By Laura Barokas
MezzaNotte…the romantic innuendo of its name rings true to the warm amber tones and candlelit tables. I have been engulfed in Italy ever since I began my journey writing about our featured cuisine, "A Taste of Italy," discovering new flavors and traditions. I was very excited to experience a taste of Italy right here in the Capital Region, but I was not prepared for the creativity, uniqueness, and elegance that MezzaNotte was about to reveal
I arrived with my guests, Chef George Thomas and Sandra Tizzone, and we were pleasantly greeted by the hostess, who instantly made us feel special. We enjoyed a cocktail at the bar and conversation with our bartender. Connie Ware, the owner of MezzaNotte and the lady of the house, escorted us to our table - and oversized booth fit for royalty. We settled in to our comfortable seats and eagerly awaited our Italian dining experience.
The open kitchen was straight ahead, adding more flavor to the atmosphere. Within seconds our server cordially greeted us, and we knew immediately we would be well taken care of. It was quite obvious from the start that every detail was well thought out. We were handed dark blue napkins, a lovely touch, and long, elegant blue menus.
I adored the midnight theme of the restaurant with the framed art embracing various regions of Italy. Our bread was served warm with and attractive dish of extra-virgin olive oil, spotted with balsamic vinegar, and accented with a touch of calamata olive tapenade. My guests and I had a difficult time narrowing down which menu selections to choose. I must say, there wasn't anything on the menu I didn't want.
We finally made our decision, and we were ready to dine. For our first course, I chose the lobster ravioli, the special of the evening. It arrived on a large square plate resting upon a delicate sauce of white wine and shallots with a lobster base. The lobster was decadent, and the combination of artichokes and ricotta was outstanding. Sandra was thoroughly enjoying the Mezzaluna ravioli, generously filled with eggplant, ricotta and mascarpone.
Chef Thomas was quite pleased with the antipasto's variety of fine quality meats and cheeses. The sweet and hot soppressata was an unexpected treat, along with the garnishes, medley of olives, and the exquisite fig jam. Naturally, we all sampled a little of each to get the true flavor of MezzaNotte.
Connie selected Bortoluzzi Pinot Grigio, Friuli, to accompany our appetizer selections. The delicate aromas of flowers, pear and apple, and the smooth, creamy finish of this fine wine pleasantly passed our lips and enhanced the flavors of our selections.
The appetizers were meals in themselves, but our culinary adventure had only just begun.
Three salads were listed on the menu, so naturally, we ordered one of each. I am very fussy when it comes to salad, and the dressings are usually an issue. I am an avid believer that all bottled dressings should be banned. I was certain, however, that the salads would not disappoint us. I knew this as soon as the bread was served. You just know.
Not only were the salads exceptional, they were exquisite! A work of art - can we frame these please? All eyes were drawn to the MezzaNotte salad, and for good reason. The collection of fine fruits, nuts and greens placed on an oversized, blue rippled glass dish was quite a masterpiece. We finally mustered up the nerve to break into the work of art. The delicate white balsamic dressing added just the right touch to the assortment of fresh greens, hazelnuts, figs, apples and pears. And it was quite delightful to discover one of my favorites, goat cheese, lightly friend and warm, resting on top. Could it get any better than this?
The other salads, while not as extravagant, carried their own with freshness and flavor. The Caprese salad was perfect for mozzarella lovers. Ah…fresh mozzarella, how often do you get that in an Italian restaurant? While enjoying our salads, we decided to indulge in a glass of Bramito Chardonnay, Connie's second wine selection, a delicious medium-bodied wine that carried a hint of oak with fresh vanilla and apple essence.
We were thoroughly enjoying our dining experience. No disappointments, impeccable service - I was very impressed. Our server was very knowledgeable. She could recite every detail about the cuisine and attended to our every need. We noted the comfortable feeling in the dining room. Glancing at other guests from a distance, we sensed relaxation and satisfaction in the atmosphere. Watching the chef at work in the open kitchen was quite entertaining. How often do you get the chance to wave back at the chef while he is preparing your dinner?
Moments later, our three exquisite entrée selections were unveiled to us. We marveled at the detail and artistic presentation of each dish. We had selected the seared diver scallops with butternut squash risotto, the porcini-crusted beef tenderloin and the lobster fettuccini, one of the signature dishes of the house. Connie presented our third wine, Castelluccio Le More Sangiovese, which turned out to be my favorite. It was dark and rich to the nose and carried a chocolate, berry, and currant essence. The velvety tannins and rich full body left our palates with a long, elegant finish.
The lobster fettuccini was fabulous! The vanilla cream brought out the essence of the lobster - very unique and elegant. The tenderloin was cooked perfectly, rare and elevated by the unusual chocolate porcini demi-glace. We were not dealing with an ordinary chef here! I thought the sauce was wonderfully creative. Our filet was accompanied by broccoli rabe, perfectly cooked and seasoned along with gorgonzola gnocchi - which was a first for me.
Finally, the scallops with butternut risotto may just have been my favorite. It's hard to say. Sandra announced that they were the best scallops she ever had. George couldn't make up his mind which entrée he favored. He was enjoying the varying flavors, textures, and nuances of each dish. They were certainly good, and the risotto was so creamy with the butternut squash adding incredible flavor and texture, we simply couldn't stop eating it.
We had finished almost everything, and we were full. Our palates were extremely pleased. Dessert was next, and although we were totally satisfied, we just had to go all the way and indulge. Being a tiramisu fan, I was anxious to try Connie's very own. For other selections, we chose the orange semi freddo, and the torta chocolota, a flourless chocolate cake garnished with genache.
The freddo was a new experience for me, very light, a blend of gelato, frozen cream, and egg whites. The chocolate cake was decadent, rich and luscious. As far as the tiramisu, you'll have to experience it for yourself. My words won't give it justice. Connie says her secret to a perfect tiramisu is in the soaking. Not too much or too little, after years of practice, you develop just the right touch.
The food was utterly amazing, we were treated well, and we felt at home and part of the MezzaNotte family. I confidently and proudly award MezzaNotte four stars, the excelled in every detail, along with perfect delivery of exquisite Italian cuisine. I am already looking forward to going back.
Mark Graham, Executive Chef
Chef Mark Graham brings his culinary talents, knowledge, and expertise to MezzaNotte, making every dish a culinary masterpiece. He began his career in the Boston area as executive chef for Seven Hills Egremont Inn before heading to Napa Valley. Mark worked under Michael French and Wolfgang Puck at Spago in Paolo Alto. He then relocated to the northeast and became the chef at Chez Sophie and The Wine Bar in Saratoga. In 2005 Mark Graham was one of the invited chefs at the James Beard House dinner.
In early 2008, Chef Mark met Connie Ware, and they instantly clicked. With Connie's knowledge of Italian food and Mark's culinary expertise, MezzaNotte had been redefined. Mark never ceases to amaze Connie with his culinary creations, and when asked how he does it, he'll proudly say, "with love."
Connie Cannistraci Ware, Owner
Born in Sicily and raised in Albany, Connie would experience many facets of the food service industry and live in many cities before returning home to Albany. She returned with her husband, Mitchell Ware, both experienced in the restaurant management field, but not sure what lay ahead for them. After being disappointed with the selection of restaurants in the area, Connie decided to open her own. Being Italian, she naturally wanted to open an Italian restaurant, but not something typical. She wanted to infuse elegance, creativity, and romance into a restaurant that would reflect her own tastes and image.
Never having owned a restaurant before, Connie had to start from scratch, beginning with construction. She designed her restaurant and was part of every detail. She pondered over the name for quite some time, and it was the image of deep blues, soft tones, and midnight scenes that led her to the naming of "MezzaNotte."
Connie designed the layout, opted for the open kitchen and a private dining room upstairs, and had recently added on a patio to further enhance one's dining pleasure. She takes pride in using fresh local produce, most of which comes from her family garden. Connie's passion for her restaurant is quite evident in every exquisite detail and flavor, and it becomes part of everyone's experience after dining at MezzaNotte.