The first time I paired my mozzarella sticks with fruit, I was at a pub in Saratoga Springs, New York. When I placed my appetizer order, the waiter asked, “You want marinara or melba?” Having no idea what melba was, I obviously selected it.
Melba is a raspberry sauce, one typically used in desserts. It was reportedly created by French chef Auguste Escoffier for Dame Nellie Melba, a famed opera singer. Escoffier created melba toast and peach melba in honor of Melba, too; the former is a tiny, dry toast you have likely been served at cocktail parties and the latter is a signature dessert combining peaches and the aforementioned raspberry sauce.
From the moment I dipped my first mozzarella stick in melba sauce, I knew it was love. The viscous condiment clings to the salty mozzarella and the hot, oily breading, balancing the savory with the sweet. The experience trumps mozzarella sticks’ classic pairing of marinara sauce, to say the least. However, this fruit-and-cheese combo is apparently only available in a relatively small region of the country. A relatively small region I happened to grow up in.
Legend has it that melba sauce took New York’s Capital District by storm starting in the mid-1980s after a review of a local restaurant, HP Mulligan’s, appeared in the Albany Times Union. At the time the article was written, the reporter, Fred Lebrun, thought the unique appetizer combo had been invented there at Mulligan’s and mistakenly reported as much. He later found out the chef had learned to serve mozzarella sticks with melba at a hotel in Virginia. Lebrun went into the library archives, found the article, and used Wite-Out to erase the word “invention.”
That hastily corrected page, along with its backstory, appeared in a stunning deep dive into the puzzling topic of Albany’s melba-sauce-and-mozzarella-sticks tradition written by CivMix reporter Leanne Ricchiuti in 2020. To get to the bottom of the story, Ricchiuti talked to local historians, trawled historical archives, and interviewed chefs and retired reporters.
Ricchiuti found out that the chef who brought the pairing to HP Mulligans—and, by extension, to the Capital Region—learned about it at a place called Fantastic Fritzbe’s Flying Food Factory. Fritzbe’s chef, Warren Miller, brought it with him when he moved to Albany and became partial owner of HP Mulligans.
Though the appetizer had not originated there, Miller t0ld Ricchiuti he credits the Lebrun article (and its mistaken claims of invention) with spreading the idea around the region.
“The former HP Mulligans’ owners credit this finest form of flattery to a review of their erstwhile restaurant,” wrote Ricchiuti. “After that article was published, they said that they couldn’t keep the stuff in stock. They both recall having to buy all of the fresh raspberries from the local Grand Union because they couldn’t order them fast enough to meet the need. They said it was the appetizer that sold the most throughout the restaurant’s time.”
I recently ordered this local delicacy at Ralph’s Tavern, which is the best kind of hometown Italian restaurant—that is, it’s been around for 75 years and the interior appears not to have changed much at all during that time. Midday on a Tuesday, the bartender was calling out the names of locals as they arrived. My mom and I were offered sides of sauce and Italian bread at no extra charge. And when it came time to choose between the two listed sauces, “raspberry” or “spaghetti,” to accompany the mozzarella sticks, we had no difficulty choosing.
The little cup of raspberry sauce arrived warm, the same way marinara would. If you look at pictures of peach melba, the sauce looks thin, but this stuff was thick as ketchup. It even had a little bounce to it as it gave way to a dunked mozzarella stick, but it wasn’t so buoyant that you could call it jelly. The sticky substance coated the cheese and breading in a layer of sweet goodness, and the parmesan and herbs sprinkled onto each mozzarella stick offered an extra pop of flavor.
Speaking with locals about the beloved appetizer, none could believe that melba sauce with mozzarella sticks was merely a regional thing. This is the case with a lot of regional dishes, it seems: We can’t quite imagine why or how our favorites aren’t everyone’s favorites.
Outside of the Capital Region, the dish remains obscure. I did manage to find these frozen TGI Fridays jalapeno poppers, which come with a side of raspberry habanero sauce for dipping; they taste delicious, even if they can only approximate the glory of mozz sticks and melba. This product might just be a sign that the rest of the country is inching toward discovering our local delicacy. Regardless, it bears repeating: Dunk your mozzarella sticks in raspberry sauce. Trust me. You won’t regret it.