For our 4 year wedding anniversary, we decided to finally visit Osteria 166 for dinner. My wife had never been, and I’ve only had lunches there. It has been on our radar, so it was great to finally get in there for a meal.
We went in with the expectation of a classic Italian red sauce joint with some elevated dishes. I knew that it was a pretty close family management team and that Chef Jeff Cooke was dialed in on the local and seasonal food movement. We wanted to go out for our anniversary, share some comforting dishes and a bottle of wine, relax and not feel rushed, and just enjoy each other.
I’m not always right, but my selection for this evening hit the nail on the head, so when we got home, I decided to open another bottle of wine and write this all down before I forgot about it.
The restaurant is right on the corner of Franklin and Mohawk St., across from the convention center. It was pretty full for a Thursday night when we walked in, but we had reservations and were seated immediately. The ambiance was very warm and relaxed. The volume of the place were not loud, but lively and active, the way a good Italian restaurant should be.
Our server came over to greet us with a tear off bag of bread and a dish of dipping oil with cheese and hot peppers sprinkled in it. What a great way to say hello. The bread was warm and soft with a great crust and the oil and cheese were heaven. We couldn’t help tearing hunks off and mopping up the spiced oil while she introduced the menu. We selected a bottle of Chianti, and got back at the bread while we read the menu.
Speaking of the Chianti… lets talk about the wine menu. We like wine, but we don’t know a ton about wine. I think a lot of people are like this, and that tends to intimidate a lot of folks from looking at a wine list and ordering a bottle of wine. “What if I spend $90 and I hate it?” Osteria has a pretty decent run of about 30 wines under $30. The chianti we had was $28 and it was great. This is a high point for this restaurant. It goes out of its way to be accessible to everyone.
Osteria 166 has a really nice daily menu with a lot of traditional Italian classics, as well as sandwiches, pizzas, soups, and salad. They also offer a pretty extensive specials menu. This makes this restaurant very accessible for virtually everyone, as its impossible to not find something appealing.
At this point, it sounds like every other “red sauce” Italian place in Western NY – but Osteria has a trump card. There is a tremendous amount of skill in that kitchen – starting with Chef Cooke, so I’ll use the overused word elevated again to describe what sets this place apart.
Chef Cooke has managed to maintain the integrity of the family’s old recipes while showcasing local purveyors and seasonal foods, and bringing another level to traditional family based Italian cuisine. He excels at subtlety, which I think requires a lot of security in ones self as well as maturity in the role of a chef. It is somewhat easy to punch someone in the face with Italian food. So many places dump a pile of cheese over some overcooked pasta, throw it in the broiler, and bam. Parm City. That’s not happening here. I don’t cook a lot of Italian food, but I find it to be one of those cuisines where its is extremely difficult to engage in subtlety and restraint. It is easy to be heavy handed because you’re dealing with such rich and wholesome flavors and textures. Pastas, Beans, Meats, Cheeses… respect is due to the cook who has all of these resources at hand, and yet plates a beautiful burrata cheese on a simple piece of toast with a few gorgeous basil leaves serving as boats for fresh cherry tomatoes… all dressed with a little balsamic and oil.
So lets talk about Burratta Cheese.
The first time we had Burratta cheese was at a restaurant called Kampa Park in Prague.It was served in much the same fashion. Cheese, some greens or a bit of fruit, and a drizzle of oil and balsamic with a pinch of crunchy salt. Having this dish today brought us back to that awesome trip. It was so nice and clean.
Chef sent out a plate of charcuterie to get us started.. Three house cured meats, presented simply on a board with some olives, a bit of bread, and some home made hummus. I haven’t been to Italy yet, but when I go, that is the experience I want. A bottle of wine, some meats, some cheeses… maybe wrapped up in a cloth napkin. The meats were simple and well executed. I’ve cured some meats in my time, and its one of those cases of “less is more.” Something savored and enjoyed in small bits, spread on bread, or eaten with fruit or olives. The three we were given were cut ultra thin, and were a bit salty – which is how I think charcuterie should be seasoned. I believe that charcuterie should almost be a condiment. The olives on the charcuterie plate were excellent. I have to assume they were house cured or at least house marinated.
Lets get into the entrees.
I got the carbonara, and Summer ordered the Veal Parm. We weren’t messing around with our entrees. We were going all the way. carbonara is one of my favorite Italian dishes, and I order it whenever I see it. The server we had was great, and she gave the requisite “this has a raw egg with it” warning. I joked and said “I’ll take extra eggs.” Wouldn’t you know it – an egg yolk sidecar showed up with my dish. So my pasta had 2 egg yolks with it. The carbonara was made with house cured pancetta, and was velvety and creamy with the right bit of black pepper. I loved the use of bucatini noodles for this, as I think a thicker and heartier noodle is required to stand up to the egg and cheese sauce, lest the pasta get lost. I believe Chef Cooke breaks some traditional rules with his carbonara, but he made me a believer. I ordered a meatball on the side because I love the meatballs here, and it came out topped with some ricotta and sitting in a pool of marinara.
The simplicity of the marinara sauce lets the food shine. I had it with my meatball and my wife had it with her veal Parm. I think a sauce like marinara should be an accessory to a meal, not a glue. I once again appreciated the restraint at making this simple tomato sauce clean and fresh, so that the flavors of the meatball, and the veal could come through. The veal was hammered thin, fried crisp, tender, and not greasy.
We finished up with a dessert plate that the chef sent out for our anniversary. Simple berries with cream, a lemon ricotta cheesecake, and a house made charlie chaplin. I thought we were stuffed, but we managed to find room for a few bites of each. I really liked the cheesecake. My wife doesn’t usually eat cheesecake but she enjoyed it as well. The ricotta and lemon is a classic pairing, and the texture was more rustic, which I appreciated vs. a regular silky cheesecake. The charlie chaplin was great. This is one of my dad’s favorites and it makes me want to bring him in there just for a pasta fagioli, meatballs, and charlie chaplin.
The service was fantastic. Attentive and knowledgeable without being overbearing. The menu is large, so it helps to have a server that can help diners navigate it and zone in on some favorites. I appreciate guidance without someone being in my face. We were checked on multiple times, from the chef, our server, the front of house manager, and even the owner Nick Pitillo came by our table. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in how our experience was going. I want that in an Italian restaurant. I loved it.
I feel like this is where you can meet an old friend from high school, share a few bottles of wine, and feel completely comfortable. As we walked out, a band was setting up outside and had we not needed to get home I would have happily sat on the patio, gotten another bottle of wine, and just hung out a bit longer. The warmth of the place makes it somewhere you want to hang out for awhile. The breadth of the menu made us want to come back soon and try something else. Maybe a pizza next time. Maybe a sandwich for lunch.
If there was one phrase that could have come out of the chef’s mouth that didn’t it was “what took you guys so long” and he would be correct. I’m sorry it took us so long to come in, and we won’t let it happen again. Until then, we’ll send lots of friends…
I’m also very excited that they will be opening up soon in Ellicottville. You can read more about that here: http://buffalo.com/2015/08/12/featured/osteria-166-spreads-wings-to-ellicottville/
Osteria 166 is open every day but Sunday. They can be found at www.osteriabuffalo.com
Here is what BuffaloEats had to say about it: http://www.buffaloeats.org/2013/07/01/osteria-166/