Are you squeamish about squid? Despite the headline above, I can be, too. At a deep level — maybe 20,000 leagues into my unconscious — I have a problem with chewing on mini-octopuses.
(Squids aren’t octopuses, but you know what I mean.)
But when it’s done right — when it’s not as chewy as a rubber band, when the breading is crisp and light, the sauce spicy, and there aren’t too many tentacles — calamari is an excellent catch of the day. Like mussels, which I wrote about in July, squid is relatively cheap for kitchens, and it livens up the menu.
There are now more places to get calamari in Rochester than a squid has legs, which made it easy for me to net the Four Stars of Calamari.
For the record, squids don’t have legs, they have arms — four pairs of them, I believe — plus a pair of longer tentacles. And if you’re eating just one, it’s “calamaro.” Frankly, it’s a good thing there was an attractive Italian word available for this dish; I don’t think “squid” on the menu would be a best seller.
As part of my calamari education, I tried several dishes a few weeks ago along the Virginia and North Carolina coast. One of the best stops was at Amos Mosquito’s, a raucous place overlooking Bogue Sound near Morehead City, N.C., and despite the alarming name and the artwork of mosquitoes everywhere, they had sizzling calamari, drizzled with eel sauce. That latter might have been a stopper for me, too, but it was hot and tasty.
Calamari being an Italian thing, it makes sense that some of the best is at Terza Ristorante, the 3-month-old Italian restaurant on South Broadway, and Victoria’s at the Kahler, which has been the most popular Italian restaurant in town for years.
At Terza, they take a light and bright approach to the creature from the deep. The rings and arms are lightly breaded and crispy, topped with fresh-grated Parmesan and fresh herbs and served in a big, shallow dish with lemon aioli ($11). There’s a wedge of lemon on the rim, which adds vivid color to a dish that tends to be monochrome.
Terza has gone through some management changes since it opened in May — the general manager and executive chef shipped out about a month ago — but judging by recent visits, it’s full speed ahead, and no one’s squawking about the squid. (No word yet on when the related rooftop lounge, La Vetta, will open.)
Terza says its cuisine is “dell’anima,” or from “the soul” of Italian cooking. At Victoria’s, they’ve added a line on their website that says, “Dateci sotto!” — “Dig in!” — as if to draw a contrast in terms of portions. The portions are generous at Victoria’s, prices are reasonable and the menu is immense. It’s the only place in town with two versions of calamari — the familiar fried option and calamari served in marinara ($12.95). The rings of squid look a bit naked in the red sauce, compared with the fried version, but they’re big and tender, served in a pool of aromatic marinara sauce and highlighted with a bay leaf.
You won’t want to miss a drop of the sauce, so ask for more of Victoria’s crusty Italian rolls.
Just about anything tastes good when it’s served in a buffalo chicken sauce and seasonings, which is how they serve squid at 300 First — lightly fried, with some spicy buffalo heat and a cool Amish blue cheese dressing for contrast ($9.95). FYI, they also serve a chopped Caesar salad with calamari, if you like your squid straight up ($13.95).
And at Pescara, the corporate cousin of Terza, it’s a big plate (for $13) of ultra-lightly battered squid, tangled up on a bed of arugula, littered with watercress and decorated with a sweet-chili bang bang sauce.
This isn’t a squid pro quo, but there’s other good calamari in town at places such as Half Barrel and Nupa, so take the plunge and tell me what you think.
FOUR STARS OF CALAMARI
30 Third St. SE, Rochester
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily, 4 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
VICTORIA’S RISTORANTE & WINE BAR
7 First Ave. SW, Rochester
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
300 First Ave. NW, Rochester
Hours: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Dinner hours: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.