DINERS, DIVES AND DRIVE-INS
Breakfast Specials, Ice Cream Lines, Burgers, Cold Beer , Jukeboxes and Sunday Dinner Specials
This is the first of a reoccuring dining column that shines a spotlight on the local favorite spots: the seasonal DRIVE-INS easily spotted by long summer lines for ice cream treats, dogs and burgers and such summer “stuff” … the DIVES that crowd a local roster of regulars into small rooms accented by dart boards, billiard tables and juke boxes that promise cold beer, familiar food and friends, old and new… and the DINERS, locally owned, often by families for generations, boasting breakfast specials, signature dishes, secret recipes and a friendly, simple spot to gather with family, friends and neighbors around a table and over a meal. Please share your favorite local diners, dives and drive-ins with us. And consider a country drive to a neighboring town to visit one you read about here – again - or for the first time. Help make our community footprint just a little bit bigger and the miles that separate us just a little bit shorter. DRINK AND DINE LOCAL, Mohawk Valley!
It’s a traditional little brick building set where Route 69 roars through the country village of Oriskany, NY, population just over 1200 folks. It sits adjacent to the local Dollar General and the sadly abandoned Waterbury Felt Factory and around the corner from the Oriskany branch of the U.S. Post Office and the Oriskany Public Library. It’s a neighborhood spot for sure. It has opened its doors before as a bank, a gas station, the Oriskany Diner and Bev’s Place. Then closed its doors again. But, only a scant few weeks ago, Katherine “Rosie” Stevens, her husband, Rob, and their two daughters opened those doors once more as Rosie’s Oriskany Diner. This time? The doors may stay open for good.
“I wanted a small, community setting and I looked at a lot of places,” said Rosie. “This place just felt right.”
Indeed it does – feel “right” – from the moment one walks through those doors. Expect to be greeted by the customary “lunch counter” with one or two solo diners on the stools in front of it and a team of waitresses buzzing between “order ups” and hot coffee behind it. The rooms are bright, touched up with plants, proverbial black and white checkerboard tile floor and freshly painted warm yellow walls are decorated with vintage “diner” signs tempting guests with hand-painted images and messages like “Delicious Pancakes” or “Fresh Coffee – Best in Town!”
There is a large round in its own nook under a hand-carved sign designating it “Rosie’s Breakfast Club” for big families or groups of friends to gather. Rosie shares that she invites diners to pose for a photo under the sign, hoping to adorn the wall behind it with the snapshots of her patrons.
It is a quintessential country diner in a quintessential country town.
And the place is surprisingly packed for the new joint in town? As a fete of friends rises from “Rosie’s Breakfast Club” nook, a mother and son and his two grampas dash for that table. A local businessman grabs lunch at the counter, enjoying a chat with the waitress, and two retired gentlemen grab a coffee after tucking in 18 holes this Wednesday morning. Through the threshold from the front room to a deceiving large dining room, a group of NY State Firefighters are gathered in the back, presumably a lunch break from working to help the community recover from recent flood damage when its beloved Mohawk River crested from the weight of heavy summer rain, and a father and son slip in for a late breakfast as two lady friends slip out after enjoying an early one.
“This is a cute little place,” one lady says to her friend? “Uh huh. It really is,” said her friend in reply as they strolled out clutching their to-go boxes.
“The Town of Oriskany needed a spot like this,” said Rosie, “and they have welcomed us with open arms.”
Rosie’s Oriskany Diner proprietor, Katherine “Rosie” Stevens, was born in Bridgewater, NY. She moved to New York Mills 25 years ago, where she and her husband made a home for their two daughters, who both graduated from New York Mills Union Free School, with one later going on to play NCAA Division III field hockey for Utica College. Now, Rosie says her husband and two girls are right by her side running the new diner.
“It really is a local family business,” said Rosie with a smile.
And Rosie is no stranger to local family businesses. She shares with the pride that she has been working in the food industry all her life. Her father ran a bakery business while she was growing up. But her first memories are of learning to cook – in her own kitchen – with her first teachers; her mother and grandmother.
“EVERYTHING was ALWAYS made from scratch,” Rosie remembers. “Watching them put the extra love and ingredients into things … you could definitely taste the difference.”
Rosie describes herself as a “baker’s daughter,” growing up around her family-run business, and credits that with her passion for food.
The secret recipe for the made-from-scratch biscuits served up with sausage and gravy at Rosie’s is handed down to her from her father – and now from her to her daughters. The way it’s done. Tradition.
Rosie boasts about working in practically every role there is in a bakery or restaurant. She fondly recalls working many years at another Utica favorite, Tony Spragna’s.
Her own version of the local gastro bulwark, Utica Greens – her take entitled “Rosie’s Greens” – she sources back to Spragna’s.
“They are my own twist of Tony’s version,” said Rosie.
She glances from side to side, to see that no one is in earshot, then leans and confesses, “I don’t like bread.”
Rosie’s laughs at the irony, “I grew up a baker’s daughter and I don’t like bread.”
Tony Spragna’s signature greens were topped and baked with bread crumbs. Rosie’s Greens nix the bread crumbs, but keep the Spragna salami in lieu of more typical bacon or sausage or even prosciutto.
“And I added some extra flavors of my own,” said Rosie of other Spragna ingredients.
“I know people really like the greens here,” Rosie indulges. “They are already a very popular item!”
Rosie’s brother carried on the tradition of the family baking business; he owns and operates the locally renowned Ramon’s Bakery in East Utica. Rosie’s first efforts around whipping up diner fare began out of the basement of Ramon’s.
Now, all the bread and baked goods served at Rosie’s Oriskany Diner are delivered fresh daily from Ramon’s. Keeping it fresh, keeping it local and keeping it a family affair.
Rosie shared that one day opening her own restaurant was not so much a childhood dream as a reality that evolved with her journey from a baker’s daughter to jack-of-all-restaurant trades to a part-time cook of diner fare. Each stage was a fit for her focus on her family. Now, with her daughters grown, her family can focus WITH her on their own local family business. And Rosie’s journey driven by her fervor for food continues.
“I believe this already IS my vision,” said Rosie as she looks around the dining room poised with patrons chatting over plates with portions overflowing. “Our very first weekend, I just remember the smiling faces. People getting together, you could tell some for the first time in awhile, to share hot, homemade food.”
After a pause, she adds gratefully, “you could just feel the love.”
And then there’s just tasting the food…
This writer kept it as simple as most of the menu is. One side is breakfast, the other lunch and it is laminated to do double-duty as your placemat. An early lunch of grilled cheese with tomato and bacon on rye was ordered up with a switch from the standard side of chips and a pickle to the hash browns to make it a breakfast/lunch blend. On first sight, the rye bread was an unexpected thick cut and the hash browns gratefully toasty. On first bite, they were a perfect blend of toasty and tender and the portion was generous. The bacon was crisp enough to easily crumble with each bite of the sammie and the tomatoes were unmistakably red and fresh; locally grown a very safe bet. But the star was surely the bread. Not learning till later it was delivered just hours ago from a local bakery, it gives that feeling you get – you know the one – with the first bite of a slice of a bakery fresh loaf.
Spying other plates flying by on the flat-arms of the busy waitresses, the burgers were piled high, the omelettes fluffy and the fries skin on and hand-cut fresh daily
Breakfast selections include the customary egg breakfast specials. From the griddle, enjoy pancakes, Belgium waffles, or french toast made from fresh-baked Challah – from nearby Ramon’s Bakery – of course. Pancake stuffing or toppings include blueberries, chocolate chips, strawberries, bananas , blackberries – and whatever unexpected stew of flavors Rosie might spoon on top for the special.
She offers up an example of how she takes a unique spin on traditional flavors to keep things fresh and unique. It is another shout-out to Tony Spragna’s, where they experimented with unique blends in their desserts.
“Chocolate, Pistachio and Cannoli fillings,” said Rosie, noting they are not three flavors you would typically imagine together, “but when it comes to breakfast, it’s a no brainer to put a dollop of them on top of a waffle.”
So together with a simple but sufficient menu not disappointing in offering the “traditional breakfast and lunch spot” diner fare, a blackboard perched on an easel tempts with daily specials boasting Rosie’s favorite flavor blends, such as banana split french toast or taco omelettes, on any given day.
Said Rosie, “we put unique flavor combinations together always.”
Only one dish follows the FAVORITES headline on the breakfast side: Giambrotte … yet another traditional dish tied to greater Utica. It is dubbed by www.NewYorkUpstate.com in their article, “13 ways you know you’re from Utica” as “Utica’s answer to the Syracuse Frittata (or fretta). It is, to quote the menu, “a delightful combination of scrambled eggs, mushrooms, onion, peppers, sausage and utica greens topped with mozzarella and served with home fries and toast.”
Rosie shares her understanding of Giambrotte as an “Italian thing” - a combination of flavors blended into one, or – in this case – scrambled into one … and that the dish has become a fast favorite indeed.
If you turn the menu over, lunch starts at 11 am, and offers burgers, sandwiches and wraps, an array of soups and salads and, under lunch FAVORITES, chicken tenders and mozzarella sticks.
Rosie boasts that, further to the bread and baked goods made and delivered daily from Ramon’s Bakery, the produce comes from Cotrupe Produce & Sons, a Utica distributor of locally grown and sourced foods. She is in talks with a local sugar house, intending to top treats from the griddle with New York real maple syrup.
“I believe in local – support local – being local,” said Rosie. “It says a lot.”
When asked if she might pose for a picture – if they would indulge us – with the two fellas lunching after getting in some golf - where they were seated perfectly under a framed, vintage map of Oriskany - Rosie proclaimed that one of the gentlemen was her neighbor and the other his friend; Jim Kubat and Paul Lee were their names, respectively. She pops right over to ask if they would pose, and engages her neighbor’s friend in a chat.
Mr. Lee shared that it was his first – but not his last – visit to Rosie’s Oriskany Diner. When asked how he was enjoying his meal, he pointed to a pile of fresh hand-cut fries and said, “look at how nice they are?”
Rosie hoped to get close on the map of Oriskany.
“It was here, hanging on the wall, when we got the place,” said Rosie, who learned that it had stayed with the space for decades, possibly from the first business to fill the stalwart little brick building. “It is the one thing I kept from what was left here. A good omen … a patronage to this town.”
Rosie then leads the way to the large dining room, wanting a pic with her beloved brick wall as a back drop, trimmed along the top with subtle white lights and a tasteful wallpaper trim that reads repeatedly, “Welcome friends.”
She points to a large silver spoon and fork joining other accoutrements adorning the signature wall. They tracked with a similar wall clock couched over the coffee maker behind the counter, all silver, with a long hand fashioned from a knife, a shorthand from a fork.
“I’ve had these with me “forever” and hang them everywhere I work,” said Rosie proudly of yet another timeless tradition.
As she hurries back toward the kitchen to be sure she is not missed during a rush, the businessman at the lunch counter has been joined by another lone diner just digging into his dish.
The lone diner says to the businessman as he pays his tab, “this place needed a restaurant where you could just come in for lunch.”
The businessman agreed. And Rosie smiled.
Two waitresses – who had ducked into the kitchen -also overheard him. One whispered to repeat what he said, then both proclaimed, “Everybody loves Rosie’s!”
As the wait staff dashed from the kitchen to their patrons, passing each other with plates empty and full, they look crisp and clean in black shorts, skirts or slacks and matching dusty gray-green Rosie’s Oriskany Diner t-shirts with the Route 69 logo embossed on the sleeves. Rosie and her husband, Rob, wear the same, only in navy blue, a subtle way to spot them during a stop for a bite.
What stands out most, on the back of the uniform tees, under the ROSIE’S ORISKANY DINER logotype, is the establishment’s motto, an apt sum of what inspired Rosie to choose this spot and build her community of patrons here in the community of Oriskany. That motto reads ...
“Making Meals and Memories with Family and Friends”
Said Rosie, “and that is what we’re doing.”
Rosie’s Oriskany Diner is located at 8404 NY State Route 69, Oriskany, NY 13424 and can be reached at 315-790-5395. They can also be found and followed via their Facebook page. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 7 am to 2 pm, lunch begins at 11 am. Breakfast is served all day. Sunday hours are 7 am to 12 noon, breakfast only.