Dining at the Casola: Tuscany
I apologize to Mr. Larkin for the horrible delay in posting this review…I fully expect to receive a two-letter-grade reduction in my test score. It’s like my high school English class all over again.
Last Tuesday, my friends D, ME, and I had lunch at the Casola Dining Room at Schenectady County Community College. I have dined there for lunch in the past, and it’s always been a great experience – the food is good, and it’s a place where culinary students learn the art of hospitality and service. I like being able to enjoy a good meal, and at the same time to help aspiring chefs and restaurateurs in the classroom setting.
We arrived for the 12:30 seating, excited to try the Tuscan-themed menu (every week of the semester they present a new cuisine, which is prepared for lunch and dinner seatings). we were greeted by the aforementioned Mr. Larkin (who would prove to be the highlight of the experience – more on him later), and three friendly and courteous students took our coats. We were escorted to our table by Ian, a seemingly-shy young man who appeared quite nervous but very friendly.
The dining room is an elegant-yet-comfortable space, with white linen covered tables and dark walls covered with pieces of local art. It’s a very calm and refined room that puts you in a good mood.
The crowd that day, and most days, was skewed heavily towards retired folk, who are more able to deal with the leisurely pace at which meals are served here. I think it’s worth noting here that if you plan to have lunch at the Casola, please allow at least one hour and 45 minutes for your meal – it is a student-run restaurant, and the cooks as well as the servers are not yet ready to serve at the breakneck speed required for a typical hour lunch break. As long as you understand the pace and the purpose, then you can plan accordingly and not be frustrated by what appears to be “slow” service.
Ian deftly explained how things work in the Casola (meals include water, iced tea, and coffee; soft drinks are available for an extra charge), and brought our drinks quickly. While he was away, we looked over the menus and tried to determine what we would be having.
Ribollita – Tuscany’s most famous twice-boiled vegetable and bread soup made with several vegetables, bread and cannellini beans
Panzanella Salad – Classic Tuscan salad marrying ripe tomatoes with torn bread, cucumbers greens and herbs, Drizzled with extra-virgin oil
Ravioli di Ricotta con Pomodori – Hand-made ricotta filled ravioli tossed in a fresh plum tomato sauce
Porchetta – A variation on the classic Northern Italian roasted suckling pig. Our version substitutes pork tenderloin for the pig and stuffs the loin with a flavorful mixture of fennel, sweet sausage, herbs, garlic and fresh bread crumbs. Served with braised yellow potatoes and sautéed broccoli rabe with garlic
Pollo alla Diavolo – A Florentine specialty of chicken marinated in extra-virgin olive oil, crushed red and black pepper, rosemary, sage, and lemon juice and then charbroiled. Served with polenta and peperonata
Cacciucco – Tuscany’s undisputed “best seafood dish”. Clams, calamari, white fish, scallops, and shrimp simmered in a flavorful, full-bodied tomato and fish broth
Tiramisù – Espresso Soaked Lady Fingers filled with Mascarpone Cream
Ricotta Cheese Tart – Flaky pastry filled with sweetened ricotta cheese filling
Chocolate Espresso Cake – Rich, dense flourless cake flavored with brewed espresso
Hmmm…what to eat?
Before we could decide what we wanted, ME and I were trying to figure out what peperonata was (one of the accompaniments for the chicken). We thought we might have an idea, but wanted to make sure (plus it would give us an opportunity to see if Ian was as familiar with the menu as he was supposed to be). When Ian returned to take our orders, ME asked if he knew what the peperonata was. He honestly admitted that he didn’t know, but promised he’s be right back with the answer. After two or three minutes, he came back and explained both polenta and peperonata, but ended up reversing the descriptions. ME set him straight (nicely, of course). Poor Ian – as I said, he was very nervous as it was, and this only served to embarrass him a bit (poor kid blushes a LOT, which his instructor – The Infamous Mr. Larkin – was quick to point out to us later on). Anyway, Ian was very good-natured, and took it all in stride. Gotta be ready for the difficult customers, and this was good practice.
I ordered the Panzanella Salad and Pollo alla Diavolo; ME ordered Panzanella and Porchetta; D ordered Ravioli di Ricotta con Pomodori and Porchetta.
While we were patiently awaiting our appetizers, D schooled us a bit on dining etiquette – he pointed out a very clever mnemonic to use if you ever forget which bread plate or which water glass belongs to you. Just put your fingers in the following shapes (either on the table, or discreetly in your lap if you wish to avoid a social faux pas):
OK, so I had to flip the photo over – but it needs to be upside down in order to understand it. D’s fingers form letter – “b” on the left, and “d” on the right. SO – bread (b) is on your left and drinks (d) are on your right. I had not heard this trick before, and I was suitably impressed with D. Bravo!
Ian then brought our appetizers – here’s a look at the Panzanella:
The salad was very tasty – cucumbers, red onions, tomatoes, and Italian bread cubes, all drizzled with a nicely peppery extra-virgin olive oil. The tomatoes were surprisingly good-tasting, considering it was late March in upstate NY, and tomatoes aren’t’ usually any good around here til July. ME stated that she’d never had cucumbers in panzanella before, but she felt they were a nice addition. Personally, I thought there wasn’t nearly enough bread in the mix – the vegetables completely dominated a dish that should feature the bread (panzanella translates to “bread salad” after all).
D had ordered the cheese-stuffed ravioli, and he remarked that the ravioli seemed to be lacking in cheese; in fact, one of the ravioli he showed me did not contain any cheese at all. Perhaps they ran out of cheese when creating that batch of ravioli, but something called “cheese-stuffed” should contain cheese! There’s got to be more ricotta in the walk-in. We thought it would be a good idea to share this observation with one of the instructors….
And it was at that point that The Notorious Mr. Larkin stopped by to see how our meal was progressing. It was also at that moment that I happened to be taking the above photo, and he came over to the table and said “I’m sorry – we don’t allow photos in here.” He sounded very convincing, and I got scared for a second. Then he laughed at me, and we thought this was a good time to share our observations. Mr. Larkin was glad to hear everything we had to say, and urged us to be honest and offer constructive criticism to both him and the students.
Mr. Larkin shared some stories about difficult customers, including folks who feel that they are entitled to guaranteed reservations by virtue of the fact that they consider themselves “regulars” (The Casola has a very particular reservation policy). Mr. Larkin noted that the restaurant only had 17 tables, and he wasn’t about to “chew some wood” and create more tables for these folks.
It was at this time that our entrees arrived:
The Porchetta was a fork-tender pork tenderloin, stuffed with a nicely spiced sausage and herb mixture, wrapped with bacon – a whole lot of pork products in one dish (is this what you would call “snout-to-tail” cooking?). The overcooked broccoli rabe on the side contained what seemed to be yet another piece of the pig – ham? more bacon? We never did find out.
My Pollo alla Diavolo was a nicely grilled quarter-chicken, very tender; not a lot of meat on the bones, however, which was disappointing. The polenta was also disappointing – it was overcooked to the point of mushiness, with no discernible cornmeal texture, and was obviously plated too early – a rubbery “skin” had formed on the surface. The peperontata, on the other hand, was very good – grilled green peppers and onions. I would have liked a bit more color in the mix, but perhaps green peppers were the only ones available that day.
Then came dessert…
D and ME ordered the chocolate espresso cake, and I ordered the ricotta tart. The tiramisu looked lovely, but I have eaten a lot of tiramisu over the years (including my own award-winning recipe), and was looking for something different.
The tart was very creamy and rich, with a hint of fresh lemon, but not too sweet – a very pleasant surprise. The two crusts were ever-so-slightly soggy, but I’m not certain if that was a baking error or inherent to the recipe.
The chocolate espresso cake was what one would expect – very dense and chocolately. Not surprising at all.
Overall, the lunch was great – a very good value at $16 per person (no tips allowed), and tasty. There were a few drawbacks: pace is slow, servers are inexperienced, a few dishes needed a bit of work. But, that’s all part of the classroom experience.
If I were forced to give letter grades for the meal, here’s what the report card would look like:
- Food: B-
- Service: B+
- Value: A-
- Atmosphere: A
- Entertainment: A+
Great work, and I know we’ll be back next semester.