The story of Joe Morelle, the man that put Utica’s greens on the map
Kyle Riecker, Layout Editor
For its small size, Utica, New York has an impressive Rolodex of food specialties. Among the ranks of Utica originals are chicken riggies, greens, half-moon cookies, tomato pie, and good old Uncle Charlie, otherwise known as Utica Club.
To a Utica native, these tasty classics are as familiar as bread and butter or bread and oil, if you dine at Pellettieri Joe’s.
The influx of immigrants to Utica over the last two centuries has made the city a cultural melting pot, including a large population of Italian Americans.
The food of Utica seems to be its common denominator – a shared love across its multitude of cultures. And of Utica’s many culinary creations, Greens Morelle is one of its most celebrated recipes.
At the eastern end of Bleecker Street stands The Chesterfield Restaurant, a large brick building with neatly-trimmed hedges and white benches adorning the outside. Something to know about Italian culture in Utica is the great pride and care taken in manicured lawns and exterior spaces.
In 1988, Chef Joe Morelle created a dish he called Greens Morelle at The Chesterfield. It’s a hearty recipe that calls for boiled escarole mixed with sautéed prosciutto, hot cherry peppers, bread crumbs and parmesan cheese.
Morelle is adamant that he didn’t invent greens, but rather elevated their popularity. Preparation of greens had been an Italian staple for many generations, he said.
“You cannot use the word invent. Greens in some form have been around in our families for many, many years” he said. “I did popularize them, I made them what they are today, there is no doubt about that.”
The dish was conceived at Grimaldi’s Restaurant, which closed in 2012. Morelle tested out variations on Grimaldi’s wait staff, and slowly tweaked his recipe based on their feedback.
The Chesterfield is where the dish really took off though, Morelle explained.
“When people started ordering them, we put them up on the special board as an app. When we started there, they had no business, it was an old bar. When my buddy Sal Borruso bought it, we put together a small restaurant.”
As business grew, so did the local appetite for Greens Morelle.
“We had people coming in from the Midwest home from vacation, who used to live in Utica, who would ask that I make it for them, and freeze it so they had a couple half pans to go home with,” Morelle said.
That’s when Morelle knew he had a hit. Soon other restaurants wanted in on the success, and began putting their own copies of Greens Morelle on their menus.
“When you go to another restaurant, and they have greens on the menu, that’s when you know you’ve got something special.” Morelle said. “In this area, you can’t go into an Italian food restaurant or a regular pizzeria [without seeing greens], they all got some form of greens. It’s crazy.”
And according to Morelle, his dish has been popping up on menus across the continental United States.
Morelle has mixed feelings about the widespread imitation of his recipe.
“I was never able to go as far as I wanted with them, to copyright and trademark them,” he said. “You can’t put a patent on food but you can put a trademark on it.”
He really wanted to put his product on shelves, but couldn’t quite bring it to fruition.
“There’s a lot involved with that, I was always too busy working for a living to concentrate on it,” he said. “And you know, time goes by, and you wonder where the time went.”
Still, Morelle’s mark has been made on the food landscape of central New York. Recently, the New York Times picked up the story and interviewed Morelle, and included their recipe for his greens.
When asked how the Times did with replicating his recipe, Morelle said they did “pretty well”.
But imitators out there should know, they are shooting at a moving target.
“I have changed my own recipe over the years, the reason being is because everyone was copying it and doing prosciutto,” said Morelle, referring to the type of cured meat he originally used in his dish. “I wanted it to be Greens Morelle again – just to change it from what everyone else is doing.”
As to how Morelle prefers his greens, he likes them plain- “with salt, pepper and garlic, just the way my grandmother used to make them,” he chuckled.
Morelle traded his chef’s apron for a postal uniform years back, and switched careers to work for the Postal Service. He made the switch mainly because of the health insurance benefits that the Postal Service provided.
“To be honest with you, I do miss cooking,” Morelle said. “I was in the restaurant business for over 40 years, so it became part of my blood. Especially when I started as a dishwasher, and worked my way up.”
Even though he’s not cooking professionally, Morelle still has some pointers to offer on how to cook greens correctly. He says that the most important step is to use “scarole,” and to clean it properly and not overcook it.
“Cooking – it can be tough. And cleaning it can be even tougher,” he said. There are certain times of year depending on where they’re importing it from, it can be very sandy, and if you don’t clean all of the sand or grit out before you cook it, it will cook all the way through the batch. So that’s very important.”
Aside from that, Morelle stresses that greens are highly customizable.
“Do whatever you want with the dish. You can change certain ingredients to make it to your own liking,” he said. “Mix and match, and do just about whatever you want to do.”
The mishmash of tasty ingredients in greens seems an appropriate metaphor for Utica. Perhaps it’s not a melting pot– but rather a big plate of greens. There are many different varieties and mixes, and all have their own flavor, but some things are always held in common.