A Land of Riggies and Pusties
By Tina Antolini
Utica is not a city that makes many outsize claims these days. There’s a pervasive sense that a lot of the city’s glory days are in the past, that the time when people boasted about Utica with words like “best” and “biggest” are long gone. Except… when it comes to food. Economic hard times or not, this is a city that takes its eating seriously. Maybe that’s because it was home to so many Italians…
Utica has a whole slew of signature dishes, the majority of them emanating from the Italian community, who began coming here in droves in the late 19th century to work in the then-booming textile mills. They’re the ones who came up with “Utica Greens”—escarole, sautéed and tossed with crispy prosciutto, hot peppers and enough breadcrumbs to make the whole dish feel suspended between a vegetable and a starch.
Then there’s “Chicken Riggies,” which sounds almost too cute to eat, but is delicious enough to make you forget that you’re enjoying something with an overly adorable name. Tender chunks of chicken breast, red and green peppers in a spicy marinara, occasionally with a splash of cream, all tossed with rigatoni. The dish is so popular here, everyone from the corner Italian deli to the fancy sit-down joint has their version. It even has inspired a summertime celebration—RiggieFest—where local restaurants compete against one another for the top prize.
You’ve got the oddly spare Tomato Pie—like pizza, minus the cheese. One fellow waiting in line for his order told me it was because they wanted to wrap individual slices in saran wrap and stack them for sale on the counter, and the cheese might go bad…
Then, alongside your predictable cannoli, you have “Pusties.” Yes, another questionable name– short for pasticciotti– but this treat is a custard-filled little pie. And damn, you’ll be praising Pusties to high heaven by the time you’re wiping the last of the filling from your lips…
But, these days, it ain’t all about the Italian food.
In recent decades, Utica has become home to a stunning panoply of refugees from around the world… and it’s only a matter of time after their arrival that they start opening restaurants. You can great Vietnamese noodle soups here, Caribbean snacks, Polish pierogi and Cambodian rice dishes… Sometimes that and a Pustie all in the same block. In fact, some of the best Chicken Riggies I had during my week in Utica came from a Bosnian restaurant, Secret Garden, their sauce including just enough cream to balance out the heat of the spicy marinara.
Now, all these edibles may not be an industry on the order of textiles… But for a city that often struggles with an inferiority complex, food is something Uticans can keep bragging about.