I am lucky enough to live about 5 miles from the Culinary Institute of America. They have 4 restaurants and a bakery open to the public.
The Escoffier Room (French cuisine), The American Bounty (American fare), St. Andrews Café (a casual mix), Risorante Caterina de’ Medici (Italian cuisine) and the Apple Pie Bakery. I will say, though not outrageously expensive, it’s usually out of my price range. However, in the winter months, from January thru April, Monday thru Thrusday, they offer a winter prix-fixe in all four restaurants. This is a perfect time to take advantage of a wonderful meal. A three course lunch is $20 and a three course dinner is only $30!
It is an amazing price for the quality of food you get.
I have had dinner three times in the past at the CIA; twice at the American Bounty and once at the Risorante Caterina de’ Medici. We again decided to dine at the Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici, partly because we love Italian food and partly because Chris has not eaten here yet. The reservation process is a snap, and can even be done online. You need to leave a $10 deposit per person when you reserve, and that seamlessly gets deducted from your bill at the end of your meal.
The restaurant looks like a Tuscan villa, painted ochre with dark green shutters. The moment that we entered the restaurant for our reservation, we were treated like royalty. Our coats were quickly taken and checked. I spoke with the maitre d’hotel and told him of my plan to take pictures and notes for my blog. I never know how the staff will react, but I certainly don’t want my camera smashed (this would happen if we were at the other CIA). He had no problem with me taking either. I should also mention that the staff in all of the restaurants consists of only students. It is part of their training.
The decor is very Italian, including a huge olive tree in the center of the room and hand blown Murano glass chandeliers that are a bit too pastel for my taste. And the place is a bit too bright, in my opinion. Most of the famous named sponsors of the Italian program are represented throughout. Colavita, Torani and Illy are just afew. (Hey, somebody has got to pay for these beautiful grounds and one of a kind education.)
Kai, our waiter, was absolutely wonderful. We conversed with him all throughout our meal, which lasted a little over 2 hours. We learned that he was from California, had done his externship in Hawaii and will be graduating with a focus in Japanese Cuisine.
For drinks, I was really impressed by the wine list. There were many wines by the glass available, though many more reds than whites. The prices were outstanding – the range was $4.00 for Pinot Grigio to $12.50 for a Barolo. The bottle prices were good, but as we can never agree on something that we would both drink‚ by the glass works better for us. I had a Masi 2005 Valpolicella, which was very good – smooth and fruity, and only $5.50. Chris had a LaRosa Morreti beer at $4.75, which was thick with flavors of yeast and chocolate.
Another thing to note was that the beer was potent at 7.2% alcohol, compared to American beer which is about half or 3%! That certainly did not stop us from each having two drinks! (Hey, it was a long dinner and I had a stressful day at work- don’t judge me!). A basket of homemade bread (also available at the CIA’s Apple Pie Bakery) was delivered to the table. I must admit, I have had Focaccia bread in Italy, and this was an absolute rival. The smell of caramelized onions emanated from the bread before you even tasted it! Ahh… Italy. This was served with a large bottle of olive oil, which was thick, fresh, green and grassy‚ just like real Tuscan olive oil. Our fresh Italian bread couldn’t help but to soak it up.
The regular menu was extensive. For primi (or first course) the majority of selections were different types of pasta and sauces, such a pappardelle and orecchiette. For secondi (or maincourse), there was chicken, fish, pork and my favorite the Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a special cut of meat prepared in the traditional Florentine manner.
Our prix-fixe menu was not as extensive, but still excellent. For our primi, we both enjoyed Insalata di Pere e Gorgonzola e Noci. This was a delicious arugula and endive salad with poached pears, gorgonzola cheese and toasted walnuts. Everything was fresh, the cheese wonderfully moldy and the walnuts toasted just right. The dressing had just the right amount of sweetness and a nice bit of shallot.
For our main course, I had filetto di maiale con scarole e fagioli, which was a sauteed pork cutlet with sausage, escarole and a bean ragu. I have never tasted pork this tender, it melted in my mouth like butter. Very flavorful and all of the elements worked really well together. The ragu, was just a nice gravy with a few whole white canellini beans. It was topped with some micro greens.
Being a vegetarian (well, pescatarian), Chris chose the halibut affogata con polenta impostoiatta, which is seared halibut with black olive polenta and oven-roasted tomatoes. His was equally good, but he likes his fish very moist and in his opinion the fish was the slightest bit overdone, although I found it cooked fine. I do not care for polenta, but the rest of his dish was also delicious. The tomatoes had an intense flavor from the perfect roasting.
Dessert was a tough choice. Everything looked so good. Even cheese plates were on offer for only $5-$6. I chose the cappuccino créme brulee and Chris had the gelato (we always get different desserts‚ so we can sample more). Mine arrived with a perfectly crisp coating and creamy coffee flavored custard. The portion was too large for me, so of course Chris chipped in (literally and figuratively) and finished it. The gelato was a selection of vanilla, chocolate and nocciola (hazelnut). It was just like the gelato we devoured every day in Italy. I also had a cappuccino and Chris enjoyed a 1996 Lungarotti Vin Santo. I would have had a black sambuca along with it, but to my amazement, they only stock the regular white stuff.
At this point, the maître d’hotel asked me if would like to take pictures of the kitchen and meet the Chef! I was surprised and honored, but quickly followed to the kitchen. There I met the Chef, who gave full credit to his students for the wonderful meal, and joked that if I had $5, I could take pictures of the kitchen.
I snapped a few (after I told him too add it to my bill). Even more amazing was that he told me a new group of students take over the kitchen every 7 days! Yes, new chefs and servers (students) every week‚ and they must keep up the quality. It is nothing short of a miracle! I graciously thanked him with a grazie, grazie and in return received a very proper Italian, prego, prego!
That made my night! Whether I deserved it or not, I felt very special.
In total, the bill was $108. Very reasonable for the meal, drinks, the service and the experience that we had. As we were leaving, a few little snowflakes started to fall. It was the perfect end to a wonderful evening. I highly recommend that if you are in the area, you make a reservation. You will not only have a great meal, but you will be helping hardworking students get an education and go on to creating more wonderful restaurants for us to enjoy!
Caterina de’ Medici
Culinary Institute of America
Hyde Park, NY 12538