When ok isn’t.

A man sits on his sofa watching TV.  His wife walks up to him from the kitchen and dumps a glass of water on his head.
“What the heck was that for?”  he exclaims.
“That’s for thirty years of lousy sex,” she replies.
He wipes his face, shrugs, and continues to watch TV as she returns to the kitchen. 
A few minutes later he gets up, walks into the kitchen, pours a glass of water, and throws it in her face.
“What was that for?” she asks.
“That’s for knowing the difference.”

Having this blog as a hobby means I have to be compelled to sit down and write something, or it doesn’t get done.  Great experiences and horrible experiences are easy to write about, but mediocrity isn’t exactly the most effective motivator.   When’s the last time you heard people shout “Who cares?” or “I’m nonchalant!” at a protest, eh?  [wink]  Let’s face it, it’s tough to muster any zeal about a lukewarm experience.  It’s like telling a friend about an ok movie.  Usually we say little more than, “Meh, it was ok.”  It takes a point of reference, a benchmark, to convert indifference into indignation—and THAT is motivating.  Like the lady in the joke, it (presumably) took a contrasting experience to fire her up enough to dump the water glass on her under-performing husband. 

While Cati and I were out of town recently, we went out for Italian.  I had gnocchi piedmontese with foie that was out of this world, and Cati had a perfectly prepared pizza.  I practically buffed my plate clean with a piece of bread to get every last bit of sauce.  It was rocket-to-the-moon good™. 

I thought, “Why can’t I get Italian food this good in Albany?”  My ambivalence was slowly turning into resentment; so here we are, I am finally writing this up. 

Cati and I had all but given up on Albany Italian restaurants [by the way, Olive Garden was voted “best Italian restaurant” by a 2008 Times Union reader’s poll, if that tells you anything], when we received recommendations, from trusted sources no less, for Café Capriccio.  So we went– twice.  Café Capriccio is located in downtown Albany, on a small side street diverting from Madison Ave; it’s almost hidden.  We sat in the downstairs dining room.  Initially, we found the ambiance cozy, but then we started feeling a bit claustrophobic.  After about two hours in there we felt like we were sitting in a dimly lit wooden box– completely hidden from any outside light.  Albany winters are dark and smothering enough; we like/need windows.  The first time we went, I tried the Calamari Neri.  Cati had the Risotto Della Sera (appetizer portion) and a sea stew.  The Calamari Neri was really light on sauce and the flavors were disappointingly mild.  The dish came across as more of a novelty than a truly earnest attempt.  I didn’t hate it, but there was nothing special to like either.  Cati felt the same about her dish.  We both appreciate good seafood, and we have been known to wax poetic about dishes done right.  To their credit, the portions were plenty big, if you’re into that. 

I was expecting something like the “chipirones en su tinta” I had on our honeymoon in The Basque Country.  The sauce was so rich, briny, and complex that I did another one of my bread-buffing jobs on the plate.  The squid was the ideal texture and that indicated experience cooking this visceral dish.  The sauce was as black as tar, and the flavors were as striking as its appearance.  I was reeling; have a look:

PHOTOGRAPH TAKEN IN SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN (2006): 

[Snap! ]  Back to Café Capriccio; we were there for Valentine’s day, so we had a great time– mediocre food or not.  The service was professional, effective, and courteous.  One of the servers even offered to take a photo of Cati and me with my camera—she was sweet and had a cute sense of humor. 

Some weeks later, we were at a party talking to some friends of Italian descent who grew up in Utica, NY.  They were telling me about the Italian dish “greens and beans.”  I wasn’t familiar with the dish and was intrigued.  They mentioned that Café Capriccio has it on the menu; I wanted to try it, so we went back.  I ordered it, and yet again was unimpressed.  The most pronounced flavor was the bacon fat (not a bad thing); neither bean nor green was tasted much at all (the bad part). 

I had the Gnocchi Sorrento as my entrée and I thought the gnocchi themselves were good, but the tomato sauce was too tart.  More importantly, there was nothing to distinguish it from any other red sauce I can get anywhere else in town.  Cati asked me how it was and I shrugged and said, “good…I guess.”  Cati had the hand-made ravioli special which was a filled with mushrooms that evening.  She thought the ravioli were a little too “al dente,” as they almost seemed dry.  The filling was again “good…I guess” with a shrug.  We ordered dessert and were further disappointed. 

Cati ordered the millefoglie and I ordered the gelato.  I have no major complaints about my dish, but the gelato could have been a bit smoother (have you tried Crisan’s yet?); again, it was ok.  Cati was brought the wrong pastry.  Millefoglie (which means “a thousand leaves”) is a layered phylo dough dessert that should melt in the mouth.  She was brought what appeared to be a brittle hollow cookie accompanied by some whipped cream and a strawberry.  Initially, the waiter tried to defend what he had brought out as being millefoglie, but upon inspection he quickly realized that he had indeed brought out the wrong pastry.  He courteously apologized, and offered to bring us something else.  We declined and only asked that her dessert be removed from the bill. 

Café Capriccio is just not our cup of tea.  I tend to lump it in with Nicole’s Bistro and Jack’s Oyster House as a veteran restaurant that hasn’t changed as the Albany dining scene has (although Nicole’s does have some interesting events scheduled).  These aforementioned restaurants have their dedicated patrons and regulars; unfortunately, Cati and I are not among them (for now).  I suppose we could frequent these places week after week for a fair but unremarkable experience, but it’s too late.  We know how good Italian food can be and we’re ready to let the water glasses fly.  Anyone else feel this way?  Let us know in the comments section. 

For good Italian food in the area (at a lower price point than Cafe Capriccio), we recommend the eggplant pizza at Mama Mia’s (in Saratoga), take-out from Cardonna’s Market, pizza from The Fountain or Sovrana, and the small but tasty “Tuesday lunch buffet” at Mangia in Slingerlands (surprisingly good, btw).  For more upscale fare, I got nothing.  We plan to try Tosca Grille soon; we’ll let you know how it goes. 

For a good Italian pop song, this is the best I could do:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1YBfU39Y3Q

According to the video above, there’s an Italian TV studio looking to hire a security guard.  Applicants must be able to stop a 105-lb pop star armed with a microphone and rudimentary dance moves.  ;)

6 Responses to “When ok isn’t.”

  1. royah says:

    hiya!

    I completely, 100% agree with you regarding Café Capriccio. I’ve tried it on three occasions over a 4 year period and each time am left feeling extremely unimpressed–considering all the rave reviews people seem to give it.

    I like the greens and beans at Lombardo’s on Madison, and (surprisingly) at DeJohns. I like the carpaccio at Chianti’s. My sister recommended some italian place on Central (?).

    In terms of good Italian food, give this place a try if you are bored and up for an adventure… http://www.gregoryhouse.com/default.htm . The restaurant is called La Perla and it is out in Averil Park. A scenic ride and a cute, rustic little restaurant. I’ve only been once but the dishes we had were great….I had a crab meat red sauce over linguine, however it doesn’t seem to be on the menu they have up now (they have a crab meat cream sauce up there, but i remember being particularly impressed with how balanced their red sauce was on that dish). I forget what kevin had, but it was also good. We had a tuna carpaccio for a starter that I wasn’ t too keen on it, but I am not really a fan of that dish in general. Still, the tuna did taste fresh. Lastly, they are the only italian restaurant that has ever suggested a chianti that I’ve actually enjoyed a LOT. That part impressed me quite a bit. All in all, we’ve been meaning to go back and try it out again to see whether it really was a enjoyable as we remember.

  2. Ewan says:

    We just arrived in Albany (from New Haven, CT, a decent restaurant town) and had worries about the local dining scene. Tosca was our second meal out (after Bellini’s, which was highly blah); it was *spectacularly* good. Very pleasant room, friendly and compeent waitstaff, and a kitchen willing to take requests all helped, but the food was *great* – a cold peach soup that was perfectly smooth and tart, lamb with chanterelles and charred veg in which each flavour was deep and clean, and so on. Really just great. Go :-).

    [Now we need a bunch of _other_ places – we’re in Glanmont, and Troy is not the most convenient destination…]

  3. Ewan says:

    Sigh. Gl_E_nmont…

  4. Gina says:

    You need to venture into Schenectady for some truly delicious Italian foods.

    If you go to Precca’s you’ll get some damn good bread, pastries, and bread pizza; if you go to Civitello’s you’ll have the best lemon or watermelon Italian ice (at least in the region side) and some seriously delicious cannoli action; and Garafolo’s has the only Italian sausage worth buying (in my opinion, obviously). But, if you want a good homestyle “sit down” Italian meal, check out Canali’s in Rotterdam. I have eaten there on a few occasions in the last year and it is consistently good and the staff is great too. Yes they have huge portions, but amazing food (particularly their homemade cavatelli and indeed the greens and beans, aka menestra). The portions are actually a bonus, because the food is so good you look forward to leftovers for lunch the next day.

    I admit, however, I can’t think of any “fancy” or upscale restaurants in the Neck–Cornell’s tries to be, but disappoints. Stay away from Cornell’s–though they used to be good, ever since they moved to “little Italy” the food is mediocre and the service is worse. I know more people who’ve had bad experiences than good.

    When I get back into town I’ll take you and Cati on a tour… we can even visit the biker bar and then the gay bar, which reside right down the block from one another.

  5. Glad to see another plug for Mama Mia’s! Their eggplant pizza is so good that I’ve never really ventured far from it on their menu. I wonder if they have a gnocchi? I’m always a big gnocchi fan.

    Of course, what place can ever top the Olive Garden? :)

  6. Albany Jane says:

    Boy I sure am sorry for ‘meh’ meals. Sometimes I think they’re worse than bad meals, since at least you can pinpoint the problems.

    I’m a fan of Mercato’s in Delmar for Italian. It’s a family restaurant, but I was really impressed with their red sauce.