After a friendly greeting and a handshake, Lauren Wickizer holds out a paper. “This should answer a lot of your questions, and give you all the facts,” she says, gesturing to the information she’s typed up about Ravenous, the restaurant she co-owns in Saratoga Springs. One can forgive Wickizer, a former copywriter and occasional victim of newspaper error, for taking the thorough approach with the media (“Ravenous—not a French word!” the paper explains. “Ravenous—as in, really hungry.”) As it turns out, her three-point method is thoughtful, organized, and, well, more than a little useful in describing the restaurant:
1. The owners of Ravenous are: the aforementioned Wickizer, originally from Westchester, New York; Tina Laino, a former clothing designer and health-food store owner from New York City; and Francesco D’Amico, Laino’s son and Wickizer’s husband, and a chef who has worked in a variety of restaurants in Boston, Santa Fe, New Orleans, and Seattle. Wickizer’s parents live in Saratoga, and when she and D’Amico decided to relocate from the West Coast, they zeroed in on the town. “We like that it’s near family, but it also has good all-year-round business,” Wickizer relates, “especially from the Skidmore College students during the school year and the tourists in the summer.” Laino, an accomplished home chef, applied her skills to helping D’Amico develop the recipes, while Wickizer took on the business end of the restaurant.
2. Why they started Ravenous: Avid travelers, Wickizer and D’Amico were smitten with the idea of European “street food”—the quick, eat-with-your-hands, inexpensive stuff you buy from the many vendors manning carts all over the continent. Initially, the concept was a tough sell. “Lots of people had no idea what a crepe was—they thought it was a sandwich. Or women would come in with groups of girlfriends. My guess is that men stayed away because they thought we were serving something ‘feminine’ like quiche,” Wickizer states.
After several months’ worth of positive buzz, men started showing up with their female counterparts and with their male friends, and the college crowd was quick to follow. These days, in the teeming Saratoga dining scene, having a niche helps. So does the individualized service offered by the young, amiable staff, many of whom have been with Ravenous for three or more years. Wickizer offers, “I think the fact that we’re really personable, and we get to know people by name, makes a big difference. It’s a pretty down-to-earth place. And having staff that’s been here for several years means that they feel invested in the business; they know the value of making people happy.”
3. Short description of Ravenous:
The restaurant is an intriguing cross between a cozy European street cafe and one of the laid-back, East Coast-mod coffeehouses of progressive college cities and towns like Northampton, Boston, or Providence. Wood tables for two and four dot the room, with a large rectangular communal table in the center. “The communal table is not very typically American,” Wickizer notes, “but our customers seem to love it.” If you’re more of the bar type, there are two to choose from: a small one by the window, which allows for maximum people-watching along hip Phila Street, or a long, green-laminate bar with tall steel-and-wood stools, which offer a behind-the-scenes view of the chef at work at the crepe machine (imported from—where else?—France). Exposed bricks from the historic original building decorate one wall; on the opposite side, a whimsical Mediterranean mural by artist Claudia McNulty contributes to the homey feel.
What stands out most about Ravenous is, of course, crepes, crepes, and more crepes. The unassuming little pancake made from flour, eggs, milk, butter, and salt and rolled around fillings was invented in Brittany and is popular throughout Europe, but has never really caught on in the United States. Although the crêpe is comparable in purpose to the Indian dosa and the Spanish tortilla, the bland taste makes it more adaptable to both savory and sweet fillings. The best-known is the crêpe suzette, which is probably nicknamed after early-20th-century French actress Suzanne Reichenberg. This crepe is served in a hot orange-butter sauce sprinkled with a liqueur (usually cognac, curaçao, or Grand Marnier) and lit before serving.
At Ravenous, diners can choose from 13 savory and 13 sweet crepes, plus daily specials. “We’ve always been interested in concentrating on just a few items and doing them really, really well,” Wickizer says. Just because the food at Ravenous is tucked into skinny pancakes doesn’t mean that the partners get away with lower food costs and larger profits. On the contrary, whenever possible, Ravenous uses ingredients from local farmers’ markets, such as heirloom tomatoes, several varieties of squash, and Vermont goat cheese, and using the best-quality products comes at a significantly higher cost. So do dairy products, the prices of which creep up with alarming regularity—and D’Amico uses fresh milk, butter, and eggs (he estimates that he goes through 150 dozen per month) in every dish.