Top 5: An Italian Face Off

I was sitting at the Greek Festival in Vestal Saturday, sharing a magical creation called honey puffs, which are basically the fried dough “fritos” you get at Italian feast festivals, but dunked in honey and topped with cinnamon (I am hyperventilating just typing this and remembering how good they were) with my friend Melinda. We were talking about different areas of Upstate New York and the various ethnic populations in each one. Obviously, I come from Watertown, which is basically Italian and Irish; Melinda is from rural Lebanon, virtually devoid of culinary variety, but close to Utica, with its large Ukrainian settlement. We now both live in the Endicott/Owego area, thick with people serving up pierogies, honey puffs, spiedies, calzones and kolachki.

As I was considering this conversation and what to write about this week for Big Hungry, I thought about the juxtaposition between where I grew up and the place I’ve called home for the last 10 years. Both have a proliferation of great Italian restaurants – some which we’ve already explored on BHS. So this week, I’m giving you a top five list of my favorite Italian eateries in both areas, and encouraging you to names your winners in the comments section. Let’s count ‘em down!

First of all: Northern New York, because I lived there first, and this is my blog.

1. Art’s Jug
The classic. No one who grew up in Watertown could deny it. This is what home tastes like. I like to order the red hook ale shrimp, Italian wings (fried, then tossed in Italian dressing and parmesan instead of buffalo sauce), antipasto with extra roasted red peppers, and pizza with the works.

2.Pete’s Restaurant
They now serve Giovanni’s sauce, the bar is one of the nicest in town, and you almost always see familiar and friendly faces when you walk in the door. I order things with that great, classic red sauce here, like baked ziti and chicken parm. Best marinara in Watertown. The alfredo is good, too, and I love that they have nostalgic fav chicken tetrazzini on the menu.

3. Bernardo’s Pizzeria
This place is new compared to the others on my list, but I think it’s my most favorite pizza in the world. Not a huge departure from Art’s modus operandi; it’s not too saucy, the toppings are high quality, and the dough is great – not crispy or doughy, but right in between. I order onions, peppers, mushrooms and pepperoni on the whole thing, with sausage on one side.

4.Sboro’s Restaurant
The upscale face of Watertown Italian dining. We eat at Sboro’s every year before attending the Mayor’s Ball, and on other special occasions. Order the fried artichokes, then seafood alfredo, with gigantic delicious scallops or the absolutely scallops/chicken/shrimp (your choice). Their vodka sauce is really well done.

5.Attilio’s Pizzeria - Located in Clayton, Attilio’s is a tiny, waterfront pizzeria. Perfect before catching a boat tour, or maybe before a show at the Clayton Opera House, which is right across the street. It’s a pretty simple menu….your favorite toppings on a great pie.

Honorable mention:
The Barracks Inn and Cavallario’s – The Barracks’ food has had its ups and down over the years, and truthfully, I haven’t been there in a few. But it is undeniably one of the most enjoyable and beautiful places to eat in all of the Northcountry. My dream wedding reception would be out on their gorgeous deck, lit with twinkle lights. Heaven! You’re getting standard Coleman’s family fare here; I like the stuffed peppers and the prime rib. On the other hand, the two Cavallario’s in Watertown and Alex Bay have always served consistently great Italian food. Great chicken parm and alfredo at both.

In memoriam: Giovanni’s. Sob. RIP, delicious braciole.

Next: the top five in the Southern Tier

1.Oak’s InnProbably the best Italian food in the Triple Cities, served in a setting only a grandmother could love. The parking is a nightmare, there’s a very steep staircase just to get in the place, and you’ll be sorry if you don’t make a reservation. You will be surrounded by people 20 or 30 years your senior, and you will like it! The clams casino are great, the chicken marsala is a revelation, and the braciole – while in limited supply – is divine. Sometimes, when you make your reservation, you can ask them to save you a serving of the slow-cooked steak, rolled around seasoned breadcrumbs and parmesan and drenched in rich tomato sauce, with a side of yummy homemade pasta.

2.Tony’s Italian Grill
I’ve already told you how much I love my Tony’s. If you see me there on a Friday night, I’ll probably have the gnocchi napoletana with fantastic meatballs. Gnocchi is something I wasn’t familiar with before moving down here. Tender, fluffy little potato pillows topped with red sauce and served parmigiana style. YUM. Tony’s also has bucatini al amatriciana, which is a roman delicacy consisting of a pancetta-and-onion-graced tomato sauce. The bacon adds saltiness and depth to the tomato, so it’s different and more interesting than your standard pasta dish. Try it!

Gnocchi napoletana at Tony’s; Tell the truth, the meatballs are calling your name, aren’t they?

3. Consol’s Family Kitchen
Consol’s sits at the corner of Oak Hill Rd and Watson Blvd in Endicott, at the entrance to Little Italy. It’s also a great entrée into the Endicott Italian experience. It’s warm and friendly and crowded inside, and the food is always good. I’m ordering the grilled Portobello mushroom appy, with sautéed spinach and roasted red peppers in balsamic vinaigrette. This one of the best things in the world to sop up with hunks of Italian bread. After that, if it’s on special that day, I’m having the garlic soup. One of those things that sounds crazy but tastes great, this soup is soul-satisfying and rich. For an entrée, I recommend either the chicken sofia, which is chicken cutlets, broccoli and roasted peppers in a fantastic garlic cream sauce over rigatoni, or the rigatoni with vodka cream sauce, which is topped with wonderful prosciutto. DO NOT miss a slab of the other-worldly chocolate cake for dessert. I worked with a woman related to the Consol family for eight years and begged her for this cake recipe, and she never relented. I’m still mad about it. Do not underestimate my ability to hold a grudge where food is concerned.

4. Joey’s Brick Oven PizzeriaRight up the street from Consol’s and Oak’s Inn is Joey’s. Long known for the little Italian ice stand attached to it, Joey’s is serving up what’s being touted as some of the best pizza in the area, and that’s no joke. They have pies and sandwiches to go, but the seating area is adorable, if tiny. The pizza toppings are the highest quality, and you can tell the people running this joint love food. I’m getting wonderful, little fried ravioli and fried mashed potatoes as an appy, then a bubbly, browned, brick oven masterpiece with mushrooms, prosciutto and roasted red peppers. What are you getting?

My dining partner and best friend Melinda, impatiently waiting for Joey to serve our prosciutto-laden wonder of a pizza

5.Mama Giuseppe’sMy friend Shannon would kick my behind from here to Black River if I didn’t include Mama in my Top 5. And she has a point: the garlic knots alone are enough to keep you coming back here, even if the ambiance leaves a little to be desired. I mean, it’s nice enough inside, but the floor to ceiling windows overlooking a parking lot and not-so-nice neighborhood leave a little to be desired. The portions at Mama’s are gigantic, and my favorite is the chicken marsala. Their iteration of this classic is a cream-based marsala sauce, which is rich and luxurious, served over al dente fettucine. Do yourself a favor, and partition your plate in half right from the get-go, or you’ll be in a food coma before you get out of the parking lot!

Honorable mention:
Owego Original Italian Pizzeria – on Lake St. Which to order: the calzone or the steak special??? Nirchi’s on the Ave gets special mention on the deliciousness of its French onion soup alone.

In memoriam: Pane Vino in Owego. Oh, how I miss their lunch buffet. Three years and 30 pounds ago, that spread was my saving grace and best friend.

I am so fortunate to have grown up eating delicious ethnic foods and enjoying the recipes handed down by generations of Italian immigrants. I’m even more grateful to now live in a community that embraces its international cuisine with such gusto. While the Italian restaurants owners are prolific in the Southern Tier, we also have great Greek, Mexican, Thai, Japanese and Polish food here. What are your favorite ethnic eateries? Share your picks in the comments below so that you can be Big Hungry! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

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