Well, President Barack Obama’s second inauguration is over, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief and satisfaction.
Because Chobani yogurt was served at the inaugural banquet. Yes, sir, there it sat, right alongside slabs of aged Cooperstown Cheese. And from all reports, both the local yogurt and cheese were big hits.
If you watched any of the inaugural activities, you saw Sen. Chuck Schumer virtually flitting from one event to another. And he was an excellent salesman. New York yogurt and cheese, New York wines, New York chocolates, New York apples, New York honey. Heck, the only thing missing was a “garbage plate” from Nick Tahou’s place in Rochester!
And speaking of local foods, what is it about Utica? I had a long dialogue with my listeners on my radio show last week about favorite foods that started in the Empire State. The list was long and mouthwatering: hot wings in Buffalo, spiedies in Johnson City, the scrumptious Beef on Weck from western New York, Edmeston’s Greek yogurt, Oneonta’s own Brooks’ House of Bar-B-Q’s, the Finger Lakes’ ice wine, Heid’s Hots from Syracuse, Michigan franks served in the North Country and so many more.
But it always kept coming back to Utica?
Ever have a tomato pie? Many say it doesn’t get any better than the ones they began serving up in Utica in the 1960s. We know it, of course, as the “upside down” pie served at Oneonta’s Depot restaurant. But Utica claims it as a native son (native pie?).
And chicken riggies? Again, Utica. This creamy, spicy pasta dish is so popular that Utica even holds a “Riggiefest” in its honor each year. So far it has raised more than a third of a million dollars for Utica charities. That’s a lot of riggies!
And the half-moon cookie. Born in Utica, these delicacies originated at Hemstrought’s Bakery by Harry Hemstrought before the Depression. They still crank out more than 12,000 fresh half moons a day at the bakery. And Harry’s original handwritten recipe is still tacked up on the wall of the bakery in Utica. Of course downstaters call them “black and whites,” but they are mere pretenders to the cookie throne.
So what is it about Utica that makes it the epicurean center of the universe? I have no clue, but the concept is generally met with agreement. Utica means “good eats.”
A week ago, my wife and I were in Albany. For a fun side trip, I decided to take her to lunch at one of my favorite dives from my college days in the 1960s: The Miss Albany Diner. It is a near-century old railroad car diner, the kind that proliferated in our area in the 1950s. It is located on Broadway just outside of the downtown business district. I ended up perched on a counter stool there many a late night (or early morning?) after an evening of carousing with my classmates in 1968. It was an eggs/sausage/hash kind of greasy spoon. And it was wonderful.
What a surprise to find Miss Albany still there, albeit in a newer transformation. It is now an Italian restaurant called Sciortinos. Not exactly what I was hankering for, but we decided to go in and try it out.
The little railroad car diner was exactly as I remember it. Curved stainless steel walls, Wobbly red leather and chrome counter stools. Booths that had the little jukeboxes in them. Scribbled signs announcing the daily specials. And still the tiniest restrooms in the state.
The menu was decidedly Italian comfort foods. Bowls of meatballs, chicken Parmesan with spaghetti. Lasagna. Pizza. Italian soups. Baked Hats.
Wait a minute. Baked Hats?
My wife and I chuckled at the name of this item, and I just had to ask our chirpy waitress what is was.
“Oh, people love the baked hats,” she began. “They are a delicious Italian concoction of cavatelli pasta, baked with our mixture of Italian cheeses and cooked with your choice of meatballs or sausage.” That sounded wonderful to me, and we went ahead and ordered it. Needless to say it was delicious. I ate everything but the pattern design on the bottom of the ceramic bowl. I had to ask.
“Where in the world did this delightful dish with the odd name come from?”
The waitress smiled and said: “Baked hats? Oh, sure. It’s an old menu item found traditionally in Utica.”
Utica. I should have known.
I’ll catch you in two ...
“Big Chuck” D’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find “Big Chuck” on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.