Albany NY and Capital Region Restaurants

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Via Fresca

Although I get a lot of criticism (from my friends) for my decision to move to Albany, New York, this city, and this region, in particular, has a lot to offer: outdoor activities, great weather (for about 8 months of the year), amazing vistas, access to fabulous cities in North America, and what I've learned in my past two years here: Great Bread. You hear a lot of NY-transplants (especially those in South Florida where I lived immediately prior to my move to Albany), kvetch about their inability to find really good pizza or bagels anywhere outside of NY. Most have bought into the theory that it has "something to do with the water." In fact, some restaurants, outside of NY, have gone so far as to ship NY water across the country to preserve the authentic NY-dough taste (see, e.g., www.patsygrimaldis.com).

As much as the water may play a role in the quality commercially-available bread / dough you find in this area, I also attribute the quality to two other things: (i) old, well-seasoned ovens and (ii) tried-and-true bread making recipes handed down from generation to generation.

Since nearly every restaurant and deli in the region has access to great bread, then, to some degree, the playing field (for sandwich places) is leveled. This leaves other variables: (i) variety/diversity of menu, (ii) service, (iii) quality, and (iv) price.

Via Fresca ("VF") makes the best of each of these variables.

Italian-inspired panini sandwiches are springing up all over town. Ambititious panini-meisters are offering a panini of some type since adding a panini press requires little to no modification of an existing kitchen and generally restauranteurs can add 10 percent or more to the cost of the sandwich by throwing some Italian words into the mix: like Foccacia. Or Arugula. Or Balsamic-glazed. However, when my "Ma-and-Pa" deli located not too far (not Windows on the Woods, either) from here hopped on the bandwagon, I feared the trend had spun out of control. The problem with these fringe panini-meisters is that they tend to obfuscate the perfect simplicity of the sandwich by putting too much crap in it. The bread is the main event; there shouldn't be more stuff inside than outside.

VF understands the importance of the sandwich equation. But more about that below.

VF is a relatively new restaurant founded by Cristina and John Randazzo; both both are alumnae of Provence, a fine French restaurant located in Albany. VF is located in a free-standing building on a stretch of Western Avenue that connects Albany and Guilderland. It features ample parking, and in fact, some of that space would be well-served by an outdoor dining area/picnic tables to take advantage of the gorgeous weather. VF has a large catering menu and its not unusual to see delivery trucks or vans outside the premises picking up a large order.

You enter through an entrance just astride the parking lot and up a few steps into the space. Blonde wood floors and large windows drown the room with sunlight. Sharply contrasting midnight-blue table cloths on each of the deli's six tables anchor the place together. A large deli counter displays the day's freshly prepared hot and cold food offerings together with large cuts of deli meats, each of which are beautifully showcased. The walls are lined with tall shelves stocked with gourmet ingredients like fine pasta, rich olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, and many other items, each of which are available for sale. VF is more than a deli counter, it is also a great, local (!), purveyor of fine foodstuffs. Once inside VF, you immediately get the feeling that you're not in the deli on the corner that you may be familiar with.

But, alas, I'm here for a panini sandwich.

I ordered a simple sandwich of prosciutto and fresh mozzarella. Thats it. No more, no less. VF does however, have an extensive "sub" and "panini" menu. Many sandwiches are far more complex, but again VF understands and never loses sight of the aforementioned sandwich equation. To tide you over until your sandwich is available, VF stocks some interesting bottled drinks: aranciata and limonata from Italy, slightly fizzy; and Izze sparkling fruit juices from Colorado. I wouldn’t have predicted that sparkling water and pear juice would combine well, but they’re tangy and excellent.

The paninis are made on a smoky, crunchy and chewy ciabatta bread. Going back to my point about "well-seasoned" ovens -- you can see the dark charcoal-y spots on the oversized bread -- telltale signs of the oven's past. You order the sandwich by name or by ingredients, and you take a seat (or peruse the well stocked shelves). You don't follow your sandwich down a conveyor belt or assembly line; it is less primal than the routine practiced at "other" sandwich places, where you follow your sandwich as it is assembled on a condiment-rich production line and can bark "can you throw some jalepenos to my mc-bacon-onion- ranch-turkey-wrap." Have faith in Cristina and John and trust your sandwich to them, they won't let you down.

I opt to dine in and enjoy the Times (NY Times, not Times Union). Cristina brings out my sandwich which is practically falling off the plate because of its size. Its immediatly apparent that I will need some tin foil to wrap up half for later. Cut on the bias, the cross section reveals gently-melted mozzarella which has barely started binding to the deliciously salty prosciutto beneath. You immediately note that the sandwich doesnt have the grill marks that show up on most paninis elsewhere. This is because the ciabatta - a large shoe shaped bread - has an incredibly non-porous and resilient exterior, but yields upon bite to a light, creamy, and airy, interior. Albany Jane described the bread in a previous entry on her blog (albanyeats.blogspot.com) as "Breaven." Her desription is spot-on. The prosciutto was top notch -- lean enough to not overpower the delicate balance of the sandwich, while flavorful enough to really impart a spicy and salty bite.

Of course, the menu doesn't just begin and end with paninis. There is a wide variety of sub sandwiches, each served on a delicious local sub roll. Fresh ingredients make all the difference and a peer into the assembly area shows that VF doesnt pre-cut a day or week's worth of ingredients in advance. Small, carefully planned batches are prepared before the shift or even during the shift to ensure maximum freshness.

There is also a bountiful salad menu, although a former dining partner commented that the salad doesn't offer a good value for the money. VF also has hot dishes available, which, as I've observed, rotate on a daily basis.

VF is an incredible place to pick up a quick bite, but at the same time, a great place to sit back, take in the sites, visit its sinfully delicious dessert counter, and read the paper over lunch. Its high-end enough to indulge in your penchant for ingredients like capers or basil oil, but not so fancy that you can't rush back to the office to wolf down your milanese-chicken-grilled-panini-with-basil over your computer keyboard.

I only wish VF was open later (it closes at 7) so I could enjoy a carryout sandwich after work. I also wish VF tried its hand at more soup. Considering how talented they are with artisinal sandwiches and other items, I have everything to gain from what I'm sure would be a great meal.

Stop by VF, talk to its owners, and it becomes clear that VF is not a place that wants to force its agenda. It's a restaurant that was opened for the same reason as countless others: to be a place for people to eat, drink and have a good time, all at a great value. Its a welcome addition to the Albany dining scene and I hope they're here for the duration.

Via Fresca
1666 Western Avenue
Albany, New York 12203
518-452-1179

NB: a former dining partner asked me to mention that VF deserves "+ 1 million points" for their coconut macaroons. I haven't tried them, but this dining partner is generally a tough critic so I'll take their word for it.

2 Comments:

  • I'm so glad you introduced me to Via Fresca. You're spot on - the panini are fresh, and there's a great balance between bread and fillings (and none of that sliced foccacia bread crap).

    By Blogger Albany Jane, at 12:28 PM  

  • For those UAlbany kids out there that just love abusing SUNY off podium places when you just feel like escaping what Charwell's considers 'campus food' this place takes it and is well worth the trip.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:50 PM  

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