Red Sauce and Italian Comfort Food
All photos by kc kratt
Red sauce. It’s a state of mind.
We’re talking about Italian comfort food, which may or may not actually have red sauce (or gravy, if you prefer) in or on it. It often comes in large portions, and usually originates from the bottom half of the Italian boot and/or Sicily. If it doesn’t contain pasta, it might have a side of pasta. Many of the restaurants serving it in Western New York have been in operation for decades. And, a lot of the time, it is red. However we define it, one thing is clear. We can’t get enough of it. Come back to our site each week as we post more of our (soon to be your) favorite Italian comfort foods!
The following article is a sample of what you'll find in this month's Buffalo Spree. To get more on delicious Italian comfort food in WNY, pick up this month's issue at a location near you.
Spaghetti Parm at Chef's
291 Seneca Street, Buffalo, 856-9187
Chef’s Restaurant has been a storied part of Buffalo history since 1923 and is best known for its belly-busting Italian pasta staples. Owned by the late Lou Bilittier from 1950 to 2000 and succeeded by his son of the same name, the restaurant’s walls are plastered with photos that read like a visual history of Buffalo celebs. Its dining room has long been a meeting place for local politicos, and repatriates often make Chef’s one of their first stops when they move back home. The restaurant has recently launched a food truck, so fans are never far from a plate of the joint’s steaming red sauce specialties. The most famous of those is spaghetti Parmesan, or simply “spag Parm,” for those who need fewer syllables standing between them and a plate of cheese-covered carbs.
Spaghetti Parmesan comes in three sizes: extra small, small, and large. At Chef’s, that translates roughly to “one person with a normal-sized appetite,” “one professional football player or two average people,” and “one professional football player and his mom or two people who want leftovers.” Chef’s motto is, “where family and friends meet to eat,” and that may have as much to do with its gargantuan portion sizes as fellowship.
The dish that made Chef’s famous is a saucy, cheesy, carb-lovers’ dream. It arrives on a platter completely covered in a thick, gooey blanket of mozzarella with a dish of sauce on the side. While the pasta is sauced lightly, that side sauce allows diners to augment at will. When packing up leftovers (and you will), get a to-go cup of sauce too, to keep it moist when reheating. Especially for cheese fans, spag Parm is one local staple not to be missed.
Sicilian Sausage on Pizza Bread at The Pine Avenue Como
2220 Pine Avenue, Niagara Falls, 285-9341
Como Restaurant at the Airport
10158 Niagara Falls Boulevard, Niagara Falls, 297-7497
This hearty, messy dish from a Niagara Falls institution seems to best express its unpretentious, family-friendly philosophy. Indeed, family is the operative word here, as, since 1927, the Como has been owned and run by descendants of its founder, Francesco Antonacci. His daughter, grandchildren, and great grandchildren still work in the Como restaurants, which now include an outpost near the Niagara Falls airport as well as the original Pine Avenue Como and its adjacent deli. All three venues emphasize traditional food from long-held family recipes, warm service, and reasonable prices. The Pine Avenue Como is well-known for welcoming big groups in its four banquet halls, the largest of which can serve 300 people.
Though it may not have as long a pedigree as the restaurant’s famous sauce, Como’s pizza bread is made in-house, like all its breads—an increasingly rare restaurant phenomenon. For the pizza bread, regular bread dough is flattened in a pan, seasoned, and baked. The finished bread is then topped with Italian sausage (also housemade), mushrooms, peppers, onions, sauce, and mozzarella and served as an open-faced sandwich. (Pizza bread is also served in pre-entrée bread baskets at both locations.)
While the Como offers a vast menu—maybe the biggest we’ve seen of the red sauce joints in this issue—this sandwich, featuring three of the restaurant's housemade specialties, is a great place to start.
Toasted Ravioli at Mangia's
Mangia Ristorante & Caffe
4264 North Buffalo Road, Orchard Park, 662-9467
There’s a certain informal food philosophy that goes something like: addictive snacks can be even tastier if they’re fried. This is the thinking that brought us deep-fried Oreos, deep-fried bacon, and deep-fried doughnuts. Pan-fried ravioli does not quite belong in that group, but the idea is similar. Cheese encased in pasta is delicious on its own, but what about making it crispy? While the specific restaurant is a matter of dispute, there is general agreement that—sometime in the 1940s—St. Louis, Missouri, is the place where the first chef dropped the first cooked ravioli in hot oil. The crunchy result made a perfect handheld snack.
Then the refinements began. Now, most toasted ravioli are breaded first, and may be either deep-fried or pan-fried. The ravs are almost always served with a container of marinara for dipping and are often sprinkled with Parmesan.
On its menu, Mangia emphasizes that its toasted ravs are lightly breaded and delicately fried, but they do contain cheese, pasta, and breading, which make them substantial—and delicious—appetizers. While regular ravioli can be overwhelmed by saucing or other ingredients—with the pasta case disintegrating as often as not—toasted ravioli are sturdy finger foods that keep their cheese fillings intact. There are several places to enjoy these locally, but Mangia is a top choice.
Ricotta Gnocci at Cugino's
Cugino’s Italian Restaurant
6011 Main Street, Williamsville, 633-8432
Cugino’s Italian restaurant on Main Street in Williamsville, a former ski shop, is not your typical white tablecloth affair. The modern dining room is at once sleek and warmly welcoming. A neat trick to pull off, when contemporary design can often feel stagey.
The same can be said of Cugino’s cuisine. While artfully assembled with a pleasing balance and punches of color against white ware, the food is at the same time somehow sophisticated yet comforting, with flavors you’d expect from the Italian place down the street.
The menu exemplifies Cugino’s interest in northern Italian cuisine. You’ll find housemade pasta, of course, but also classic northern starches like polenta and risotto with a healthy dose of butter or cheese folded in.
Cugino’s ricotta gnocchi are firm, but surprisingly light and tender, not the gummy lumps you’ll sometimes encounter when the ricotta hasn’t drained properly or from this gnocchi’s potato-y cousin. The extra step of sautéing the dumplings in butter, producing a slight browning, elevates the dish. Served with sautéed chicken breast, the addition of tart grape tomatoes cuts the richness, fresh green peas add a touch of sweetness, and an herby, rich basil cream sauce draws all the elements together.
—Wendy Guild Swearingen
Seafood alla Sinatra at Sinatra's
984 Kenmore Avenue, Kenmore, 877-9419
In 2010, Spree’s “Foodies” (Margie Toohey and the late Vicki Marshall) sang the praises of Sinatra’s: “If your interest is classic Southern Italian cuisine, then Sinatra’s would be a perfect choice.” They paid special attention to traditional favorites like arancini, antipasto, and ravioli. Sinatra’s is still a great choice for those dishes, but this time we went with their take on shellfish. Seafood alla Sinatra features the fresh, bright flavors of shrimp, lobster, mussels, and clams, served over lightly seasoned pasta. There’s no sauce that’s been simmered for hours, no layers of cheese, no breading; the dish relies on fresh, high-quality seafood with a touch of garlic, olive oil, and basil. The pasta turns out to be a perfect vehicle for soaking up all that briny goodness.
There will be more Sinatra’s to love in a few months, as construction continues on a new facility across the street, a mixed-use project that will house the restaurant and twenty residential units. Sinatra’s has been a Kenmore Avenue fixture for thirty-five years; this expansion will provide more spacious headquarters for its loyal fan base as well as a design update.