Utica Greens, Chicken Riggies, and tomato pie are just part of the food in Utica lineup making the city a great place in Upstate New York to explore.
by Chris Clemens
I get a lot of reader emails and questions about all kinds of stuff. There’s always questions about how they can “get into” certain places, or when certain tours are happening. But, this weekend I got one that I just don’t know how to answer. I’ve read it over and over and I’m just at a loss.
Saw the Utica vids.
We are going to be there some over the summer bc my son is there and I’m wondering how food there compares to where we live (just outside NYC). To be honest, we have seen and heard glorious reviews about food in other towns where my son has been, most notably Atlanta, by reviewers such as yourself and found the meals varying in quality from meh to horrible. Maybe we are just jaded from high expectations brought from here.
To be clear, I am not a foodie. I am not picky. I am as happy with a tuna sandwich as a steak and as happy with a frankfurter as Oysters Rockefeller. Even so i have no idea how half the country thinks In And Out or Chick-fil-A or Domino’s is wonderful when i found that stuff inedible, miserable and overpriced even as s non-foodie.
So how is that Utica food really or should I pack meals from home?
Ps: that chicken riggie looked distinctly extremely ordinary, as did the utica greens, perhaps why they have not caught on like Buffalo Wings, actually from Buffalo. And there’s a reason why tomato pie is served with the bread at Olive Garden as an all you can eat filler upper. It is meh.
To start, I’m not a food reviewer or critic.
I’m simply a curious soul wandering the roadways of Upstate New York in an attempt to experience new places. In doing so, I’ve developed a personal connection to the places that make up our region. I’ve had amazing meals and some not so amazing.
But, every single one of those has been a factor in connecting to a place through people and experience.
The “Utica vids” in the reader’s question refer to a couple posts I wrote a few years ago. In 2016, I spent a day eating the classic Utica food dishes with my friend Chris Lindstrom of Food About Town. Then in 2017, we went back and did the same by exploring the cuisines available through immigrants who now call Utica home. In both cases, we made a little “episode” video. To watch, click the years linked above.
Both visits were a lot of fun, and we ate a ton of food.
There were things that I really loved, and Chris didn’t. Then, things that Chris really loved and I didn’t. Then, things we agreed on. But most importantly, we had an awesome day spending time together, exploring a different city, and eating food around Utica.
Bright And Well Executed
Chris Lindstrom is actually a food critic. His website Food About Town features a lot of his opinions.
He wrote a review column for City newspaper here in Rochester for a few years. He has a food-centric podcast that has been voted “best podcast” in Rochester a couple times. Since he shared those food-eating-extravaganza experiences in Utica with me, I wanted to get his take on how he’d respond to a message like this.
There is a lot to unpack here. I have talked with a lot of people that don’t give the food in a new location a fair shake because they are from a more renowned culinary destination as if that imbues them with the only valid taste buds in the world. What I can say about the food we experienced in Utica is that of course there were ups and downs just like any other group of experiences.
You have to make the best of where you’re going and you can almost always find interest if you make an effort. Tomato pie doesn’t have to be boring as we showed with the version we tried on our trip. It was bright and very well executed. We found Bosnian food, classic Italian and modern interpretations all worth exploring in town. If you give it a real chance you might open your eyes to new opportunities like we did.
Food In Utica And Italian Heritage
Arian Horbovetz is another guy here in Rochester. He runs a blog called The Urban Phoenix which is a discussion about community building and urban design.
Arian is definitely more of an urban-planning nerd than a food nerd, but he’s a huge fan of Utica and I know he’s spent a lot of time there. He’s also considerably more pragmatic than me, so I picked his brain, too.
Utica is a place where family, comfort and hard work are all you need to fit in. People take care of each other. Life is a little slower, a little simpler. As no surprise, so is the food… approachable, affordable and satisfying.
But in that food, you can taste the blue-collar history. You can savor the proud Italian heritage. This is where you can connect with the good people who cook and serve to bring a struggling city back to life. You see, local cuisine is about so much more than taste… it’s the culmination of local history, culture, flavors, families and stories.
Olive Garden can try to replicate the taste, but they can never recreate the cultural context and experience in which these foods exist. If we judge food by taste alone, we are robbing ourselves of the fact that food represents so much more about a locale, a culture and it’s traditions.
Utica’s food is good, until you enjoy it in the context of the city that makes it extraordinary!
Ask Any Utican
So, I did.
I considered the fact that even though I run a website about Upstate New York, I’m still not from Utica. I figured if I was going to be talking about food in Utica, that I should also ask a native.
The folks I polled on Twitter turned me to Ken Smith. He and his wife own Smith Imagery and are well known in the city. Ken has lived in the Utica area his entire life, which I will nondescriptly say gives him over four decades of experience in local food.
Sure, Utica has its food staples: Greens, Chicken Riggies, Tomato Pie, even the Half Moon Cookies, and there’s a version of them on almost every restaurant menu.
But Utica is the ultimate melting pot of food. Our city has the perfect mix of farm to table dining that will blow your mind from places like Tailor and The Cook or Motus, out of this world seafood from Ocean Blue, classic Utica Italian from Tavolo. There’s pizza on just about every street, great bakeries that will satisfy any sweet tooth, and restaurants in neighborhoods all over the city that feature food from all over the world.
Ask any Utican and they will offer no less than half a dozen places to eat. We love our food as much as we love our city.
How The Food Compares To New York City
To respond directly to the question about how food in Utica compares to food in New York City: it doesn’t.
Utica isn’t New York City, man.
I always get bummed when someone finds something in a city they love, and then wants to transport it back and re-create it in their own city. New York City food doesn’t belong in Utica because Utica isn’t New York City. It has different people, they’re different communities, they have different histories and stories.
It’s my belief that the food in a city is representative of the people in that city. Here in Upstate New York, people aren’t creating restaurants for tourists–you go to Orlando for that. Here in Upstate, people are serving food that resonates with the people who live here. That’s important for a bunch of reasons.
On Arian’s blog, you’ll see how he talks about building communities that people want to live in, rather than visit. That’s so important for this discussion.
Once you’ve created a vibrant community for the people who live and work in an area, it will attract visitors.
Go Someplace Else
I love going new places and experiencing the culture of those places, even if it means it isn’t the greatest version of that meal I’ve ever had.
Sure, I’ve been bummed on occasion with things I’ve ordered. That’s how life works. I don’t run out to Yelp and write a review how I’m in disbelief that a diner could serve me eggs that were too runny, or overdone, or not scrambled well enough, or whatever. I just don’t go back, man.
Go to a new city.
Checkout a restaurant you’ve never been to.
Didn’t like it? Your life isn’t over.
In fact, I’d argue that your life is more full with having had the experience! You tried something new and developed another chapter in your own story. Don’t like the food outside of NYC? Just stay there then. It’s totally fine! No one will fault you for wanting to hang out where you’re comfortable.
Explore The Food In Utica
I can’t tell you if you’ll like the food in Utica or not.
Furthermore, I don’t ever want the job of being in charge of telling someone else whether or not they’ll like something. Imagine how let down you’d be if you viewed the world through my eyes instead of your own.
In fact, that’s why I don’t usually read food reviews.
I learned that lesson many decades ago with a movie that got rave reviews and I ended up not liking it. Who cares what someone wrote about the one time they visited. If I want to see a movie, I go. If I want to try a restaurant, I do it.
What I can tell you is, there’s a lot that I like about the food in Utica. There’s a lot of reasons I continue to go back to that city, and why I’ve told other people that it’s a great place to explore.
Utica is the home of Chicken Riggies, but I realize not everyone wants to eat them. Utica is the home of Utica Greens, and I realize not every place in Utica has the best version. Utica is home to the second oldest pizza shop in New York State, but not everyone will like the type of pizza there because it’s pretty unique.
I have no idea what Olive Garden serves, but I can promise it’s nothing like the homemade, old world, just-like-grandma-used-to-make tomato pie in Utica.
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens