Decades ago, as a teenager in late summer, I helped a farmer get his sweet corn to the Clinton-Bailey market. In the field before dawn, we wrenched fat ears from cornstalks drenched with dew. On break I stripped cobs and gorged on the freshest corn ever until the milk ran down my chin. I hadn’t thought of those mornings for years until last week, when a spoonful of Carmelo Raimondi’s chilled corn soup knocked me back decades. ¶ Dazed by its sweet perfume, I first thought of the film “Ratatouille,” and of the jaded restaurant critic whisked back into his mother’s loving presence by a remarkable dish. Then, of how lucky I was to live in Western New York, where a work of such first-class technical expertise and soulful art costs less than a movie ticket. ¶ Raimondi has been honing his game for 22 years. In 1993, he took over Carmelo’s Coat of Arms, the Lewiston restaurant his father bought in 1981.
He spent a decade cooking the standards until trips to Italy and elsewhere prompted him to refocus his restaurant. Now Carmelo’s offers a frequently changed menu based on the best ingredients he can find, a farm-to-table approach that actually delivers on the promise of the term.
Two years ago he started making his own pasta and a recent menu featured four different types, including lumache, an extruded pasta named after the snail shells it resembles. Raimondi served it with pinky-sized Gulf shrimp, a coating of tomato vodka sauce so light no sauce is left in the bottom of the bowl, paper-thin garlic slices and a coarse pounded pesto of basil and pignoli ($22). It was followed with a squid-ink calamarata with lobster, scallops and clams ($26), gemelli with housemade fennel sausage, and a beautifully simple spaghetti with melted cherry tomatoes and toasty breadcrumbs, whose undercooked pasta was the only flaw I saw all night.
Typically a guy named Carmelo making his own pasta would guarantee an Italian restaurant, but Carmelo’s cannot be pigeonholed that way. Raimondi fills his restaurant by cooking what he wants to eat, and his hunger comes from eating in Mexico City and across a broad swath of Europe, with a strong streak of homegrown Americana. On Tuesdays he offers a burger with American cheese, Cajun-spiced fries and a milkshake ($14). That chilled corn soup ($9), adorned with lump crab meat and peppery marigold petals, is built on Niagara County corn, coaxed into creaminess with a touch of butter but no dairy cream.
An Italian restaurant in Western New York must have cheese-stuffed peppers. Carmelo’s does, too, but better, with a Mexican riff. On my visit it was a dusky poblano filled with corn, ricotta, Parmesan and house-cured pancetta, roasted until supple. Flavorful chile heat was balanced with dairy richness and the crunch of fresh corn and toasted breadcrumbs, rounded out with serrano honey vinegar ($5). What a steal, but I could say that about Raimondi’s entire menu, which never hits $30.
Delicately charred lamb chops, rosy in the middle, arrive on a swirl of feta-tomato sauce and a salad of curried edamame and golden raisins ($26). The combination is simultaneously unexpected and preposterously right, Greece by way of Bangalore.
Flawless fried calamari is tossed with chile-lime vinaigrette and a tangle of greens that hid smoked peanuts and were uplifted with a spray of fresh mint ($11). A quartet of head-on shrimp, partly peeled for easy eating, unleash a gush of shrimp nectar when the heads come off, resonating with the shrimp-stock-based smoked tomato sauce glistening on fresh corn salad ($10). Mild-mannered cod gets a glorious chile-red crust of crumbs infused with nduja, spreadable Calabrian salami, and a hearty base of white beans and braised chard ($21).
The streak of revelations carried through dessert, which brought a cantaloupe sorbet ($6) that delivered the musky fruit bouquet of dead-ripe melon, so intense that one spoonful eased my sorrow of missing it 11 months of the year. A warm flourless chocolate cake was topped with housemade marshmallow torched for a s’mores note, pistachio brittle, chocolate sauce and a vanilla ice cream designed by Raimondi but custom-made by Hibbard’s ($8). Beignets ($7) arrived warm, crispy and offered perfect cloudlike texture beneath a coat of hazelnut sugar.
Finding accurate cooking across a 15-dish feast is a rare joy; one built on an of-the-moment menu that changes every month is rarer still. But when every plate features the chef as alchemist, promising an Easter egg to discover, a meal can intoxicate in ways mere alcohol cannot achieve. Thus I can report enjoying a safe drive home, even though dinner at Carmelo’s left me thoroughly buzzed.
Carmelo’s - 10
Skilled veteran chef features local produce as stars in outstanding culinary performance.
WHERE: 425 Center St., Lewiston (754-2311, carmelos-restaurant.com)
HOURS: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
PRICE RANGE: Starters, $5-$15; pasta, $15-$26; and entrees, $17-$29.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes, but bathrooms not accessible.