First Look: Chippewa District's newest restaurant, Bambino
Christa Glennie Seychew
In April, the long shuttered Franklin Street restaurant most know as the former Brownstone Bistro (and as the short-term Duo to others), opened its doors as Bambino Bar & Kitchen.
Owned by Chef Noel Morreale, of Hertel Avenue's well-loved Fiamma Steakhouse, Bambino breathes new life to Franklin, bringing with it the potential to be one of the major game changers in the evolving Chippewa party district.
Between Soho’s transformation into burger heaven, the closing of Third Room and La Luna (one of which will become a private dining room for Bacchus, while the other remains for lease), and the opening of Bambino, the street most Buffalonians consider a hotspot for drunken frat boys is well on its way to changing its image as a destination location for delicious dining experiences.
But it isn’t really fair to look at any new restaurant as part of a movement in an adapting neighborhood, particularly when it has only just gotten its sea legs. A look at its overall vibe and offerings is more appropriate.
A welcome reprieve from the uncomfortable and overly-ostentatious Miami-themed décor installed by its former owner, Bambino has aesthetically returned the building to its former glory, relying on well-built bones, attractive brickwork, and subtle decorative touches in order to please its guests. The first floor features a bar at center stage and several communal tables with tall, bar stool seating. Upstairs, two and four tops fill the space, with an exit to the rear leading to a full-tilt patio party bar.
The menu is homey Italian, but unlike nearly every other red sauce Italian joint in the WNY area, Bambino’s interpretation keeps an eye on modernity, apparent in plating, portion sizes, and use of ingredients.
A variety of small plates, bar snacks, and other nosh-y items make up a large portion of the menu, and for the most part they are well thought-out, well priced, and tasty. Our order of arancini (pictured above) was accompanied by a truly delicious and well-balanced “tomato cream” sauce (which was good enough to eat on its own) and acted as a nice accompaniment to the very straightforward pea, sausage, and mozzarella stuffed rice balls ($9). The meatballs were excellent—tender, flavorful, and served with "Sunday sauce” good enough to rival any Nona's and a soft scoop of whole milk ricotta ($8).
Meatballs with Sunday sauce
The mortadella mousse ($5) and homemade giardiniera ($3) were also tempting, but we opted for the roasted bone marrow ($10) with parsley salad and the white bean hummus ($4). The bone marrow was good, though a more ample offering of grilled bread was desperately needed to truly enjoy this dish, as its crispness and slightly charred flavor was the ideal foil for the rich and unctuous marrow. While the bone marrow was served somewhat unconventionally, in uncut, towering bones (rather than sliced lengthwise and served on its side or into shorter round pieces), it was well-prepared, and every bit was consumed by our table. The hummus, which every member of our party enjoys as a part of their regular diet, was hot and unpalatable due to the use of an intense amount of raw garlic.
Bone Marrow with parsley salad
The warm loaf of bread presumably provided to every table of diners was bland and mushy and featured an unimpressive crust. As an Italian restaurant with a woodfire oven, this is an area of service where I would expect to see glimmers of brilliance. But in this case the bread was not an adequate substitute for the scant slice of toasted bread served with the marrow, and it was an entirely incompatible match with the soft, spreadable hummus. Even if one overlooked the unpleasant garlic burn (which was nearly impossible), the bread fell flat, not providing the crispiness of a cracker, the chewiness of a pita, or the crunch of toasted bread.
Bambino’s menu also features a few sandwiches, salads, and plenty of red and white pizzas. Those delish meatballs make an appearance on the sandwich menu, as does Buffalo’s favorite, sausage with peppers, and a chicken cutlet. The salad menu is simple and uncluttered; offerings include only salads of the chopped, Caesar, and caprese variety. Pizzas are where one would expect Bambino to really shine, given the kitchen’s use of a woodfire oven, but the two we sampled seemed undercooked, dense, and really soggy. That said, we will go back soon and have pizza again before writing this aspect of their menu off completely. The opportunity for Bambino to deliver in this department—not only due to the oven, but also because of their use of fresh dough and excellent raw ingredients, makes me hope we were simply there on an off night for the pizza cook.
Pastas and entree options—as with the salads—are a focused, limited selection. I admire that. In many Italian-American restaurants there is a tendency to sell a thousand variations of very similar dishes, most of which are primarily made of house red sauce and a protein, therefore filling the menu with pages and pages of rather redundant offerings. At Bambino things are much improved; that delicious Sunday sauce graces a handful of pasta dishes, such as manicotti and spaghetti, and the rest of the menu is dedicated to risotto, Francaise and Milanese preparations and, the star of the show, the unexpected Pork Blade Steak. I don’t believe I have ever seen a pork blade steak on a menu anywhere, ever. Here the large cut of pork is smothered in a tantalizing coat of honey and spicy nduja. The menu calls this offering “Prime Pork Bladesteak,” so I asked the waiter a few questions about the breed and use of the word "prime.” His only response was to tell me the pork was local, which I suspect wasn’t entirely true. And though the chop was slightly overcooked, its tasty and unusual preparation made up for it. Each of the menu’s protein offerings is accompanied by an arugula salad, strewn randomly with hot little potatoes. In the case of the bladesteak it is a fantastic pairing, offering relief from the spicy sausage and adding a much need textural element. In other instances, the lightly dressed salad nicely and delicately provides a needed acidic element to each dish, the potatoes acting as a tasty anchor.
Prime Pork Blade Steak
Overall, our dining experience was interesting and flavorful, and I look forward to sampling more of the menu and observing the improvements that will certainly come with time. I do have some concern over the restaurant’s seemingly undecided focus. Based on the appearance of the waiters and the menu, I’d call Bambino a pretty serious food undertaking. But then again, DJs, party bars, and female bartenders in “custom” ripped t-shirts gave me an entirely different impression. It remains to be seen whether these two types of businesses can work in one space effectively. But while its owners and clientele determine the future of Bambino, we’ll gladly enjoy the process, one meatball at a time.
Bambino Bar and Kitchen
297 Franklin St., Buffalo; 240-9851