Utica. The very name sets my mouth to watering. What? You don't think of the Central New York rust-belt city as a center of culinary excellence? Well, neither did I until recently. In fact, the entire basis for my Pavlovian response is a single dish—Utica-style greens—that I have eaten only at a Lake Placid restaurant three hours' drive north of Utica.
I have heard that Utica, which used to have a booming textiles industry, has a great selection of ethnic restaurants thanks to its diverse immigrant population. But on my only visit to the city, about a year ago, I completely missed out.
I accompanied Niki, one of my fellow editors at the regional Adirondack magazine where I work, on a road trip there to pick up some ice cream (packed in dry ice) we were going to write about. We had some other stops to make on the way, and we timed it so we would be in Utica around lunchtime. My stomach was growling by the time we reached city limits, but we figured we'd quickly stop to pick up our ice cream and then head off in search of lunch.
When we arrived at the little shipping store on a deserted side street in the industrial part of town where we were supposed to retrieve our cargo, though, the slightly creepy-seeming proprietor told us it wasn't there. He made a call and, after convincing Niki and I that we would get lost if he tried to send us to the location of our package, told us to wait there while he went to get it. This was fine, except that he decided to lock us inside (to protect what, I don't know, for the only items on view were some tacky tchotchkes). Maybe it was our overly active imaginations, or hunger—or maybe the picture of a scantily clad woman hanging in the bathroom—but the idea of being locked in the store made us a little nervous, a feeling that only escalated as the minutes dragged out to an hour or more. The only food in sight was a little dish of old hard candies on the counter. Desperate, I ate one. By the time the guy finally returned with our ice cream and we were able to leave, we were too hungry to go driving around in search of a good meal. We stopped at the first place we saw—a Little Caesar's pizza—and scarfed down a greasy slice. So much for the culinary delights of Utica.
A few months ago, though, I finally discovered the city's signature dish, though not on its home turf. It appears on the menu at the relatively new and oddly named Liquids & Solids at the Handlebar (the Handlebar was a previous establishment on the premises) in Lake Placid, where it's made with Swiss chard mixed with garlic, cherry peppers, flakes of smoked trout and rock shrimp and topped with a gratin of bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese. I love vegetables even relatively unadorned, but this dish has enough flavor—spicy, salty, smoky—to satisfy greens-haters, too.
It turns out this version is a twist on the regional Utica favorite, where it probably originated with Italian immigrants. Although there are many variations, the most common ingredients are escarole (chard or other greens also work), prosciutto (adding the smokiness and salt), garlic, chicken broth and hot peppers— a recipe at The Cookbook Project appears to be a standard. The dish is so popular in the city that the annual Utica Arts and Music Festival (which I apparently just missed last weekend) includes a Greens Fest, with a tent serving versions from area restaurants.
I'll be back, Utica.