Greek to you: Sparky Mortimer
passes the Greek platter to a server
inside Sparky Town, Hawley-Green’s
newest restaurant. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS.
traditionally the slowest month in the restaurant business. People are
still coping with post-holiday bills and the cold weather deters many
from going out. But on Feb. 20, armed with encouragement from a cadre
of loyal friends, Linda “Sparky” Mortimer opened her eatery Sparky Town
at 324 Burnet Ave., on the corner of Catherine Street. A banner on the
menu touts the place as “The funky place to meet, and eat fresh and
healthy comfort food.”
“I had been looking for a place for three years, within the Hawley-Green neighborhood,” Mortimer
says, noting the area’s national reputation as a gay-friendly enclave.
“When my real estate agent, Roxanne Plummer, showed me this place two
years ago I knew it was the right one,” she remembers.
The building dates to the 1800s, at a
time when the Erie Canal came through. The building was once a
bordello, accommodating men who traveled the waterway. It subsequently
became a bar called The Barge (after the canal’s second incarnation),
and most recently was called the New Central Café, which closed a few
years ago. It took two years of major construction to put the building
in order. “I kept the bar area, the exposed brick and the terrazzo
flooring pretty much intact,” explains Mortimer. Her friend and
unofficial business partner, Joe Carpenter, worked on the renovation.
Today, what was originally the bar area now contains a
lineup of tall stools spanning a long counter. Above are exposed racks
that store glasses and stemware. The narrow room has space for three
two-seater tables, as well. The back bar houses a group of espresso
machines, which serve up java brewed in Cortland at a company called
Coffee Mania Coffee.
“We had a number of coffee tastings before choosing
Coffee Mania,” Mortimer notes, and her restaurant offers three
different blends plus “Sparky’s Blend.” Mortimer will not divulge the
ingredients but says it is really smooth with a bit of a kick at the
end. “It sort of makes your eyes sparkle,” she says with a laugh.
Coffee break: Barista Nicole Cicoria keeps the java smooth and the smiles coming at Hawley-Green’s freshest eatery.
Walls in the bar area are painted maroon
and hot pink, “a carryover from the building’s bordello period,” notes
Mortimer. The color scheme then continues into the bright and open
adjacent dining area. “A grouping of framed mirrors hang on the walls
here, part of my own collection, and a silver-painted, art deco-like
frieze, actually exterior Styrofoam molding trim, surrounds the room as
a nod to the 21st century.”
Art exhibits will also be a feature of
the room. The current offering is a display of fiber art sculpture,
called basketry pewter, by Lauren Bristol, who is also Mortimer’s
companion. The bowls have been created in a kaleidoscope of color, and
are especially beautiful. Paintings by the late eminent artist George
Vander Sluis—Bristol’s uncle—complete the decor. Regular and bistro
tables afford diners a choice of seating, for a total capacity of 49,
including the seats in the bar area. Chrome rims the custom-made tables
and metal chairs look like wood.
“This is not diner stuff,” explains
Mortimer, “but all add to the sparkle of Sparky Town.” Additional
ambiance derives from airplane propeller-like fans and tiny track
lighting. A service station counter, close to the kitchen, eases dining
room serving. Cool jazz is softly piped in, an attentive waitstaff
constantly refills stemmed water glasses and fresh flowers adorn each
table. All are unusual touches for a casual dining venue that create a
classy but comfortable feel.
But while the decor is important, food
is the star. Mortimer lords over the fully equipped kitchen, preparing
lunch dishes as the orders come in and then setting the finished
product on the pass-thru from kitchen to bar area, where servers
efficiently retrieve it. She also makes a point of wending her way
through the tables to greet diners and to get feedback on her cooking.
In fact, you can’t miss her: She’s the short, ever-smiling woman who
works the room, treating everyone like family.
As for the food, her menu concentrates
on real food—healthy and comforting—with ingredients from local and
regional co-op farms. Look for four soups and stews, four salads, four
sandwiches and six panini, each category featuring a chef’s choice of
the day and all listed on a blackboard in the bar area. In addition to
coffees and espressos, juices, bottled water, milk and soy/rice milk
are also available. Crunchy sides of Terra Chips, blue tortilla chips,
Veggie Booty or Sparky’s home fries complement the dishes. Or order a
Soup selections include a daily special.
One day a rustic corn chowder was featured while mushroom curry lentil
is always available, as are vegetarian chili and Irish stew. The
latter, a family recipe, contains hearty chunks of beef, potatoes and
carrots masked in light gravy. Order a bowl for $3.75 for the
best-tasting and cheapest dish here that is so filling you may not want
anything else. Soups cost $1.50 per cup, or $3 per bowl. Chili and stew
are $1.75 per cup, $3.75 per bowl.
Salads cost $6 to $6.75, for salad of
the day. The wild green combination contains organic field greens,
romaine, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, low-fat cheddar
cheese, roasted zucchini, tomato, cucumber and black olives. The
antioxidant salad mixes broccoli, chopped tomatoes, assorted olives,
garlic and walnuts with olive oil. “It is one of Joe Carpenter’s
creations,” says Mortimer. Grilled chicken may be added to either for
$1.50. The Greek platter includes tabouli, hummus, Greek olives, Feta
cheese and pita bread. It costs $6.
The pollo loco sandwich features grilled
chicken, avocado, tomato, mixed greens and honey mustard. Or try the
vegetarian portobello “hello!” sandwich, with grilled portobello
mushroom, roasted peppers and red onions and a sun-dried tomato spread.
Both are priced at $6.50. A classic hot, open-faced turkey sandwich is
Think pink: The welcoming ambiance at Sparky Town includes fresh flowers and rosy hues.
Panini are all the rage, and Mortimer’s
include brie and pears as well as a veggie deluxe, a combination of
roasted vegetables with Swiss cheese. The Artie artichoke—sun-dried
tomato Gouda and turkey breast—or grilled cheese and tomato are other
choices. Prices range from $5 for the grilled cheese to $7.50 for the
artichoke offering. All sandwiches and panini come with your choice of
bread, such as white, wheat, rye, pita or sunflower.
Be sure to save room for dessert. Unlike
many eateries, where sweets come from BJ’s Wholesale Club, desserts are
the real deal here, prepared in the Sparky Town kitchen when the
restaurant is closed. Nicole Cicoria moonlights from her job as an
academic adviser at Syracuse University’s Whitman School to create
standouts like tall and moist coconut cake, Italian rum cake or bread
pudding with Frangelico sauce. Her pies may vary from apple, peach or
anything else that strikes her fancy. As a nod to childhood, there is
the special “not your birthday cake,” which is yellow with chocolate
frosting and sprinkles. “It brings you back to your early years,”
Mortimer’s culinary journey is long and
varied. A Brooklyn orphanage was home before she was adopted and moved
to Queens for a happy childhood. Mortimer studied at New York
University to become a therapeutic recreation specialist, but she cooked along the way—first at
home, then at resorts. In between she operated a small general store in
the Adirondacks’ North Creek for four years. “We sold everything from
comic books to condoms,” Mortimer recalls with amusement.
Her continued love for cooking led her
to study at the Natural Gourmet School of Cooking in New York City. “I
was there during 9/11 and students and staff at the school cooked for
workers at the site,” she remembers. “It was an incredible place to be
to help in any way.”
Mortimer eventually found herself in
Syracuse, where she came in contact with Nick Orth and Michael DeSalvo,
who open their Hawley-Green home to care for AIDS patients. Because
they prefer not to accept government support to help defray costs, the
pair schedules monthly community fund-raiser suppers and approached
Mortimer about preparing the meals. This exposure provided contacts for
her own catering, not to mention making many loyal friends the process.
It was through all their support that Sparky Town became a reality. She
also works and teaches classes at Williams-Sonoma, the culinary store
at Carousel Center.
Now that the restaurant is up and
running, plans include serving a full breakfast and dinner and
acquiring a beer and wine license. “My philosophy at Sparky Town,”
Mortimer muses, “is to create a different world by gathering people
together at the table.”
Sparky Town is open Mondays through
Saturdays, for grab-and-go breakfast of coffee, scones, muffins and
bagels from 6 to 11 a.m.; lunch is served Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11
a.m. to 3 p.m. Sparky Town is also available for catering, on or off
the premises. Call 422-8401 or visit www.sparkytown.net.