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Osteria 166 eager to silence doubters - INTERVIEW, PHOTOS

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

To understand new Buffalo downtown restaurant Osteria 166, look no further than the community table situated to the left of the bar as you walk in.

It’s not your ordinary table—you’ll notice that at first glance—but it’s a major point of pride for restaurant owner Nick Pitillo.

His eyes lit up when unraveling the table’s history: how the tabletop was originally a hand-built bowling lane from Springville in the 1940s, a construction that required the whole family’s “sweat and blood,” but mostly that of Pitillo’s great-grandfather, pictured on the wall surveying the table (pictured right).

The generations of Pitillo’s Italian family—present through black-and-white pictures hung throughout the restaurant—is a major motivator for the owner, but no more than putting his 10-year-old daughter, Olivia, through college—Harvard, he half-jokes.

Since the soft opening date—June 10—Pitillo (pictured below, left) admits that business has been consistent and the reviews—just look at Yelp—have been terrific.

The NYS Bar Exam and a recent agricultural conference at the nearby Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, a strong presence—including an all-female bocce team—at the Buffalo Italian Heritage Festival and a Yelp Supper Club visit didn’t hurt, but Osteria 166 sits close to the theater district and within walking distance for many businesses.

Given the two previous businesses that tried and failed to endure at 166 Franklin St., Pitillo knows that it’ll take more than a favorable start to avoid the same demise as short-lived Frankie Mohawk’s and Buddies II.

The route to restaurant ownership wasn’t too circuitous for Pitillo, who’s spent the majority of his career in hospitality. He’d been in the market for his own place for several years but hadn’t found the perfect spot until his friend, local developer and Buffalo school board member Carl Paladino, alerted him that former Frankie Mohawk’s was for sale.

When Pitillo stepped in and took a gamble where others had failed, he received the treatment he anticipated.

“People kept saying, ‘What are you? Nuts?’” Pitillo recollected. “But none of [the previous openings] were as right as this one.”

Osteria (pronounced OWE-stir-ee-aahh, means “casual pub” in Italian) 166 follows a bit of a hybrid concept, a mixture of reverence for Italian heritage with practical sense to assure the fare is relevant.

“I want to pay respects to my Italian upbringing,” Pitillo says, “but I can’t duplicate what a lot of other Italian restaurants are doing. If I serve just Caesar salad and spaghetti, I’ll be broke in six months.”

Still, that doesn’t mean vintage Italian flair is omitted completely, as Pitillo’s 76-year-old mother pops into the restaurant on Mondays to concoct the homemade ravioli special—a big seller, Pitillo admits—and the restaurant’s red sauce is the family recipe.

Most of the various pastas are hand-crafted, a growing expectation among Buffalo patrons of Italian restaurants.

There’s enough quirk to go around, too, as Pitillo aspired to construct a bocce ball court on the patio facing West Mohawk Street until he realized that there wasn’t enough good weather remaining to make it worthwhile. Moreover, Pitillo instructs his waiters to cut the flatiron pizzas with scissors—just because.

As Pitillo points out Osteria 166’s most popular dishes, you can understand what he means by a modern twist on Italian (full menu here).

There’s grilled octopus ($10), stuffed pepper risotto cake ($8, header photo) and burrata ($9) on the list of most-ordered appetizers, while the sausage campanelle and the porchetta are churned out of Jeff Cooke’s kitchen at a rapid rate.

The chemistry between owner and head chef is well-seasoned, as the duo worked in concert at the Seneca Gaming Corporation, and Pitillo trusts Cooke’s experience, sourcing and sense of adventure.

An advocate of nearby farmers markets, Cooke sourced fresh peaches from Niagara County—see his special menu for Aug. 6 at the bottom of the page—and also reeled in fresh corn from Clarence’s Jurek Farms. Pitillo added that the kitchen staff is excited to take advantage of the bastion of corn in Eden as well.

In addition to the wide-ranging specials menu—which serves as the base for dinner—Pitillo hinted at a few changes for the fall: vegetarian meatballs will likely sidle up to the regular menu along with swiftly-selling special chicken lasagna, while hardier items like osso buco—tender veal in a tomato and herb sauce, traditionally—and braciole—strips of meat, often steak, with spices and light olive oil—will feature. 

Culinary creativity has a tendency to lure in a young and diverse crowd, and Pitillo has witnessed that trend.

“I love that we’ve started to have an impact on the younger generation,” the owner admitted, “but we want [Osteria 166] to be a comfortable place whether you’re 25 or 55, whether you’re in a hard hat or an Armani [suit], and if you just want a $7 sandwich at 9 p.m.”

Because there’s been enough business in the evening to remain open later, Pitillo pushed Osteria 166’s closing time to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. There’s long-term potential to stay open even later, depending on business and the growth of the surrounding area.

Live music on Fridays from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. sets the weekends in motion, while the bar regularly offers $3 Pabst Blue Ribbons and 30 wines under $30 apiece. Other beers on tap include Community Beer Works, Flying Bison, Sierra Nevada, Magic Hat, Ellicottville Brewing Company and Peroni.

Despite the wine bottle that forms the “I” in the business logo, Osteria 166 is a food spot first and foremost.

An official grand-opening party is scheduled for 4:30 to 10 p.m. Aug. 21 at the restaurant, a gathering that should be bustling with burrata, wine and Pitillo’s exuberance.

Until then, Pitillo will continue to fight the preconceived notions of an Italian restaurant in a residence of past failure, but he’ll do so with the pride of generations at his back and brimming confidence in the potential of Osteria 166.

Osteria 166's Woppy Joe

Osteria 166 on Urbanspoon

TAGGED: bars, downtown, frankie mohawk's, interviews, italian, nick pitillo, osteria 166, photos, restaurants

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