it was a treat, with a dark, robust flavor like nothing else.

Marina was talked into trying the “Stuffed Olives Ascolana,” named for Maurilio’s native city but substituting large black olives for the unobtainable green colossals from his part of Italy. The olive meat is spiralled off the pit and then wrapped around a forcemeat of veal, pork and chicken, breaded and fried. No sauce—the appetizer speaks for itself, and you’ll be pleased at the unusual mix of bitter olive and tangy meat.

Is there a better salad service than this? A bowl of escarole and chicory, tomato chunks and Bermuda onion slices dressed in Sapio extra virgin olive oil and vinegar and a dash of salt. You’re invited to toss and serve it yourself. That and the excellent loaf of Italian bread (which, along with the cakes and canoli comes from Schenectady’s Villa Italia) would itself be a dandy meal.

Our waiter was supposed to have been a young man named Jim, who also worked with the chef at his previous establishment, the Belvedere in Sharon Springs. Once we established the Elms Inn connection, however, poor Jim didn’t have much chance to muscle in. Still, the entrees are served by two, as it should be. Modified French service, with attractive presentations of the dinners then transferred to your plate. As for our entrees, broiled orange roughy, a scrod-like Australian fish, for my friend; sweetbreads for me.

We were taught the classic sauces; the use of butter was boundless. But Maurilio has brought that up to date with a much more health-conscious style of cooking. The sweetbreads, for example, are dusted with herbs and paprika and served with olive oil and a touch of butter (olive oil, being monounsaturated, is the healthiest of the oils). Seasoned its own secret way, the roughy had a similar presentation. Butter was not the star of the dinner.

The brief wine list covers a lot of ground, and we had a reasonably priced Berlucci Bianco Imperial. I’d like to see more domestic wine included.

Breaded chunks of zucchini and pan-fried potatoes completed the meal, but we were by no means finished. When time allows, the chef produces an accordion and invites the customers to sing. And we were not going to leave without joining him for some espresso. And a slice of tiramisu (literally, “pick me up”), a vanilla cake soaked in espresso and layered with a ricotta-like cheese. Not to mention “Peach a la Maurilio,” in which the Melba style is enhanced with an original sauce of raspberry preserves.

The lovely look of the old Quackenbush House certainly enhances the experience, and pay special attention to the detailing above the chair rail, the work of Charlie, another one of Maurilio’s servers.

My wife has no problem with my occasional excursions with other women; what made her jealous in this case was missing out on the reunion I had—first time I’ve ever had one with a total stranger, but that’s what the restaurant business will do to you. I’ve already been back for a dinner with Susan, which was just as delicious. Ask me about the pork tenderloin simmered with giardiniera sometime, or, better yet, try it yourself.

Dinner for two, with tax and tip and a bottle of wine, was $90.

Maurilio at the Quackenbush House, Clinton Avenue and Broadway, Albany. 432-xxxx. Serving lunch Tuesday-Friday 11:30 AM-2:30 PM (Hey, city of Albany: Could we get some daytime parking here, please?), dinner Monday-Saturday 5-10 PM. All major credit cards.

Metroland Magazine, 31 January 1991

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