ALBANY—Jeff Klein likes the filet mignon at 677 Prime, with a side of chopped salad. Dean Skelos is partial to the eggplant at Amo la Bella. Malcolm Smith enjoys the mussels at the Brown Derby. And you can find Tom Libous at Lombardo's on Madison.
During the six months of the legislative session, the four leaders of the State Senate spent more than $43,000 from their campaign committees on "lunch meetings," "working dinners" and outings for staff and members, often at some of Albany's A-list restaurants.
"The large bill is because Senator Smith always picks up the tab," said Austin Shafran, his spokesman. (Smith's committee spent over $11,000 on food, excluding fund-raisers, in the last six months.) At my behest, Shafran asked Smith what he enjoys about the recently opened Hollywood Brown Derby. "The service, the ambience and the mussels. And where they sit me, I can watch Capital News 9 and CNN," Smith said, according to Shafran.
His Republican counterpart has a taste for Amo la Bella, an old-school Italian restaurant buried on a narrow street next to Albany's indoor arena. I've never been, so I called Steve Barnes, the restaurant critic at the Times Union and author of the paper's Table Hopping blog, for some culinary context.
"It's old-fashioned Albany Italian," he said. "It seems to me very similar in fare to Lombardo's or any number of other places in town. We certainly do not lack for classic, old-fashioned Italian restaurants, and certainly each of them has something to gain their fans, but Amo La Bella mystifies me."
"I guess it proves why we have an overabundance of Italian restaurants in this town, huh?" he continued as I rattled off examples from the above list. "Even if you're on an expense account, the red-sauce Italian will make you happy. I should go on record saying that having grown up in Rotterdam," a blue-collar suburb of Schenectady with a strong Italian-American population, "I've had enough pasta with red sauce to last the rest of my life."
John McArdle, a Republican spokesman, said Skelos is a "big fan."
"It's terrific food, it's been here 50 years and it has a tradition of being a very popular place with Albany politicos," he said. "He's partial to the eggplant, and I think the sausage and peppers is great, and the chicken parm."
Senator Tom Libous logged many charges at Lombardo's, Albany's other traditional Italian restaurant, but his campaign treasurer warned that the filings don't perfectly correlate with the senator's palate.
"Don't assume that all of those charges belong to him. We are one of the few offices that issues credit cards to most of our staff," Robert Nielsen told me from Binghamton, where charges also appear. He admitted that Libous "does like Lombardo's" but that "I think the senator has never set foot in DeJohns—those are staffers."
Both Klein and Smith charged a few meals at Angelo's 677 Prime, which since 2005 has been, in Barnes's words, "absolutely see-and-be-seen; if you've got an orange Lamborghini so much the better."
"It's very much an expense-account place. They still have Kobe beef that they're selling at $160 a steak, and the lobbyists are still buying it for one another," Barnes said. "It's one of the few places in town that continues to have caviar service on its regular menu for $260 a shot."
Klein expensed just over $1,800 there in the last six months. Jennifer Rainville, his spokeswoman, said that the senator always works through meals and never allows lobbyists to pay.
"He's often the one who, when he's having a working dinner with his colleagues or staff, he's the one that usually picks up the tab," she said. "He's generous that way. He's a generous person."
(Thanks to Bill Mahoney of NYPIRG, who took the PDF versions of these campaign filings and ripped them into an Excel file for me to play with.)