Cheap Eats 2012: Italian
Michael's chicken parmesan is a favorite in Niagara Falls
Michael's - Eggplant Parm ($10)
This Pine Avenue stalwart has been offering solid Italian-American family fare for over five decades, and, as you might expect, they’ve got it figured out. Everything is good here—you’re leaving full and happy no matter what item you choose from their extensive menu. But I’ll make that decision easier for you. Get the eggplant parmesan. It comes a la carte (including pasta) for $9.80 and as a dinner (with salad and pasta) for $12.80. You’ll receive a big basket of bread and butter with either option, and you’ll be leaving with leftovers no matter what. Michael’s take on eggplant parm excels in its integration of ingredients. Sauce, cheese, breading, and eggplant are expertly seasoned, assembled, and cooked; in your mouth, the result is suave and complex, with just a slight resistance from the eggplant and tang from the sauce. No one player gets too much time on the stage. And you’ll enjoy it all the more later that night, or the next day.—Elizabeth Licata
Michael’s, 3011 Pine Ave., Niagara Falls, 716-282-4043
Santasiero’s Restaurant - Macaroni and Peas ($8)
Santasiero’s Restaurant has perfected its own kind of cool over time. Open since 1921, the owners have resisted the urge, if it ever moved them at all, to consider the place’s “ambiance.” The candid proclamation on the establishment’s website states that this “is not the place for candlelight or haute cuisine.” We are thus brought to the lowly macaroni and peas. The owner characterizes the dish as peasant fare, and its presentation could not be simpler: a pile of sweet peas on top of a pile of ditalini pasta.
Thumbnail surveys conducted of the establishment’s dining rooms and barroom over several nights and one lunch time meal revealed that the macaroni and peas doesn’t seem to tempt many diners, but it should. The beauty of this dish is its lack of complexity and artistic semblances. The peas and ditalini (“little thimbles” in Italian), are both cooked to their ideal point, the juices together forming a light, salty, and broth-like consistency. Garlic and onion are obvious in smell and taste, but neither overwhelmingly so. A hint of pepper adds subtle spice.
One satisfied customer remarked that the “mac and peas” reminded him of sitting in his grandmother’s kitchen enjoying her concoctions from the old country. What comes to my mind is the sense that nearly a century of preparing and serving hearty dishes has been absorbed into each dish sent out from Santasiero’s open kitchen. The experiments were completed long ago—present day patrons get to enjoy each finished product with certainty.—Margaret Toohey
Santasiero's, 1329 Niagara St., Buffalo, 716-886-9197
DiTondo’s - Italian-style Baked Haddock ($12)
DiTondo’s is storied and revered for its classic (read unpretentious) dining room, barroom, and seasonal outdoor seating. Open since 1903, DiTondo’s serves lunch on Monday through Friday and dinner on Fridays only, and no matter the season, the dining room is a jubilant madhouse (reservations are highly recommended). Everything at DiTondo’s is eligible for Cheap Eats, but I prefer the Italian-style baked haddock, a Friday night custom in Buffalo. The haddock filet is not hanging-over-the-plate-huge as in many other establishments, but a healthy portion for one, lightly breaded with a blend of bread crumbs, seasoning, grated cheese, and parsley. On top is a flourish of strips of roasted red peppers, with some vegetables of the day on the side. Salad or soup, bread and butter, and a choice of potato, side of spaghetti, or linguine with clam sauce are all included. For an additional $2, an extremely hungry Cheap Eater can add two house-made meatballs and still spend less than $12.—Nancy J. Parisi
DiTondo’s, 370 Seneca St., Buffalo, 716-855-8838