Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Dinner at Proietti's
I recently celebrated a birthday (I forget which one), and in advance of that, my wife asked me where I'd like to go for dinner. After some thinking, it hit me - Proietti's in Webster.
I first wrote about Proietti's in December 2009, in a post about Rochester's pizza history. I later did a post about Proietti's pizza in March 2010, after I had stopped in to pick up a pie.
I liked the pie well enough, but I really wanted to go to Proietti's to meet the owner, Whitey Proietti. I first knew about Whitey when he left on comment on my pizza history post, explaining that he and his dad started Proietti's Pizza in 1965 on N. Goodman Street, and that Whitey moved the business to Webster in 1970.
I've also known of Whitey Proietti through his nephew Tony, the proprietor of 2 Ton Tony's in Irondequoit and Spencerport, has told me before that if I want to learn about pizza - either its local roots, the business side, or the technical aspects - then by all means I should talk to his uncle Whitey.
It was sound advice. We had a fine dinner, and a very enjoyable conversation with Whitey.
I'll start with the food. Things began with a complimentary appetizer of zucchini in a marinara sauce, which was very tasty, and from there we moved on to a sampler of homemade gnocchi and ravioli. I had the former with an arrabbiata sauce, which was every bit as spicy as advertised, thanks to the inclusion of red pepper and jalapenos. I love spicy food (I've been known to carry my own hot sauce when dining out), and it was nice to have a genuinely hot-spicy sauce for a change, as so many restaurants in this area fail to deliver on foods that they claim are spicy.
The ravioli were outstanding. The only hard part was deciding which I liked best - I never did succeed on that one. From left to right in the photo, there's a wild mushroom raviolo (not to be pretentious, but I guess that's the correct Italian singular form) with a mushroom-tomato sauce, a butternut squash raviolo with vodka sauce, and a cheese raviolo with marinara sauce. The pasta had a melt-in-your-mouth texture, yet it wasn't mushy or overcooked, and the sauces both complimented the fillings and offered an interesting contrast to each other.
Next up was the pizza. Actually, I had not planned on having pizza that night - I thought it might be nice to take a night off from pizza, and try something different - but Whitey clearly was hoping to get my reaction to one of his pizzas, and when it comes to pizza, my arm is easily twisted.
Since I hadn't been thinking about it ahead of time, I had no particular topping in mind, so I blurted out, "pepperoni" when he asked me what I wanted on my pie. Though that might seem a boring choice, it too turned out to be a good one. For one thing, it was good pepperoni - meaty, a little spicy, and not at all greasy. And it gave Whitey a chance to expound a bit on the subject of pepperoni, as he explained that he uses a high-quality, lean, pork-beef blend that does not exude an oil slick when cooked.
Proietti's pizzas bake in a 550 degree oven - same as you can achieve at home - which is about right for their medium-thick crusts. This pie was well baked, with some light charring underneath (visible in the bottom photo, which I took after I got the leftovers home), and a touch of crispness that yielded to a bready interior. The mozzarella and red sauce balanced out the crust quite nicely, and the cheese was melted just to the point of a pleasing stringiness.
Now make no mistake, I love a good, thin, New York style pizza. And I like a crackly wood-fired pizza with a well-charred edge. But I also have fond memories of the pizzas of my youth, and some of my favorite pizzas around Rochester are its most traditional - medium thick, bready but well balanced pies that bring to mind an Italian grandmother's kitchen. Think of it as comfort-food pizza.
And that's what this was. No crackly-thin "artisanal" crust or exotic toppings here, but rather a satisfying pie, which Whitey assured me (and I don't doubt him a bit) was virtually indistinguishable from what you would've gotten from the original Proietti's back in the late '60s.
And that's typical of a lot of the food at Proietti's. They've found a winning formula, and they've stuck with it.
It's clearly working, as most of the tables were full on this Wednesday night visit.
A lot of those folks are repeat customers. As I was chatting with Whitey, one patron stopped by to see Whitey for a moment before leaving. He was, I learned, an out-of-towner who frequently travels to Rochester on business, and he's become a regular at Proietti's. On one recent visit, this gentleman was sorry to walk in and discover that the restaurant was closed for maintenance on the air conditioning system. Whitey immediately ushered the man to a table and prepared him an impromptu dinner, rather than see him walk out disappointed.
That kind of customer service seems to be a real hallmark of Proietti's, and it's considerably based on Whitey Proietti's firm belief that if you treat people well, then by and large they'll treat you well. As another example of that approach, Proietti's has given away countless free meals (through a direct-mailing campaign) over the years to newcomers to the area, and it's paid off in customer loyalty.
The night I visited, Proietti's chalked up at least two more regular customers - my wife and me. When my in-laws came up for a visit three nights later, we took them to Proietti's for dinner.
Whether you go for the pizza, one of Proietti's many other Italian dishes (my chicken saltimbocca the following Saturday night well justified the menu's claim of flavors that "jump in your mouth"), or one of Proietti's cooking classes, by all means go. And if you see Whitey - as you likely will - and he can spare a few moments - which he probably will - ask him to tell you the story of how he came to own the business. He'll tell it better than I could write it, but it's quite a story, and confirms that this was his calling in life.
Some 40+ years after it started, Proietti's remains a family business, with Whitey's wife, son, and sundry other family members - I couldn't keep track of them all - ably working together to keep things running smoothly, both in the kitchen and in the dining room. The result is a relaxing, welcoming environment, marked by attentive, gracious service and well-prepared, classic Italian-American food.
Like anybody who's lived in Rochester for a while, I've eaten at plenty of Italian restaurants, and I've liked a lot of them, but for its combination of fine food, excellent service and an enjoyable atmosphere, Proietti's has quickly jumped to the top tier. I give it an unqualified A.
Proietti's Italian Restaurant, 980 Ridge Rd. (Webster Plaza), Webster
Sun. 4:00 - 8:00, Tue. - Thu. 4:00 - 9:00, Fri. & Sat. 4:00 - 10:00