Binghamton Restaurant Week: Cortese Restaurant

Restaurant Weeks around the country are typically good chances for ordinary folks to try out a palace of culinary delight for a reasonable price, promoting a big city’s gustatory upper echelon to those usually unable to afford such luxuries. But Binghamton Restauarnt Week offers something a bit different: a good lure for our locals to steer away from Red Lobster and The Olive Garden and towards locally-owned restaurants like Sake Tumi and Loft at 99. If the brisk business and packed spaces in Binghamton’s local eateries during this spring’s RW are any indication, the plan is working and Binghamton restaurants are getting the boon they’re hoping for by participating.

This time around, Big Hungries Lisa and Melinda and I hit up Cortese Restaurant, a Binghamton institution I have somehow missed in my 12 years living here. Cortese sports an extensive menu of Italian classics, a less impressive wine list, and a noisy, somewhat dated space that is the hallmark of a family-owned Italian joint.

As Lisa helpfully modeled for you in the above photo, the mozzarella sticks at Cortese are breaded in an extremely fine crumb, but are pretty ordinary. A good, classic staple, though not remarkable in flavor or presentation.

Another appy, the Toscana bread, was a little more memorable, although I was overpowered by the garlic content. This pizza dough-based garlic bread is dressed up with fresh tomatoes and basil. The menu promised pesto, but none was delivered. I’m always a little annoyed when a menu description doesn’t fit the dish, and this bread didn’t wow me, although Lisa liked it.

Whither my pesto?
The house salads were really nice. Again, a strong punch of garlic was the hallmark of the dressing, and the plain iceberg was offset nicely with a pile of shredded (not crumbled) blue cheese on top.

Melinda’s lasagna was surpringly light, considering the huge portion and casserole-style presentation. There was a nice, sweet spice to the sauce, and the ricotta/mozzarella/sauce/noodle ratio was spot on. She loved it.

A unique addition to the Resaurant Week menu was the parmigiana sampler, which both Lisa and I ordered. This was a hearty portion of homemade linguine with a sausage link, a meatball, and a surprisingly large slab of chicken parmesan. The sausage was the standout on this plate – spicy robust and garlicky. The pasta was homey and tender, clearly homemade and rough-textured. I quite liked it. The chicken could have been pounded thinner, for my tastes. I like a true cutlet in my parmesan – duh, more fried surface area that way! This was thicker and less tender than I prefer. The meatball also lacked luster. It was too tightly packed for me, and a little dry on the palate. Overall, though, this dish was successful, and a great way to try a lot of Cortese’s staples within the RW framework.

But you know I have to deduct BHS points for the presentation. I just can’t stand a sloppy plate, and look at the cheese splatter around the edges of this parmigiana. How long would it have taken the chef to wipe these edges before slamming the plate in the salamander? How much would it have cost to accent the sea of red sauce and cheese with a sprig of Italian parsley or fresh basil? I know this is down-home, traditional Italian fare, but in 2012, I just expect a little more…flair.

Our tiramisu for dessert was only OK. Melinda and split it, but found it lacking texture. The coffee flavor was good, but rather than espresso-soaked lady fingers on the bottom that tend to retain a little chew, this was based on a layer of angel food or sponge cake which just couldn’t stand up to the mascarpone and cocoa and turned to mush.

Lisa loved her brownie ala mode. I didn’t get a chance to try it, but this might be a stronger bet to nicely end cap your meal.

As a group, we chose to give Cortese a seven on the BHS scale. The food here is on the garlicky end of the Southern Tier Italian food dining spectrum – most of the dishes we had a chance to try were predominated by a strong garlic overtone. I like garlic, so this was a fine overtone for me, but I know plenty of people for whom this would be a deterrent. The dining room also was incredibly noisy, which Melinda told me is typical there. It was packed during our weeknight visit, which I always like to see. Clearly, this is a beloved Binghamton eatery, and I can see why. The generous portions and homey environment beget a comfortable family dinner spot.

It should be noted that Cortese’s pizza are a big deal around here. While I didn’t taste any that evening, I have certainly been known to bring home one of Cortese’s frozen pies available at most of our local grocery stores. Lisa ordered one that evening to take home to her kids. The buttery crust, garlic-laden red sauce and layer of thick mozzarella are pleasing, indeed.

This was a pretty straight-forward meal, but I’m glad Restaurant Week gave me the excuse to try it out. I hope RWs expand to more of Upstate NY’s cities. I know Rochester has one, though I haven’t heard of Watertown or Syracuse joining suite. Please correct me if I’m wrong. In any event, I’m glad my local city has embraced the trend, and look forward to Binghamton’s next RW. My hunger is big, my personality is bigger!

Cortese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. I would like mozzarella sticks for breakfast and I have a hankering for chicken parm.