The CIA’s Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici offers true Italian fare in an authentic palazzo setting
By Grace Turner
The dessert menu at Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici recounts how the Italian-born French queen introduced the use of the fork at a 1535 banquet at Fontainebleau, thereby injecting a sense of refinement into the culinary customs of the country.
The essential role that elegance plays in the fine-dining experience is a lesson that has not been lost on the queen’s namesake restaurant, one of five renowned eateries on the campus of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, Dutchess County. From the magnificent surroundings to the five-star service, there are few local places that can match the sophisticated atmosphere that the Medici strives so meticulously to create.
Specializing in Italian cuisine, the restaurant is housed in the school’s impressive Colavita Center, a Tuscan villa replete with large windows, Spanish roof tiles, and a tower. Entering the large, high-ceiling dining room, you’re greeted by warm earth tones of sand and rust on the textured walls and tile floor, with accents of wood and wrought iron. A series of archways divides the room into three sections, which keeps the space intimate and relatively quiet. Plenty of windows — both on the ground-floor level and in the tower above — give a light and airy feeling.
Once seated, the pampering begins. Throughout our lunch, a procession of no less than five student staffers presented menus, brought and removed plates, poured water, replaced cutlery, scraped crumbs from the table, and generally took care of our every need (all under the inconspicuous but nonetheless watchful eye of their chef-instructors).
Those accustomed to the “Hello, my name is Jasmine and I’ll be your server today” type of experience might be taken aback by this formal approach, but it is remarkably easy to get used to (as is the leisurely pace of the meal itself; we actually had to ask our waiter to speed things along at one point).
Our party of five happily devoured the amuse-bouche — portobello mushroom purÃ©e on crostini — while perusing the Medici’s menu of regional Italian dishes. The appetizer choices ranged from a simple plate of proscuitto and cantaloupe ($9) to a more adventurous seafood special ($12): a melange of squid, calamari, and shrimp, complemented by a distinct red-pepper tang, was served atop slices of crusty bruschetta.
The antipasti sampler ($8) — individual small plates of sautÃ©ed eggplant, roasted red and yellow peppers, celeriac, and marinated tomatoes with anchovies — allowed the distinct flavor of each vegetable to shine forth. Ligurian vegetable soup ($6) was a springtime delight: pancetta, pesto, fresh green peas, and a medley of other garden veggies lent a just-picked texture to a subtle meat broth.
About halfway through our appetizers, we heard a crash in the open kitchen on the opposite side of the room. The sound served as a reminder that, for all its upscale trappings, the Medici is a restaurant at a cooking school, and is completely staffed by students. Our entrÃ©es, to some extent, reinforced that point: while the flavors of each were uniformly well refined, the preparation occasionally fell just short of the mark.
The sautÃ©ed halibut ($20) in “crazy water” (a tomato-juice mixture infused with herbs), served with mussels, fennel, and Sardinian couscous, was deemed perfect. Mint-flecked grilled lamb chops ($19) were cooked just right, as were the lightly sautÃ©ed zucchini and spring onions sharing the plate. While the pan-seared tile fish ($19) bathed in an herb broth was fork-tender, the accompanying artichoke hearts were not. The intense flavor of the mushroom risotto ($15) nearly made this fungi-lover swoon; unfortunately, the texture of the dish was more al dente than it might have been. And the simple, aromatic freshness of gnocchi in tomato sauce with basil and ricotta cheese ($14) was obscured by the fact that the potato pasta was overdone.
Our desserts ($6 each), on the other hand, were successful all around. The tiramisu, in a bowl large enough for two, is a frothy concoction of whipped cream and pastry punctuated by coffee and rum. The biscottini Italiani (assorted cookies) were fresh and tasty enough not to require a cup of coffee to dunk them into. And the espresso-laced cheesecake, surrounded by a ring of red cherries, was still being nibbled at even as we walked away from the table.
This being a workday lunch, our party eschewed the wine list for the most part. The 60 offerings are all Italian vintages, both white and red, and include some “New World” wines produced in California and New York. The selection is reasonably priced (a number of bottles fall into the $24-$50 range)and includes nearly 20 wines available by the glass.
Relaxed and sated, we left the Colavita Center two hours after we had entered, with a heightened appreciation of just what a fine art fine dining can be.