Stepping Out of the (Pizza) Box

We have a lot of Italian restaurants in Upstate New York. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an immigration boom brought mostly Southern Italians to our shores when that region of Italy became overpopulated. And after the Civil War, American companies recruited in Italy to fill the labor shortage caused by the war. Thankfully, along with those working men came nonnas and papas and recipes and red sauce.

And that's what you find in many of our Italian food institutions: red sauce, meatballs, chicken parm, and pizza: the mainstays of the Italian Ameircan diet that evolved once all these immigrants got here and melded their traditions with the foods available in the new world. I love these dishes, but once in a while, it's fun to find a spot riffing on the old favorites to create something a little different. 

At Gentile's, in Syracuse, eclectic Italian is the order of the day. Well, it's the order everyday, but that's a less elegant turn of phrase. This joint was recommended to me ages ago by my friend Amber, and a couple weeks ago, the perfect opportunity to eat there presented itself in the form of the Miss Central New York Pageant. I met my parents and former Miss TI Morgan there, who had come from Watertown, and we settled right into the soothing, warm atmosphere thanks to the welcoming staff. The exceptional focaccia may have helped as well.

I don't mean to get all romantical about carbs, but this right here is exemplary bread service. Both loaves were fresh that day, tender crumbed, with a wonderfully toothsome exterior. The sweet, aged balsamic swirled in the accompanying olive oil was mellow and full bodied. It was hard to stop cramming it into our mouths, even though we had already ordered bruschetta as an appetizer and were eagerly awaiting its arrival.

And what bruschetta Gentile's is turning out! No simple tomato and basil for these folks - we got a trio of flavorful, inventive creations. The beef and burratta was my favorite - salty, bright and deep with basil pesto, which was creamy and rich. The beef was dried a bit, concentrating its flavor and giving a chewy texture to counter the fluffy cheese and crunchy bread.

The corn and fig with mushroom offering also stood out, with sweet, summery corn lending snap and crunch, while earthy chanterelle mushrooms grounded all that sweetness with deep, woodsy funk.

The last was a bit more conventional, deploying more of that candied balsamic and impressing us with gorgeous, creamy ricotta.

Mom chose the penne alla vodka. Bless her. This dish was ridiculous - porky, creamy, rich, cheesy, and tangy, with absolutely perfectly cooked pasta. I literally just ate dinner, but if I had this in front of me now, I would devour the entire plate and dream tonight of delectable legs of prosciutto wrapping themselves in Parmesan blankets and taking luxurious afternoon naps. Even better than the expertly crafted components of the dish was the finely tuned ratio of pasta to sauce. The al dente penne was enrobed in a rather scant amount of the velvety vodka and tomato, but because the sauce was potent, the result was a symphony - each bite allowing you to taste pasta, pork, cheese, tomato, and booze in perfect harmony.

My rigatoni with chick peas, zucchini, celery root, and pancetta in a cognac cream sauce exhibited the same control and practiced hand. I loved the lightness of this dish, which balanced a good amount of richness, salt, and fat from the sauce and bacon with a homey-ness from the celery root. That celery root and the chick peas grounded the dish just like the chanterelles did on the bruschetta - a fine hallmark indeed from Gentile's wise chef. The cognac cream could have been heavy or cloying, but again, it was used sparingly, lending flavor and cohesion without bulk or heft.

Morg went for the orecchiette with classic Mediterranean treats like kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, and goat cheese. It was light and savory, utterly scrumptious; the secret weapon of this dish being cashews for crunch and depth. Genius.

The one, tiny dip in the high tide of the meal came in the form of the shrimp in Dad's soppressata-wrapped shrimp in strawberry sauce. The dish was again, well balanced, delightfully flavored to deliver sweet and salt without heaviness. But unfortunately, the shrimp were kind of tragically overcooked. The result was tough instead of wonderful, which was a total bummer.

We had dessert, of course. Both were very good, of course, though not the most wildly inventive ever. We adored the vanilla bean frosting crowning the hazelnut torte, all flecked with tiny vanilla caviar and resplendently creamy without being too sweet, and the caramel crunch cake sported just enough delicate sea salt to deliver that gorgeous balance of flavors we'd enjoyed all evening.

We unanimously awarded Gentile's an eight on the BHS scale. If not for the sad shrimp, that score would have been a slam dunk 10, and we've wistfully wished several times since that we were back there eating gorgeous pastas. From the subtle strawberry mint water refilled all meal long to the real whipped cream served with the desserts, this dinner was different, memorable, and yes, eclectic. Who would have thought this gem was hiding right in Syracuse, amid so many chicken riggies and red sauce haunts? I'm glad I found it. Your turn! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Gentiles Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Can a Taco Make You Famous?

There's been a nagging in the back of my head lately. It's like an errant bit of cuticle you want to pick at, or a tiny crack in your windshield that makes driving hard because you can't stop staring at it. As much as I love all the aspects of my life - work, family, pageant, home, blog - life is hard, life is long, life is short, and there are times when you pick your head up, or maybe you hang it down, and even the most upbeat of us lets the shameful thought slip: is this it? 

At work, I try my best, and still receive feedback that it's not enough, I'm too emotional, that I should blindly accept more and more and more workload with a smile and perfect execution. For Miss TI, my family and I and our incredible network of volunteers work for an entire year to put together a competition that will honor the past and the future of our wonderful organization, an organization that cherishes and honors the strengths and voices of women, and ugly cowards on message boards undermine it all with a few careless digs. Is this it? Is that the best I can expect for years of hard work, accepting criticism from people who fundamentally don't know how to speak to other human beings, and from jerks who hide behind anonymous screen names? I can accept my weaknesses and approach things with an openness and willingness to improve, but I also care about protecting the part of me that's emotional, that cares about others and that wants to find a path to success that isn't punitive or painful for everyone involved. 

It's in times like this that I want to put even more kindness out, perhaps in hopes I'll get some back in return. And you know what's great? When it's easy to say great things about someone or something, because you can tell they're doing their best, too. So I might brag a little too much on some of my friends, some of my pageant girls, and some of my favorite chefs. And I'm about to do it again. Because every time I run into Chef Gabe Aubertine, good things go in my belly.

As you've already read here this summer, Gabe is at the helm of Gabe's Taco Kitchen in Clayton, a temporary gourmet taco shack making good eats while the new folks running the Thousand Islands Inn continue to renovate this landmark. Most of the time these days, the word gourmet is thrown around haplessly, and doesn't mean what we wish it would. This is not one of those times. You guys, these are tasty tacos.

And this is where all my is this it? postulating meets tacodom. Because Gabe named one after me, and it is good. The Big Hungry has pork loin, Brussels sprouts, bacon jam, and sweet potato fries jamming every square inch of space that flour tortilla has available, so you might say it has wall to wall flavor. Or you might point out that while you would expect the bacon jam to steal the show, it's the Brussels sprouts chewing the scenery, popping with crisp, bright texture and that earthy funk sprouts have. Gabe was wise to keep the bacon jam on the savory side, as the fries are packing so much sweetness, and the herb-crusted pork is snowy white and crispy on the sides from a trip to the flat top. This thing is savory gluttony at its finest, and for me, half the fun was ordering my namesake dish. I got to tell other diners that it was named after me, and be proud of my contribution to the North Country's culinary landed scape. I don't know if this taco can make me or Gabe famous, but here's hoping.

I didn't think it was possible, but it might have enjoyed The Codfather taco even more. I love a good fried fish taco, and this one with cilantro rice, pineapple salsa and pickled red onion, is banging. I'm not always a huge pineapple proponent, so I wasn't sure how I'd feel about all the sweetness, but the tang balanced well with the prickly vinegar of the onions and the crunchy lightness of the battered and fried cod. This taco was intensely summery, crunchy, sweet, and light. The acidity and sweet levels were perfectly balanced, and I could eat one every day for the rest of summer and be pretty happy.

Our pageant friend Deltra wanted Le Canadienne, but can't eat tortillas due to dietary restrictions, so she requested the taco fillings on salad greens. The kitchen accepted this challenge without a blink, and even topped this duck confit wonder with crispy, crunchy fried duck skin. So imagine a salad with unctuous, salty, shredded poultry on top, sweetness from caramelized onions and Granny Smith apples, the funk of a whipped up mousse made of tangy goat cheese, and a gorgeous, mellow thyme vinaigrette. Again, these flavors are complex, and Gabe combines them in the right ratios to achieve harmony. This is terrific. And I want a bag full of those salty, crunchy duck skins right now.

My parents both went for the Americano, and Mom was pleased with the savory, rather than overtly spicy taco meat, while Dad squirted on some hot sauce and ate with gusto. We also got some chips and salsas, and we were all impressed with the ranch flavoring on the chips, which cooled everything down and added zing when paired with the ultra fresh pico de gallo and guacamole. 

The following day, I brought some beauty queens over for lunch, and went for the Dirty Sanchez, an almagamation of chorizo, slaw, dirty rice, and black beans. The flavors in this taco were less pronounced and more traditional for me, but thats not a bad thing. The chorizo was on the milder side, but very spiced and savory and deliciously fatty, and I adored the crunch of the slaw. I would recommend more liver in the rice to make it "dirtier," and I think this would be a good place to deploy some heat with roasted serranos or something of that ilk, since you have the slaw and lime aioli right on hand to cool down the finished product.

Quite simply, both my meals at Gabe's Taco Kitchen were superb. Yes, I wish there was indoor seating, because even though I love sitting outdoors in Clayton, this past weekend was so windy, I got a mouthful of hair with each delicious bite of food. But that's just me. I know you're built of sturdier stuff, Big Hungries. 

Oh, I shouldn't forget to tell you about the ice burger, which Gabe brought out on the house. This creation, from the mind of one of the Inn's owners, is a sweet brioche bun topped with a chocolate ice cream patty, sliced strawberries and kiwi, shreds of dried coconut made to look like lettuce, and drizzles of caramel and strawberry sauce. It's a sugar bomb, of course, but so fun. My favorite part was the juxtaposition of the creamy ice cream and tart fruit against the dense bread texture.

Again, I don't know if we can get enough people in tiny Clayton to risk mealtime on gourmet tacos, and I don't know if having a taco named after you is enough to garner fame, but I do know that people like Gabe and his bosses, who take risks, who care enough to feed people and nourish us, and who gamble on something as fun and insane as a burger made out of ice cream, are bound for some kind of greatness. Here's to the good ones, you guys. May each of us know more of them. Viva Los tacos! 

If you're smart and you like to eat yummy things, you'll make that short drive up the River and get your hands on one of these pronto. And you'll stay tuned to BHS, because I have a review from Syracuse coming next week, and tales and recipes from the Broome County Legislature's Corn Cookoff coming soon. My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!


The Golden Sisterhood

Don't be mad, but I don't have a review for you this week. Look, sometimes, when mummy has a new pool, mummy wants to spend an entire weekend lazing around in said pool rather than hitting the road and searching for yet-unblogged eateries. Mummy's really sorry about that, but her tan is looking really nice, which helps ease her guilt. I will throw you a bone, though. I secured the menu for Gabe's Taco Kitchen In Clayton. You're welcome.

Are you appeased? Just take two big Hungries and call me in the morning. Because this week, it's about pageants. Move on, if you must, or stick around and look at pretty girls! Not only the 10 who are competing with us this year:

(Graphic courtesy of Lauren Crandall)

But feast those eyes on this:

(Photo courtesy of Photoessence)

This photo, my friends, is a glimpse of The Golden Sisterhood. You see, the pageant my mom and I run, Miss Thousand Islands, is celebrating 50 years, its Golden Anniversary, as an official preliminary in the Miss America Organization next weekend. That means that only 50 women in the world know the special honor of representing this gorgeous little corner of the world in this very unique way, and that when we add a new Miss TI to their ranks on August 9, she will have the 50 most glamorous, brilliant, caring, talented, stylish, and civic-minded big sisters on the planet. That is The Golden Sisterhood. I couldn't find all 50 on Facebook to shove into black dresses and pose like my own live dolls at the Antique Boat Museum, but 10 isn't bad, right? 

I know I drone on about Miss TI a lot, but I really am proud of this organization, of what my family is able to do for young women within the confines of the word pageant - a dirty word to many. Our girls are sisters for one another, but they're also now moms, graduate students, non-profit leaders, social media marketing pros, teachers, health care providers, foster parents, fitness gurus...need I go on? And I have had the privilege to play some role (less so for those who were crowned before we took the helm, but still a small part) in helping these women on their journeys. I'm not over emphasizing that word, privilege, because that's what this is. We work hard, yes, fundraising, driving hours and hours, pushing, encouraging, hand holding, and losing sleep over how to help each girl jump her specific hurdle, but the reward, to help these women handle any interview, own every room, be the best candidate in any job search, be comfortable in her own skin, is unequalled. These women are sisters, and I am ridiculously blessed to be some kind of mama duck figure for every one of them. Especially these two, who have my heart, and will both play starring roles in August 9th's show:

So join us at the Clayton Opera House at 7 p.m. on Saturday, August 9. Go early and grab a bite at Gabe's, or Bella's Bistro, or Atillio's Pizza! Then pack it into the Opera House, enjoy the awesome sisterhood-themed show we've put together - hosted by Miss TI 2005 & 2007 Ann Walck Iannotta and Miss TI 2011 Morgan Bocciolatt, and featuring Miss New York 2014 Kira Kazantsev and Miss TI 2014 Olivia Grant - and cheer on these 10 young women who have come from far and wide to cast their lots for this amazing honor. They will work incredibly hard to impress you - and a panel of judges mostly comprised of Golden Sisters - with their poise, intelligence, community service dedication, talent, and style. Your $15 ticket price will go straight to our scholarship fund, to help future generations of sisters with their educational dreams. Could you think of a better way to be entertained on a Saturday night?

Just to show you what we can do, here's Olivia a year ago:

Cute kid, right? Here she is now, and lest you think it's all about looks, this is a young woman seeking to change forever the world of fashion and beauty media and the unfair pressure that industry puts on women by starting her own 501(c)3 non-profit organization, about to embark on her sophomore year of college in a foreign country, and literally one of the best contemporary vocalists I've heard, ever. Oh yeah, and she's kind, smart, and fun:

And here's my little one a couple of years ago. She was already sweet, sincere, wearing her beautiful spirituality on her sleeve, and ready to work hard:

And here she is now, just a couple years later - 14 going on 26, inspiring the nickname Beyoncé from her teen sisters at Miss NY's Outstanding Teen, being bragged on by her school teachers, and inspiring her peers to make a difference every Monday via social media:

Don't you want to root for them, and for girls like them? To see the one lucky enough to join this prestigious network? Then come join us! I would love to see you there! Maybe we can sneak across the street for a taco after the show ;) My personality is big, my hunger is bigger! 


Everything's Up to Date in Summery Clayton

Bellas on Urbanspoon

I hate it when I'm busy doing laundry and blogging, and miss whatever they just made on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, which looks like fabulous, crispy, fatty carnitas mixed with sticky rice and teriyaki sauce. Guy! Gimme that, whatever it is! ...Sorry. The pork dazzled me. I'm supposed to be here this week to talk about Clayton, the bezel-set diamond of the St. Lawrence, quietly glittering on the coastline, letting Alex Bay get the oohs and aahs while it gets the job done.

There are some new joints in town finally getting their land legs under them now that we're heading into summer's last month, and some old friends pulling out all the stops to breathe new life into this cool little town. So let's take a gander, shall we? It's summertime, and the eating is easy, after all.

On Mary St., across from the Antique Boat Museum, in a building that's been many an eatery in my lifetime alone is the new Wood Boat Brewery. I haven't had a bite to eat there yet, but that porch is money, with good tunes not turned up too loud, great beers (Dogfish Head Festina Peche is above), and a simple menu of sandwiches and pizza. As ever, I'd like to see seafood do some more heavy lifting when I have a water view like this, but hey, if pulled pork sandwiches sell, so be it. Had lobster rolls been on the menu, they would have had a dinner party of three, but instead we rolled on down the road.

Bella's Bistro, over on Riverside Dr., AKA WATERFRONT, has welcomed back former sous chef Andy Wehrle as its executive chef this summer. "Where have I heard that name?" you might ask? Andy was heading up the kitchen at Skewed Brewing in the Salmon Run Mall until recently, but decided a riverside gig suited his disposition, and returned to Bella's kitchen. Since we last visited this little gem, the owners, Missy and Matthew, have added an absolutely gorgeous waterfront patio and deck. It's glorious enough for a proposal or rehearsal dinner, and suited us just fine for mom and dad's 30th Anniversary dinner.

My moscato strawberry lemonade also liked its view:

And here, for me, Andy brought the seafood. I enjoyed this special immensely, a sort of deconstructed sushi platter, with the nutty, toothsome, inky black forbidden rice, and tangy, citrusy seaweed salad anchoring a gorgeous fan of tuna barely kissed by the heat of a grill. This fish was handled with finesse, and the tiny pops of tobiko (caviar) in the spicy ginger sauce were like fireworks for the mouth. This was the taste of summer I was looking for, and though decidedly not a lobster roll, quite yummy.

Just up Riverside and across the street sits the grande dame - the historic Thousand Islands Inn, birthplace of thousand islands dressing. New owners Jamie and Brad are in the middle of a complete redo of the interior of this landmark, and had hoped to open the kitchen this summer with BHS darling Chef Gabe Aubertine at the helm. Unfortunately, extensively renovating a building of this age is no easy feat, and construction is at a bit of a stall just now as they submit grants and finalize the new layout. But Gabe has a passion for feeding we Hungries, and has found a stop-gap measure for the starving St Lawrence masses: Gabe's Kitchen, a pop-up, window-service taco stand is set to open at the end of this week. I asked Gabe about the stand, and learned that he and his brother have talked for years about starting an authentic Mexican taco truck; the stand is an extension of that dream for him. 

Yes, I swiped this photo from the Inn's Facebook page. Full credit and disclosure!

I'm especially excited to share that Gabe is debuting a Big Hungry taco at the stand - a combo of herb crusted pork loin, sweet potato fries, shaved Brussels sprouts, bacon jam, Creme fraiche and bacon sprinkles. OMG. I'm not heading to Gabe's Kitchen until August 9, but he better have one of those on standby for me. I'll also try the fish taco, and I was intrigued to learn that a rif on the classic thousand island dressing and a top secret dessert are in the works. Man, I love a chef who really loves food! Gabe does, and he wants to feed you, so hop in the car and get some happy in your mouth!

So, in a couple weeks, I'll be back with a full review of the taco stand and more breathtaking views of The River. Our Miss Thousand Islands Pageant is in Clayton in three weeks, and I always enjoy breakfast at Koffee Kove and pizza at Attilio's while we're there, so I can't wait to add great tacos to that list, and to recommend Wood Boat and Bella's to everyone coming on down for some pageanty sparkle! Hit the road this summer (before the good weather leaves us), and try something new! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!