The Night A Utica Restaurant Made Me Feel “Important”

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It’s no secret I haven’t published much over the last year or so. I’ve been open about how, despite my desire to be strong, Covid, the polarization of our country, and the uncertainty with regard to the future of our cities has created a sort of “writers’ indifference” in me. I have felt a general lack of inspiration to do what I do and write what I write. I’ve backed away from exploring Urbanist outlets and have pulled inward to simply maintain what I can personally.

Honestly I’m fine. Better than fine. My life is full of privilege and things to be happy about. But the mind does what it does, and I’ve had to figure out a way to source some inspiration in a world that, more and more, I find myself feeling unsure about.

So on November 9th, 2021, I took the day off and hopped aboard a train to Syracuse for the first half of the day, then Utica for the finish. This trip also marked the seven year anniversary since I took my first trip to Utica, which started it all.

This time, just getting on the train felt like pulling teeth. Where I was excited by the chance to travel in the past, my new reality had me wondering if I should have just stayed home and caught up on sleep. But I knew this was good for me, so I pressed on.

After a fantastic afternoon in Downtown Syracuse, my outlook greatly improved. My train rolled into Utica and I embraced my arrival with an enthusiasm that I hadn’t in some time.

While I saw a good friend for a bit, my main goal was to have a meal at the newest downtown restaurant sensation, Nostro. Sure, I had been there for drinks in the past, but I wanted to experience the culinary marvel that I heard so much about. This wasn’t about telling an Urbanist story, it was trying to connect with why urbanism caught my attention in the first place… a chance to see how local business owners could take a repurposed space and turn it into a local gem that activated a community.

I walked through the doors of the former Oneida National Bank lobby and took in the massive space that has no real rival in Upstate New York. The tremendously high ceiling housed a low-light vibe that seemed to pay homage to a late-80’s department store… but in a really good way. Think high-end dining meets neo-nostalgia with a clean edge and an approachable vibe. The setting simultaneously stuns you with class and embraces you with welcoming comfort.

Speaking of welcoming, the three smiling members of the staff at the host station ushered me to a table near the back of the restaurant. “Give him the good one,” one of the employees said.

I sat down, took some pictures and looked around. It was Tuesday and the place was at least two/thirds full, which made me smile. It’s always good to see people captivated by new and innovative downtown additions. Suddenly, I was approached by a wine expert who went over some of the wine list with me. I ordered a Chardonnay because, well, I like Chardonnay for whatever reason.

Shortly after, the server came over and suggested that, because it was my first time eating there, I should order The Arsenale. The Arsenale wasn’t cheap… $65. But the server promised that it would be a culinary experience like no other, and would span four courses. Because I love food, love spontaneity and was in the mood to treat myself, I caved (albeit under no pressure, I just have no will power) and ordered it.

In what seemed like no time, the server and a helper brought out the first course which, since there were multiple bowls, I thought WAS all four courses at once.

I had told the server that I only had a little more than an hour to eat before I had to board my train home, so silly me, I just thought they were bringing everything out at once. I was quickly told otherwise, that this sea of sizable and delicious-looking food was only the first course. But that didn’t stop me from plowing through the perfectly light fare, featuring a salad with a beautiful dressing, an unexpectedly light pairing of thin-sliced meat, honeydew and pineapple, and perhaps the most delicious meatballs I’ve ever had.

A little background with me and… well, food. At my work, I am known as “The Human Garbage Disposal.” When my co-workers can’t finish their lunch, I assure you, it never goes to waste. So I proudly tore through the first course, decimating the tasty selections. I felt almost victorious, flaunting my unhealthy egotistical connection I have with the act of quickly and efficiently consuming large amounts of food. That pride quickly waned when the server and chef brought out four more selections for the second course. Beef that melted in my mouth, a sort of deliciously-breaded pork, fried potatoes with a sensuous seasoning and a bowl of beautifully-cooked mushrooms. And another glass of Chardonnay.

The chef kindly introduced me to the food I was about to enjoy. I thanked him and said I couldn’t believe the quality and volume of what was in front of me. He replied with “well, I hear you’re important, so we went all out.” I immediately assured him I wasn’t important at all, but I truly appreciate being made to feel so special. And I gather that what they served me and how they treated me was on par with what they did for everyone ;-). But we all need to feel special, even if for a few minutes!

About 10 minutes into my assault on this culinary armada that was course two, I began to feel it. My stomach, as machine-like as it is, was beginning to urge me to put on the breaks. I was slowing down, midway through the second course. You see, when I ordered The Arsenale, I imagined I would be presented on par with those tiny samplings of food you get for $200 at some New York City hot spot. But this… this was different. The second course alone could have been comfortably enjoyed by four people for.

By the time the 3rd course rolled around, I knew I was at my limit. So when my amazing server dropped a fabulous pasta dish in front of me, I had to be be honest with her. I had a couple bites before letting her know that there was no way I could go any further. Like some crazy “Man Versus Food” episode, I had to officially wave the white flag and tap out. By the way, the pasta was absolutely to die for.

The server mobilized a fleet of staff and gathered all my leftover food. I went home with no less than 3 full to-go containers of gourmet cuisine. One of these containers housed my untouched dessert, which I enjoyed after dinner the next few days. News flash, it was some sort of Heavenly light cake with what I assume was buttercream and some sort of crystallized sugar, which added a sort of crunch to the creamy finish of every bite. I ate that dessert over a period of 3 days.

My leftovers from the second course lasted me another two meals. The third course, the pasta? I gave that to a homeless man on the way to the train station. He was very grateful. I just knew I was never going to be able to eat all the amazing food I walked away with.

I made reservations for Nostro because I wanted to experience some great food. Not only was the quality of the edible assault amazing and ridiculously plentiful, the staff, the space and the whole experience made me feel special. If I’m being frank, in a time when I have doubted myself on every level, I felt like a king for an evening. I felt like I was worthy of the experience I was having. This might sound like a stretch, but eating at Nostro gave me the strength to write again. Some people go to a spa, but I like to frequent the places with great food and drink that make you feel like you’re important, that you’re special. One of those places, my friends, is Nostro in Downtown Utica.