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Day Trips: Utica

Erie Canal boomtown offers scintillating mixture of art, architecture and ethnic food

Sunday, July 17, 2011
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This wedding dress from 1869 is part of the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute’s big summer exhibit “Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns.”
This wedding dress from 1869 is part of the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute’s big summer exhibit “Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns.”

Motor west along the Mohawk River for 80 miles and you’ll discover Utica, an old melting pot that’s bubbling once again.

An Erie Canal boomtown forged by Italians and Poles, the central New York city is now home to a new wave of refugees and immigrants from around the world. While other upstate cities have dropped in population, Utica grew by 2.6 percent, to 62,235, from 2000 to 2010, census figures show. Ten percent of the residents today are of Bosnian descent.

For the day-tripper from the Capital Region, there’s an enticing mix of art and architecture, ethnic food and fun just a few miles south of Thruway Exit 31.

At Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, the big summer exhibit is “Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns,” a collection of bridal attire that includes stunning designs by Vera Wang, Bob Mackie and Christian Dior. The museum’s permanent collection is noted for its 20th century American paintings and Hudson River School sculpture and paintings.

Victorian art

Fountain Elms, a restored Italianate mansion and showcase of Victorian-era decorative arts, adjoins the museum. From the art museum on Genesee Street, it’s a short walk to other downtown landmarks.

Stroll through the elegant lobby of Hotel Utica, where Judy Garland once sang to fans from the mezzanine. Rita Hayworth and Mae West spent the night in the grand 14-story Renaissance Revival hotel, which was built in 1912.

Down the street from Munson Williams, you’ll see the Stanley Center for the Arts, built as a movie house in 1928, two years after Schenectady’s Proctors theater opened its doors. The Stanley has a glitzy marquee and an unusual Mexican baroque exterior, created with terra-cotta and colorful mosaic tiles.

Entertaining the kids

Looking for outings for the kiddies? The Utica Zoo has a hilltop view of the city and is home to 200 animals, including lions, monkeys, alligators, camels, snakes, sea lions and a red panda.

Dating to 1963, the Children’s Museum of History, Natural History, Science & Technology is one of the oldest children’s museums in the country, with four floors of hands-on exhibits, including a dinosaur room, a weather room and a replica Iroquois longhouse. Outside, children can explore an old Adirondack locomotive.

The museum is next door to Union Station, Utica’s operating train station since 1914. An imposing limestone and granite building with terrazzo floors, the station has a vintage barbershop and original steam-heated wooden benches.

On a steamy day, cool off at Saranac Brewery, formerly called Utica Club, where the F.X. Matt Brewing Co. cooks up lager, pale ale, pilsner, amber and old-fashioned root beer.

Tours of the seven-story brick brewhouse are scheduled at 1 and 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. With your $5 admission (children 12 and under are admitted free), you get ice-cold beer or soda served in an old-fashioned pub with a player piano.

Signature foods

Utica is a close-knit town, where residents are proud of their immigrant heritage. So the city is a delight for ethnic food lovers. At nearly every corner, there’s a family-run deli or restaurant, and signs and storefronts date to the early and mid-20th century.

Four of the city’s signature foods are Italian: chicken riggis (rigatoni pasta, peppers and chicken in a spicy tomato cream sauce); tomato pie (dough squares topped with tomato sauce and Parmesan that is served cold); Utica greens (escarole sautéed with cheese and bread crumbs); and Hats (homemade orecchiette pasta). Uticans will be happy to point you to their favorite eatery, where you’ll find countless versions of these dishes.

Lebanese immigrants settled in Utica about the same time as the Italians, so you’ll also find restaurants and delis where you can sample kabobs, tabouli and kibbeh (ground seasoned lamb) and locally made pita bread.

Street festival

You can also visit Monday Nite Utica, the city’s weekly summer street festival, which has ethnic food themes: This Monday it’s Russian, July 25 is Middle Eastern, Aug. 1 is Polish and Aug. 8 is Bosnian.

Since the 1990s, the city’s new immigrants — from Bosnia, Somalia, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma (Myanmar), Iraq and Afghanistan — have spiced up the cuisine. You can order a big steaming bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup at Pho Mekong House of Noodles or Thuy restaurants, and Europa serves Bosnian fare.

Italian coffee and pastry? For nearly 100 years, Uticans have been heading down Bleecker Street to Florentine’s and Cafe Caruso, Italian bakeries renowned for their cannoli and “pusties” or pasticciotti, custard-filled tarts.

 
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