Flitting the Trail

Have you met my Shawn?

He's the smartest person I know, and a man of simple pleasures. He's happiest with a cold beer and a nice day to navigate his tractor around his land, puttering on house projects and reverse engineering the myriad issues that come along with home ownership. It's difficult for me to lure him away from our property.

But a couple weekends ago, it was my birthday, and everyone knows the birthday girl gets to call the shots. I happen to be very good at shot calling, and the day I wanted was wine oriented and Finger Lakes bound. So my Shawn charted a course for Cayuga, and would you know what? There were tasty treats afoot.

Since we access Ithaca by first surmounting Owego, we stopped off at Iron Kettle Farms on Rt. 96, said hello to some little friends, and picked up a peck of local apples.

Then it was off to wine country. We hit Americana for my favorite taste of the Finger Lakes - their Apparition white table wine. It's good stuff, you guys. It has a crisp sweetness that doesn't linger in the back of the throat like almost all other sweet wines, and pairs well with chicken and ethnic dishes.

After Americana comes Sheldrake Point, my favorite winery to visit. This is where you buy Riesling, take in the gorgeous water view, and joke around with the pourers. Oh, you also take selfies:

Feeding goats and drinking wine works up a mean hunger! For years, I've tasted wine at Cayuga Ridge and wished it was mealtime so that I could grab a pizza from their Copper Oven. Finally! My wish came thrue, and we beelined there for a delicious and lovely lunch al fresco. I ordered wine, while Shawn was relieved to get a beer:

And we perused this fun menu:

I feel like I should reassure you that the graphic is of the Finger Lakes in their entirety, not some horrifically scarred internal organ from an animal. It's ok. Don't be scared.

We split the fun-guy pie for lunch, and it was the perfect few bites for which we were looking. The pizzas at Copper Oven are small and thin crusted, not the traditional pepperoni and cheese gooey behemoths you might be used to from delivery pies. The fun-guy had a base of Creme fraiche, which is like sour cream but French and therefor better (ok, ok, it's actually just a bit creamier, with a hair less tang than American sour cream). On top of that were minced mushrooms, cheddar cheese, fresh chives, and truffle oil to round out the flavor and give each slice an earthy personality that would have been absent without it. The toppings were scant so as not to trump the flavor of the crust itself, which was subtle, but had fantastic crunch and chew. 

See those gorgeous charred bits of cheese? You can thank the super-hot oven, made of (yes) copper, for them. I know I did. The Copper Oven is a great stop for lunch on your Cayuga Lake wine tour. The wait staff was pleasant, the drinks were great (there were local crafts beers on special, plus Cayuga Ridge Estates wines available by the glass), and the deck on which you sit feels like a little private enclave, just enough removed from the winery, overlooking the lake and a pretty red barn, and charming as all get out.

Also? Pizza soaks up all the booze, man!

We hit a few more wineries, then headed back into Ithaca, where I took Shawn to Ithaca Ale House, just off the Commons, for a pre-dinner drink. Because what you need following an afternoon of wine tasting is a Bloody Mary or a beer! As ever, my most favorite bar in Upstate NY was bustling, friendly, and a good place to pause and catch our breath. The food cranking out of the kitchen looked almost good enough to make me rethink our dinner destination, but no, I was not to be deterred.

We rolled up the other side of the lake to Booker's Backyard, which I first told you about last summer, declaring it the spot for your next date night. I don't know if you've tried it out yet, but I can tell you that MY birthday date night there was splendid, and we both already can't wait to go back.

We sat in that idyllic backyard, and rather than down on the patio, Shawna and I were seated up on the deck, with a bit of an elevated view of the sunset, a private feel, and of course, all the yummies Booker's entails.

I've already reviewed Booker's, so I'm not about to give you a full run down, but our meals were wonderful. My scallop and bacon mac and cheese and exemplary lobster roll were fabulous - I groaned and made Shawn taste them and the whole nine. You should go here.

He would probably never admit it, but I think Shawn enjoyed getting out and about and exploring this gorgeous little section of our state quite a bit. We revisited places we already know we like and hit up some new spots, didn't plan too much, and let our moods, our stomachs, and the road take us where they liked. It was a golden, romantic, and very happy birthday for me. Could a girl ask for anything more? My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

PS - I have big, BIG news to share next week, so check in Wednesday for a review from Hamilton and Utica, and again on Thursday for a special announcement!

PPS - My Little One is crowning her successor this Saturday at the culmination of the 2015 Miss Thousand Islands Outstanding Teen Pageant. It's at 2 p.m. in the LaFargeville Central School Auditorium. If you have a free afternoon and you're in NNY, swing by and support six young ladies working hard to join the nation's largest achievement program for women: the Miss America Organization! There will be entertainment in the form of dancing and singing, plus, you get to see Joelle on her way to the next fabulous chapter of her young life. You won't regret the investment of your time into supporting our community's young people! 

The Copper Oven on Urbanspoon


Sunday Mornings with Shelby

Long before there was a Big Hungry Shelby, there was an always-hungry little girl growing up in Watertown, NY, obsessed with the Frugal Gourmet and its host, Jeff Smith's, reverence and adoration of food. She would fervently mess with dinner prep when her mom wasn't looking - adding garlic salt to the tomato sauce while it bubbled on the stove, egg wash to the crescent rolls before their trip to the oven, and eating raw hot dogs, then sneaking more from the fridge to replace them in the cooking lineup. She had learned kitchen bravery and mischief from her beloved, madcap, adventurous, globe-trotting grandmother, and devoured Floyd Misek's weekly restaurant review in the Sunday paper. 

Mr. Misek was a celebrity in our house, just like Jeff Smith. When the paper arrived each Sunday, the section featuring the restaurant review would be the first we leafed through to find, and whomever read his column first would advise the others if the restaurant he'd reviewed was one we were likely to visit.

I think it's totally fair to state that we were a family of good eaters from the start. We tasted pork BBQ throughout Virgina and the Carolinas, caviar in California, grits in the South and venison in the North. We ate at a lot of HoJos and Cracker Barrels, but Mom also cooked from a wheelhouse of by-heart recipes culled from the unique combo of Episcopal pot lucks and her mother's world cuisine. Whether tuna casserole or paella, I loved it all. 

This food obsession, by my early 30s, was sufficient enough that friends identified me as a foodie, asked me for recipes, and consulted with me before trying a new restaurant. I would regularly recieve advice to write a cookbook. So in 2010, I started Big Hugry Shelby - not only to provide a creative outlet for my predilection, but also to shine a spotlight on the real food of Upstate New York. 

And so it goes, you know? I've met some really cool people through blogging, and I just generally have enjoyed inserting myself into the foodie culture I associate with names like Rachael, Guy, Anthony, and Bloomfield. Whenever one of those celebs retweets one of my sentiments or likes something I've posted on Instagram, I blush like a fan girl and tell the whole world.

So it brought my universe to a grinding stop a couple weeks ago when an email came from the Watertown Daily Times saying they enjoy my blog and would like me (ME!) to be the new food writer for the Sunday edition. Me! Big Hungry Shelby - With a real, paid position in the legitimate media! I am flattered and flabbergasted, and right away I wondered how I could balance this amazing opportunity with my career, my pageant duties, and the fact that I live in Owego, not Watertown. And then I remembered writing a speech to female future engineers for one of the executives at my company earlier this year. She said the secret to her success was saying yes to opportunities, even if they seem scary and you don't know, up front, how to do them...so I'm going for it. Starting this Sunday, I will be the food writer for the Watertown Daily Times, spreading the Big Hungry Shelby concept to an even wider audience. I will still blog here every Wednesday, but the North Country joints I review will share info with WDT. 

I have always been careful to stay away from the title food critic used in tandem with my food writing, because taste is so subjective, and I can only offer opinions after tasting things with my own mouth. When I eat out with a group, I take their opinions into consideration, but eating and dining are extremely personal experiences. I know not everyone who reads my Sunday column will agree with my take on the food of the North country, and my new editor Mary has prepped me for the barrage of negative feedback I'm likely to receive. While the burden of reviewing restaurants for a newspaper versus my own blog will mean that from time to time I will have to say I don't like a certain place or dish, you guys know that mostly, I'm a fan of food and food people. It will likely never be all doom and gloom. 

So North country readers, spend your Sunday mornings with me! I look forward to bringing you the latest on restaurants, chefs, and food in Watertown and the surrounding communities. If there are topics or places you think I should cover in my new column, let me know! And as ever, follow along on Instagram and Twitter @BigHungryShelby and on The Big Hungry Shelby Facebook group for extra helpings, more photos, and real time looks at what I'm eating and writing about. My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!


Blue Water on the Long Lake

I've said it before and I'll share it again: Skaneateles is my favorite town in all of Upstate New York. It has a different feel, for me, even from other chi-chi enclaves like Saratoga, and that quality has everything to do with the body of water for which the village is named. That dazzling, serpentine slash of bright turquoise is unique in all of the Finger Lakes, and a major boon to the experience that is Skan.

So when Big Hungry Melinda suggested we spend a recent Saturday in the picturesque village, I jumped for joy. We did a little light shopping, some sight seeing, and lunch at an old favorite of mine, The Bluewater Grill, which is right on the main street of the village and of course, right on the lake.

If you've been reading the blog all summer, you're probably surprised that I didn't order the lobster and crab salad sandwich. I was somewhat turned off by the word "salad," in the description, I'm not going to lie. It conjured up a more mayonnaisey affair than I was game for - what's wrong with a classic lobster roll? And why aren't there more of them on summer menus this side of the Hudson? But I was feeling lobstery, obviously (when am I not?), so I doubled down for the lobster bisque and the lobster napolean. 

The soup is rich and thick, but tasted more of cream and sherry than lobster. For $5, I wasn't expecting the most amazing bisque ever, but a few more generous chunks of the sweet shellfish would have been welcome, and I would recommend the base of this soup be started from scratch, as they say. Is there a lobster shortage in New York of which I'm unaware? I don't know about that, but I do know there was a shortage in my soup.

I was more pleased with the napolean, which was indeed endowed with more mayonnaise than I would prefer, but was also lighter than a lobster roll and a really nice dish for a sunny day by the lake. I liked the avocado, mango, and crisp, thin slices of cucumber, but the tomato and onion kind of fought with the better flavors of the dish, for me. The avocado was so creamy, the mango so sweet, but the tomato dissipated that great flavor and lessened its impact. Again, I felt like the chef was working harder on keeping the price down than he was on the flavor integrity of the dish. The Thai chili mayo and balsamic syrup on the plate were really nice, and I wished some of that heat and intensity had been in the lobster mixture itself, which again, was not huge on lobster flavor. I think some very minor tinkering and maybe $3 more to this $16 appetizer would make it an A+, and I have a hard time believing The Bluewater couldn't command that price in one of the posher locations in Central New York.

Melinda was feeling a hearty burger, and went all in on the black angus cheeseburger and fries. You guys, I want to tell you it was amazing, but alas, it was pretty ordinary. Slightly thicker than a fast food burger, yellow cheese (one slice), lettuce and tomato. I know they have a couple more inventive options, and maybe it would have been more interesting if she'd gone for one of those, but shouldn't every item on the menu be treated with care? 

The Bluewater Grill in my memory was a special place with upscale but still relatable food, but on this visit, it felt touristy and run of the mill. Even my Bloody Mary was kind of watery and uninspired. Granted, it was packed, and I know the pressure of cranking out food on a weekend when you're the closest restaurant to the main attraction (ie, Skaneateles Lake), can become a recipe for dumbed down food and compromised kitchen standards. I hope that's not the story here for the long haul. A great view should not be asked to compensate for mediocre food, especially not in idyllic Skan. 

Luckily, we made a wise choice for dessert, and after shopping and strolIng, made our way to Patisserie, behind The Sherwood Inn. And just as when I visited Paris in high school, I was all too susceptible to the charms of the shiny, jewel-like fruit tartlet. But this time, it was so, so worth it. Bright fruit, bursting with the flavors of summer, and creamy, not-too-sweet vanilla pastry cream in a light, crumbly crust. The perfect bite.

Patisserie is a tiny bakery with cupcakes (natch), pastries, breads and granola. It's a million degrees inside, so get in, get sugared up, and get out. People were strolling all over town gnawing on small baguettes with Patisserie bags dangling cooling from their fingers, lending the whole village a very Euro vibe. There are still a couple good weather weekends left, so hie thee to Skaneateles, grab yourself some divine baked goods and try the new Gilda's - which is on the wrong side of the street if you want to water gaze, but looked to be more promising, lunch-wise, than the gamble we took.

But do select a Saturday and put Skaneateles on your list. There are few to no chains in the village, so your money will stay local, and you can browse for art, gifts, women's clothing, children's toys, pet stuff, furs, kitchen gear, and stationery, all within a three block walk. And when your wallet needs a rest, grab your baguette and a bench on the waterfront and enjoy that view. It's not just a long lake - it's light blue, sun speckled, and pretty dang breathtaking. Let me know what you think! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Blue Water Grill on Urbanspoon

Patisserie on Urbanspoon


The Divine Caprese Artist

It is worth noting that Michelangelo, consummate Renaissance man and one of the best known and most revered artists of all time, painter of the Systine Chapel, architect of St Peter's Basilica, and sculptor of the David, was born in Caprese. Caprese is the Italian word for the sublime tomato, basil, and fresh mozzarella salad - a work of art of the culinary variety. And that is how I deposit you, my Hungries, upon the doorstep of Michelangelo's Pizzeria and Ristorante, in Binghamton.

Like the prolific artist, restaurant owner Angelo is passionate about his craft, and seems to always be on site, always working the room. He greets every table, and it's evident that his concern over every customer's satisfaction is genuine. You know what else is real deal? The buttery, crisp, heavenly garlic knots gracing every table. They may not be cherub-winged or carved out of marble, but these doughy, warm, pungent rolls are absolutely a work of art.

It's becoming a rarity to have salad included with your meal. Thankfully, our Italian eateries are still largely carrying on the tradition, and while Michelangelo's is iceberg, based, it's enormous for a complimentary salad, and the blue cheese I requested to top mine was plentiful. The house Italian dressing was a bit acidic for me - a hint of sweetness would have tempered the harshness of the vinegar nicely, 
but I liked it. 

Here's a personal rule I have about eating in old school Italian restaurants, which abound in Upstate New York. I'll share it with you because we've been through so much, and I love y'all more than my luggage. If braciole is on the menu, you order it. Braciole is a peasant dish from old country Italy. Chances are, if it's on the menu, the recipe came from someone's nonna, who had very little meat, and even that was a cheap, tough cut. But she wanted to feed her family well. So she pounded the meat thin as can be, sprinkled it with herbs, a little bit of pungent, grated cheese, maybe a scrap or two of prosciutto if times were a little better, greens if they were leaner, and she rolled and braised that meat until her gravy was flavored with it, and the beef bundles were tenderized by the acid from the tomatoes and as delicious as a prime cut. Michelangelo's braciole is simply epic, you guys. It just is. Every important flavor of this dish was popping: garlic, salty cheese, savory, slightly tannic tomato, and mellow beef that gave a fair share of flavor to the sauce but saved plenty for itself. This was homey, comforting, classic, and sumptuous. Pictures of braciole are never as glorious as the taste, but behold nonetheless:

Big Hungry Melinda loves Michelangelo's and joined me for dinner, and chicken Parmesan was her bag on this particular evening. This was another classic prep, with a pounded chicken cutlet breaded and panfried, topped with bubbly, browned mozzarella, then smothered in gorgeous marinara. The difference here is that this chicken actually tasted like chicken! It was well seasoned, expertly fried, and slathered in the perfect amount of broiled cheese. Your kids would love this dish, and with portions this big, two of them can split one entree.

As if everything we've already reviewed wasn't yummy enough, the hits just keep on coming - because at Michelangelo's, you can get whatever sauce you want on your pasta side. I chose pesto, which was mild and tempered with a generous splash of cream. I liked it quite a but, but it didn't knock my socks off. I think maybe some fresh basil sprinkled on top would have helped.

Melinda chose the vodka sauce, which had a nice, round flavor. Not too piquant nor branded out with too much cream. It wasn't overly sweet, either. I got savory and creamy from it, and give it a thumbs up. Naturally, the pasta was toothsome and gorgeous. As God intended. 

On a down note, the majority of the desserts at Michelangelo's are commercial, processed, frozen products. I'm not down with that, as you know. But the cannoli and tiramisu are made in house, so Melinda and I split an order of the latter. It was boozier and less creamy than your run of the mill ladyfinger and mascarpone affair, with a heavier hand on the cakey ladies and their Kahlua baths. Different and delectable if you don't mind a good dose of liquor in your sweet.

Like the artist Michelangelo, this restaurant is a classic example of the iconic ingredients that make Italy one of the most favored foreign cultures in our country. You have a passionate proprietor pressing the flesh and minding his store, authentic recipes guiding the kitchen, and a welcoming, homey ambiance. It's the perfect place to bring the family for ethnic food that's completely comforting and familiar. I award Michelangelo's Ristorante a seven on the BHS scale - above average, relaxing, delicious, and fun, but not setting the world on fire perhaps in the way of its namesake Renaissance man. But then again, while he may have mastered the frescoe, that dude never made me a tasty plate of perfect braciole. Who does he think he is, anyway? What have you done for me lately, Mike? My personality is big, my hunger is bigger! 
Michelangelo Pizzeria & Restaurant on Urbanspoon