Feast to West, Pt. III: Santasiero’s Italian Restaurant
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • November 08, 2011 @ 9:05am
We’re all about clever—if slightly twisted—humor. When we saw that Santasiero’s, celebrating its 90th year of existence in 2010, posted “That took a lot of balls!”—in reference to meatballs, of course—we couldn’t suppress our hearty chuckles. Plus, the family has pressed on through four generations of Santasiero ownership! That’s dedication.
Buffalo is no stranger to persevering Italian joints (think Chef’s first and foremost, Frank’s Sunny Italy to a lesser extent), and Santasiero’s (1329 Niagara Street) long tale encompasses crafty methods of survival during tough economic times. The story that struck us as pure genius was their “nickel beer” anecdote from the 1920s, when Santasiero’s would offer a free heaping plate of spaghetti to any customer that purchased a nickel beer. Those are some solid munchies! As hard as Ben T. pleaded to get the same treatment in 2011, his efforts fell on deaf ears. Why can’t beer run for a nickel anymore? Inflation makes life so difficult sometimes.
When S.J. and Ben T. visited, the interior—rather drab, pale and homey—wasn’t too surprising. Buffalo Eats’ Donnie Burtless prepared us well for our visit, noting: “The building itself will remind you of an old house, there’s even a kitchen sink in the dining room. The menu is a large billboard on the dining room wall, they only take cash and the tables are simple metal chairs and tables with vinyl table clothes.”
With growling stomachs, the content duo opted for the garlic bread with cheese ($5.75) as an appetizer. The dish arrived quickly—piping hot—with bubbling cheese set atop two thick, lightly-toasted Italian bread halves. For those with moderate appetites, this appetizer could pass as a light meal alone.
Undaunted by the giant slice of bread, S.J. dived greedily (S.J. edit: I resent that, Ben T.) into the stuffed shells ($7.50 for a full portion). Sunken into a shallow bowl of pasta sauce, the stuff shells were exactly what S.J. wanted for lunch. “I want pasta, cheese and red sauce”—that was her chant in the car ride to the West Side. The dish wasn’t covered in mozzarella or fancy garnishes. It was perfectly simple, and filling. The sauce was on the sweeter side, but nowhere near that of Chef’s sweetness. It was a classic dish, prepared without the bells and whistles, and it was completely satisfying.
Ben T., easily convinced by nostalgic stories, picked the pasta fasoola (full: $8.00, half: $6.75), largely because, in the early 1950s, Santasiero’s was the first to introduce the menu item in New York (and perhaps the U.S., the restaurant’s website suggests). A conglomerate of cannellini beans, ditalini pasta, garlicky broth and onions were set in a giant bowl—more of a straight pasta dish, less pasta e fagioli-type of soup. While a little bland by itself, the addition of hot cherry peppers—served in a small bowl on the side—delivered the necessary kick to enliven the entree.
Usually a monstrous eater, Ben T. couldn’t finish the bowl—and that type of hearty, stick-to-your-bones meal must explain its popularity in rough economic times. The taste was certainly an acquired one, though, leaving Ben T. wishing he’d sampled Santasiero’s red sauce. The full menu can be found here.
(Unfortunately, John Santasiero, the current owner of the restaurant, was unavailable for comment despite a number of phone calls. He must live a busy life!)