No jacket required: Hearth + Press
A casual but sophisticated choice for downtown pre- or postevent dining
Neapolitan-style pizzas are a specialty: here’s the classic margarita, with tomato, basil, and mozzarella.
Photos by kc kratt
Hearth + Press
665 Main St.
262-0866 or www.hearthandpress.com
Not so long ago, Buffalo’s theater district dining options were limited to familiar standbys like Cabaret, Bijou Grille, and the now-closed Encore or, on the other end of the spectrum, grab-and-go lunch counters. It seemed like the market for sit-down restaurants was limited; only a few have survived. Most evenings, the area didn’t attract much foot traffic, unless Shea’s was presenting. That lack of steady theater patronage makes it tough to sustain a restaurant.
Today, every block of downtown Buffalo, theater district or otherwise, seems livelier than it did a decade ago: more downtown workers, more stores and restaurants to patronize, more apartment dwellers in the urban core, more hotel guests, more evening entertainment choices.
Even so, on a recent winter Thursday night, Hearth + Press was quiet. Part of the quiet was the space—despite the Brooklyn-like name and Edison light bulbs, there’s nothing reminiscent of a New York City restaurant about the generous space between diners’ tables, and between those tables and the counter. That evening, only a few diners were seated, not coming close to filling the space. Would this be another restaurant that struggled to find business when there wasn’t a show at Shea’s? Or would this be a place that would find its own, larger niche? So often the question of a restaurant’s survival depends as much on that restaurant’s perceived identity as it does on what comes out of the kitchen.
But, before we go there: what came out of the kitchen? We started with a caprese salad, standard with fresh basil, mozzarella, tomatoes, olive oil and balsamic. We enjoyed it though I would have preferred the tomatoes at room temperature rather than a little cold.
Then we tried the margarita pizza, the crust of which was a little soft, but otherwise good quality. Gnocchi with pesto was served on a bed of arugula, a choice some might find odd but which I personally enjoyed and thought went really well with the pesto.
Gnocchi with pesto; caprese salad
A chicken and pesto panini was praised for coming together cohesively with melted mozzarella and all ingredients warmed all the way through; this was a true panini and not just a sandwich with a grilled outside. It was served with a few hand-cut potato wedge-style fries that turned out to be much crispier than they looked, but could have used a bit more seasoning. Finally, the Nutella and banana dessert pizza had the same slightly soft crust as its savory counterpart.
Chicken and pesto panini; Nutella and banana dessert pizza
The restaurant specializes in Neapolitan-style, flat, individual pizzas with toppings that include four-cheese, meatball, roasted vegetable, and prosciutto and arugula. It also serves a few Middle Eastern-influenced specialties like a pizza with zataar spice blend and a dessert with rosewater syrup. I would like to return to try the Middle Eastern choices, though, for us, even though the pizzas were the advertised main event, the pasta and panini ended up as the stars.
The minimal but well-chosen wine offering includes about eight each of red and white, all around $10 per glass. My coworker and I both enjoyed the cabernet, which had a bit of fruitiness and was not too dry. Though they weren’t featured on the menu, I could see behind the bar that Hearth + Press also offers classic Italian liquors like Aperol, Campari, Limoncello and—yes, in Italy this is a digestif, much to the delight of this American tourist—Jaegermeister. There were a couple of local beers on tap including a Southern Tier IPA, as well as Italian selections like Peroni. Sangria is sold for $25 per carafe.
And as to the first question, what is it that Hearth + Press is? Neighborhood gathering spot? Quick downtown lunch option? Neapolitan pizza destination? Morning coffee stop? (The restaurant opens at 10 a.m. on weekdays and serves French press tea and coffee, and espresso drinks.) Pre-theater sit-down dining? The vast space, though it detracts from conviviality, is probably a plus in warmer months when diners aren’t stuck sweating it out next to a hot pizza oven. Diners can order at the counter, but table service is offered, at least in the evening, when we were there. Service is pleasant, swift without being hurried, and responsive; our waitress noticed before we did that she had brought us the wrong bill and promptly remedied the situation. The answer might be that Hearth + Press fills a niche in the vast middle ground between coffee shop and white tablecloths—you can have a drink, be served by waitstaff, and have a chat at a reasonable volume, before or after your main event of the night, whatever it might be.