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Apr 4, 2002 03:07 PM

My opiniated comments on Syracuse dining options (long!)

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I lived in Syracuse for many years until relocating to the NYC area several years ago. Now that my work has begun to bring me back here on occasion and I've seen Syracuse dining questions a few times in this forum (mostly justifiably bemoaning the lack of options... here are my thoughts on the current options:

Italian - Rosalie's Cucina in Skaneatles, Antonio's on N. Salina or Giovanni's Osteria Paesano in Ithaca (northern Italian) are all good choices. Antonio's is a bit date but they have an incredible Italian style filet mignon and good sauce. I'm not a fan of Casa de Copani (a friend got veal there and discovered mold on it when she got home and looked at the doggie bag contents in good lighting). Santangelo's and Dominick's are targeted at the mass market - cheap but you get what you pay for. Pastabilities is not really Italian and it’s a bit noisy for my liking but they have excellent pasta. Love their carbonara, alfredo and pink sauce but not crazy about their regular red sauce.

Pizza - not too impressed with the woodfired pizza at Movino’s in Armory Square. Also very unimpressed with Twin Trees although lots of people seem to like it. Johnny’s Pizza off East Colvin behind Peter’s Grocery used to have the best pizza in Syracuse – it actually rivaled or exceeded the best that NYC had to offer but a few years ago they switched cheeses to that same godawful stuff that some many shops use these days (called “Grande” cheese – it’s the ubiquitous and lousy tasting stuff that so many NYC pizza shops are now using). If you like messy, relatively thin crust NYC style Neopolitan pizza, Cosmo’s on Marshall Street is the only place in town to get it. Parking is a hassle but it’s worth the trouble.

Mid-Eastern – Munjed’s on Westcott Street has gotten overpriced and portions are small. King David’s on Marshall Street is still the king. There’s a new place on Erie Blvd East near Bruce just east of Westmoreland. Has a mid-eastern food store and a restaurant (it’s the old Giovanni’s). Got take-out from there and it was really over priced with average quality. The dining room looked really dark and sort of institutional looking.

French - L'Adour - the only game in town for French and they are very good. Have tried bistro menu but haven't eaten upstairs yet. If it’s as good as the downstairs it should be wonderful (it is $38 price fixe and the menu looks great)

Steak - Scotch 'n Sirloin is good but too rustic/manly an atmosphere for my taste. Saratoga Steaks is very good and nice atmosphere but service has been spotty on my last few visits.

BBQ - I'll disagree with most folks - I'm not a big fan of Dinosaur except for their pulled pork. If you can find John-John's cart he has the best ribs and his chicken is very good. He now has a HUGE 20ft long cooker that he tows with a small firetruck and is sometimes set up in the Rit-Aid parking lot at corner of W. Onondaga Street and South Ave. If you want to find out where he'll be just head up by Levy school at corner of Westmoreland and Houston - he lives a few doors away on Houston and is often out front cleaning or working on the cooker. Truly great ribs but very pricey.

Thai - I personally like Ehrawan's food the best but their atmosphere is like a cafeteria. Lemongrass is IMHO overpriced and food is good but nothing like Thai Cuisine in Ithaca (which is operated by the brother of the Lemongrass proprietor). Make the drive to Ithaca or go to Thai Village on Erie Blvd. Less rushed than Ehrawan, much better atmosphere and just a tad pricier and the food is really good (plus the people are very nice).

Vietnamese - Mai Lan on North State is still the best but their prices just jumped up significantly. They are really, really nice people trying to make it work and I support their efforts by paying the higher prices. Tried the new Vietnames on Park Street in the old Danzer's location but was unimpressed - cheap but not that good. Also tried New Century on Kirkpatrick. In between the first two on prices and I've had their pho w/meatballs to go (it was good) but haven't eaten in. It's a weird building - used to be Natalie's back in the 80's - home of the all-you-cab-eat King crab leg special.

German - I think Weber's may still be around - not sure about Gruen's but German is not my thing and I can't comment.

Mexican - Alto Cinco on Westcott is the bomb! Great food and nice NYC style bistro atmosphere. Juanita’s on Court is really worn out and La Bamba in Lakeland has sucked ever since the original owner Angel left (not sure if they’re even still open).

Southwestern/Pan-Asian - Mission is the only place in town with this food. I know and really like the owner Steve M. but I was not overly impressed by the food on my visit there. Will give them another chance as I appreciate what they are trying to offer.

Polish - Eva’s in Solvay is a little known gem. Fantastic food, great European style pastries and desserts. If you have preconceived notions about Polish food, please discard them and visit this place. Rarely crowded, friendly service and low prices. Be sure to try the potato pancakes and the fresh sauerkraut (it will change your mind about sauekraut).
I’ve had dinner for two with a tea, a cappuccino, shared appetizer, two entrees and two desserts for well under $30 w/tax and tip!

Continental - haven’t tried many of the local places that fit this category but was pleasantly surprised when I finally ate at Pascale’s. I’d heard that they were ridiculously overpriced and also overrated but now that I live in the NYC area and have more reference points, I think they’re not bad for the Syracuse market. they are a bit overpriced for the market but have some game dishes on the menu and my dinner was excellent including dessert. The Inn Between restaurant on Rte. 5 going towards Elbridge/Auburn is terrific but very traditional both in food and atmosphere. This is a jacket and tie type of place – great place to take the folks for a special meal and they have killer lobster bisque but it’s very stuffy and not my style at all. Tried the 238 Bistro (or some such name) that is in Armory Square – same kitchen and owner as Lemongrass. Pricey and NYC trendy style food presentation but I was not impressed. probably just me but I couldn’t see the value.

Seafood – I don’t know of any local restaurants specializing in seafood and even when we had a few they were questionable (Jonathan’s was a step up from Red Lobster and Tom’s Clam Cove was truly mediocre when I tried it years ago). Best bet is to take-out the fried haddock or scallops from the Fish Cove in Shop City at Teall and Grant Blvd. (they may have other locations?). It’s the real deal and always perfectly cooked, especially the scallops – very tough to find real scallops battered and fried the right way but these guys pull it off.

Soul Food - Hmmm… the House of Soul (on Burnet in the old Pascale’s location) was a good idea and terrible execution. I’ve always found bits and pieces in various places that were good but never one consistent source for good soul food. Gwen’s on South Salina across from Valley Plaza seems to have gone down hill since she graduated form having the outdoor cart to the sit-down restaurant. There is a place called Smitty’s Smokehouse on South Ave near the corner of Colvin. Some years back they had the best fried chicken in the city and some good sides – not sure if it’s still the case but will re-investigate. It’s a a pretty friendly place and clean as I recall. There’s a church on South Salina between Colvin and Brighton on the west side of the street a few doors away from the fire station. In the good weather they have a tent out front and sell barbecue dinners to go on the weekends. It’s a one story brick structure – doesn’t look like a church – food is very good and a great value. Down the block there is sometimes a table near the corner of Colvin where the Black Muslim ladies sell some excellent bean pies to raise money for building a mosque on the South Side.
Jamaican - I lament the loss of Home Sweet Home Foods on West Onondaga. The proprietor, Claudette Twum, was not always customer friendly according to some folks but she was nice to me and the food was consistently good and portions decent size. I haven’t tried the place that went in after her. Several other Caribbean / West Indian places have come and gone – none too memorable. Fortunately the gap is filled by
Bongo’s – known as the Jerk Hut, it’s on South Ave across from the Southwest Community Center (about three blocks south of the W. Onondaga Street intersection).

Miscellaneous - I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the outstanding roast beef sandwiches at Clark’s Ale House. Really phenomenal. Also worth checking out is Reilly’s on Park Street – it’s a block from Oak Street in a mostly residential neighborhood. Excellent contemporary menu with good fresh ingredients – changes daily depending on what’s available but I’ve had good meals there in casual relaxed atmosphere and can safely recommend it.

Probably something I’ve left out – please advise as I have just been informed that I’ll be spending much of my time here for the next several months….

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  1. Last time I was in Ithca (November 2001), Giovanni's had gone out of business.

    1. Hi Owen, saw your post on Fodors so thought I check this out. I have to admit, I have "mixed feelings" about your post. You certainly meant well, and it was an interesting ramble, but I actually LIVE here FULL TIME and have for 40 years. Many of your comments were excellent, some however, are sadly out of date. I am in the NYC area often and I equate your post with me posting "expert" info on the NYC board. For Italian I would not have even mentioned Casa di Copani, you could try Cora D's, Dante or Vinny's. Please do not discuss locations such as "off of East Colvin" or "Rite-Aid parking lot at corner of W. Onondaga Street and South Ave" these are no places for out-of-towners (and that is who would be heeding your suggestons) and unfortunatley some of the places near the University are a little "dicey" at night - good food, but you need to be careful. Lemon Grass's kitchen isn't too clean, where as Pastabilities is spotless. L'Adour is not that great and the waitstaff is terrible and yes, Gruen's is closed. Kitty Hoynes is fun for an Irish flair, and is crowded on the weekend, if you want quiet go during the week. There is a new Mexican restaurant opening on Fayette St. where the Antique Underground used to be - that might be something you can check out on your next visit.

      Welcome to our city, I'm glad that you are able to spend some time here, it is a nice town and has a lot to offer - enjoy.

      5 Replies
      1. re: Susan
        Owen O'Neill

        Susan - Glad you stopped by to read the post and your comments are appreciated but I should clarify. I am not writing this from the perspective of an outsider who is just starting to explore Syracuse. I'm 46 years old and have lived here my entire life excepting a 4 year stint in Ithaca in the early 90's. Two 1/2 years ago I moved to the NYC area but last spring returned to work for a Syracuse company. I now maintain a small apartment here and spend about 8 days per month in Syracuse, the balance at home in north Jersey. By no means do I consider myself to be an "expert" on dining in Syracuse or any other location but I enjoy the chow hunt and eat out often enough that it made sense to share my experiences. I've seen several queries in Fodor's from folks planning travel to Syracuse but also a thread in Chowhound from someone new to the area who was looking for suggestions. I respectfully submit that anyone living here should easily be able to find out where the intersection of South Ave and West Onondaga is (or any of the other referenced locations for that matter). Also please note that I mentioned Casa de Copani in a negative way but mentioned it because a number of people I know locally seem to think it's pretty good. I was unaware of the issues with the kitchen at Lemongrass and will caution you that Dante's is owned by the same person - I'd suspect that sloppy kitchen practices may possibly extend there as well. Thanks for the suggestion of Kitty Hoyne's - I will try it out sometime (I prefer the quieter times but I'm not here on weekends anyway so that's not a problem). Vinny's is a good suggestion that I'd forgotten to mention. I have eaten there and it was good. Where is Cora D's? haven't heard of it and I'd like to check it out. My experience at L'Adour must have been much better than yours. It was crowded so we ate at the bar and service was great - friendly and efficient. Our food was as good as I've had at Steak Frites on W. 16th Street or Mon Petit Cafe at Lexington and East 62nd. Those are the two country French places I've eaten at in NYC on repeat occasions. I will also appreciate your clarifying what I'm out of date on - it's only been in recent months that I've started exploring the Syracuse dining scene again after being away for a few years.Thanks!!! By the way... I also think perception of safety is relative. The location of the Jerk Hut and Alto Cinco may seem to be in iffy areas to some folks but I have never known anyone who's had a problem when going to either of these locations during normal business hours. Admittedly, the Westcott Street area has declined in recent years and I wouldn't suggest to anyone to hang out there late at night but it's a perfectly safe place to go for dinner. I lived in the Westcott area for most of my life and my parents and their friends still go (at night) to movies at the Westcott Cinema (they are nearly 80 years old and a bit frail). None of us have experienced any problems when going there.

        1. re: Owen O'Neill

          Owen, this sounds REALLY odd - but Cora D's is in the Elm Hill Plaza in Camillus - I can only imagine what you are thinking!! But REALLY, the staff is friendly, excellent service and very good food - it's a just a totally weird location for such a nice place. You do need a reservation for weekends, but like you said you are mostly here during the week so you should be ok. Give it a try when you have the opportunity, if you jump on 690 from the Univeristy area you'll be there in less than 10 minutes, use the Hinsdale Rd exit on 690 West and turn left at the end of the exit ramp, the Plaza is up ahead on the right ( . . .I TOLD you it was a funny location for a restaurant!! LOL) Have fun.

          1. re: Susan
            Owen O'Neill

            Noooo... I don't think that's such a weird location. If I recall correctly, it's in the same plaza where the Back Door tavern relocated to after their block in downtown was razed for a new construction. Remember the Happy Palace Chinese restaurnat that was on the same block? It seemed really good back then but that was long before I'd tried good Chinese food in NYC or SF. Nice to see someone making it in that location - other restarauteurs have tried and failed. Speaking of BBQ... I failed to mention Houston Patterson's truck that is usually at Thompson Rd and Erie Blvd. but my Syracuse area friends who really know soul food and barbecue don't think his stuff is all that good (exceot for his Live Oaks sauce). I have acquaintances in from North Carolina this weekend for a funeral and they brought a jar of BBQ sauce I've never seen - it's called Bone Suckin' Sauce and smells fantastic - hope to try it out this weekend.

            1. re: Owen O'Neill

              Yes, that's the same plaza! And, speaking of sauce . . I'm sure you have been there, but be sure to check out The Hot Shop in Armory Sq. next time you're here (They also have a web site) they moved from where Freedom of Espresso is over to Clinton St. Also, if you have a favorite sacuse that they don't carry, they can order it for you.

              1. re: Susan
                Owen O'Neill

                Thanks for the Hot Shoppe reminder. I was in New orleans recently and had a great lunch at Olivier's restaurant - locally owned and operated place. They had their own hot sauce on the table and also available for sale - it's called Hercules. It was REALLY hot but had a tang and flavor I dont' usually find in hot sauce. Foolishly assumed that I'd find it elsewhere but haven't seen it since. Maybe Hot Shoppe can get it for me...

      2. Great post. Where was everybody when I was trying to find John Johns a year ago! John Johns used to be my favourite BBQ anywhere. Used to get people to plan a stop in Syracuse for BBQ when driving along Thruway from Toronto to Boston/New York - best place between Toronto and anywhere. And he isn't (wasn't) in the Syracuse phone-book.

        4 Replies
        1. re: Estufarian
          Owen O'Neill

          I don't know John-John's last name but will try to get his card and post the number here or email it to you - he lives a block or so away from my parents' house. I fondly recall his tiny and short-lived BBQ shop on Westcott Street back in the late 70's - he did some fun things like offer "19 levels of hotness" for his sauce, all with exacting descriptions. He now does a lot of catering and corporate functions and has the rig out only sporadically - hopefully he'll be back out this summer more often.

          1. re: Owen O'Neill

            The store was where I first found him - brings back fond memories. There were many times I scheduled trips to NYC/Mass to have food at John Johns - going in both directions. Also recall checking the telephone directories on every pass-through (at least once per year through to late 90's).
            Please post if he has a 'regular' schedule.

            1. re: Owen O'Neill

              I just had John John's BBQ yesterday. He has a location at 1113 East Fayette St. Syracuse, NY 13210 Right now they're only open weekends during the summer, but they have a building next door they're renovating and moving into. The hospitality here is awesome. John John has been barbequeing for 20 years, his partner Tim has been for the past 5. They have a 40 foot mobile grill. If you go in the early afternoon, right when they're taking the ribs out, it'll knock the socks off Dinosaur BBQ. John John's phone number is: 315 428 9852. Call and make sure they're not catering before you go.

              1. re: jordan22

                Is John John's a sit-down type place or just takeout? And what kind of hours are they open on the weekends? Thanks!