A buddy of mine — who shall remain nameless — likes to murder his pasta by overcooking it until it nearly disintegrates, and has none of the substance that makes it feel like a meal. He once quipped that al dente is Italian for “Ow, my teeth,” and as someone with Italian blood — my mother is a Genovese — that both hurt my feelings and made me cackle.
I have strong opinions about how pasta should be cooked. But this carb-celebrating, grains-based dish roundup explores the wide world of glorious grains, not just Italian fare, that can be found in eateries right here in Rochester. There’s a lot out there to love — curried rice, sauce-soaked flatbreads, and good-ol’ American mac & cheese.
Grains do a lot of the lifting in meals, providing versatile substance and texture as a backdrop to just about any other fruit of the farm, be it animal or vegetable. But as I mentioned, they still need to be prepared well. Though carb-shirking diets have given grains a bad name, we’re here to celebrate, not shame, these grain-based comfort foods and highlight some stand-out dishes from around town.
Wood Fired Manicotti
Merchant’s Wood Fired Pizza & Bistro (564 Merchants Road, merchantswoodfiredpizza.com)
In a menu filled with Italian, carb-heavy classics that include arancini, bruschetta, pizzas, and all manner of pasta, Merchant’s seemingly humble but mouth-watering manicotti meal shines. At $19, the price tag is teetering on the special-occasion, steeper end, but you get two big manicotti shells bursting with a whipped ricotta mix, smothered in marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese, baked to a chewy-melty perfection in the brick oven and served with garlic toast points. Once you bite into the toothsome pasta and herby cloud of ricotta, you’ll find this indulgence worth the expense. The manicotti are quite filling, but carnivores can add homemade meatballs for $3 each.
If you’re craving the dish but the bistro is closed, you can try to replicate it at home using the four-cheese ravioli or ricotta gnocchi from Merchant’s sister company, The Pasta Shoppe (277 N. Winton Road, thepastashoppe277.com), where Merchant’s sources all of its fresh pasta. All of the tender spaghetti, fusilli, bucatini, and more are made fresh daily. You’ll also find frozen goods and a variety of sauces and herbed butters there.
Amazing Grains Bread Co. (1000 Turk Hill Road, Fairport. amazinggrainsbreadco.com)
As far as Rochester is concerned, the perfect loaf of bread has a slightly oily, chewy crust, a subtly sweet, fluffy center, and a sprinkling of sparkling coarse salt. Amazing Grains’ Salty Bread is a local staple — so popular it has its own page on the company’s website. It’s a wonderful choice for your basic table bread to spread with butter or dip in oil. Its oblong shape makes it easy to pack for a picnic, and it’s great for ripping apart and dunking in stew, or making into a hoagie or pizza.
You can buy the bread straight from Amazing Grains, or find it at dozens of retail spots in the region, including Abundance Food Co-op, various farmers markets. It is also on the menu at a number of local restaurants and food trucks.
Falafel Pita or Platter
Cedar Mediterranean Restaurant (746-A Monroe Ave., 442-7751)
There’s some debate about classifying chickpeas as grains. They’re a legume, but because of the way they’re used in cuisines across the world, and their versatility as an alternative flour, they’re deemed one of the 40 “grain legumes,” a group that includes a variety of beans , slow, and more.
So that makes them a grain, right? Right. In my opinion, their best manifestation is as falafel — mashed with fava beans and mixed with Lebanese spices, rolled into small balls that are fried and eaten in sandwiches, on salads, and on their own with a cooling tahini dressing. For my money, the best place to get falafel in town is at Cedar Mediterranean Restaurant, where you can order their house-made, warm falafel as an appetizer ($6.50), in a pita with greens, tomato, pickles, and tahini sauce ( $7.50), or as a combo plate, served with hummus dip (chickpeas another way!), pita wedges, and Greek salad or rice ($12.99). While you’re at Cedar, try something off the manakeesh menu, which features fresh, chewy Lebanese flatbread topped with a variety of shawarma or gyro meats, spices, cheeses, and vegetables ($5.25 to $8.50).
Abyssinia Specials with Injera
Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant (1657 Mt. Hope Ave., abyssiniarochester.com)
Injera is a spongy Ethiopian flatbread made of teff, a grain that grows in the highlands of Ethiopia and has a flavor that resembles sourdough, with little or no gluten in the finished product. It’s used to scoop up richly spiced and saucy meats, lentils, and vegetables, and is a staple of Ethiopian fare.
A great way to experience injera is to order one of Abyssinia’s specials ($14.75 to $16.25). They vary to include different beef, chicken, lamb, and vegetable dishes such as doro tibs (garlic-ginger chicken breast), yebeg alisha (tender lamb marinated with onions, garlic, and turmeric sauce), kitfo (spicy minced beef with herbed butter and buttermilk cheese) or tikil gomen (cabbage sautéed with turmeric, onions, and garlic). The restaurant has plenty of vegan and vegetarian options, and you’ll want to sop up every satisfying bite with the bread.
Nocino Bar & Ristorante (818 Eastview Mall, eatnocino.com)
Italian eatery Nocino offers a nice take on greens and beans (theirs comes with Tuscan kale, prosciutto, and cherry peppers), as well as calamari, clams, and cured meats. But of note on their 10-inch pizza menu is the Funghi ($19), which offers a gorgeous, surprising blend of deep, earthy notes and a lighter sweetness. That’s achieved with a combination of just a few complementary ingredients — wild mushrooms and truffle oil paired with sausage and creamy fontina cheese on a crispy, chewy, thin crust. Change up your tomato-mozzarella-greasy pepperoni mainstay and give this wonder a whirl. Nocino also offers gluten-free crusts.
NiceRice: Somali African Cuisine (480 W. Main St., 445-0042) offers curry chicken (or goat), rice, and salad for $11-$12. The long-grain rice is marinated in a spiced broth that elevates it from a bland starchy side.
Send Noods: Seasons’ Noodle specializes in hand-made noodles. (50 Chestnut St. C201, seasonsnoodle.com).
Rebecca Rafferty is CITY’s life editor. She can be reached at [email protected]