From Traditional Italian to Modern Updates, Siena Engages

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Siena Restaurant
4516 Main St., Amherst, NY 14226
Web: Siena Restaurant
Phone: 716.839.3108
Rating:    [learn more]

A decidedly upscale Italian venue by Snyder standards, with classic pastas, pizzas, and entrees, plus a variety of more modern, fusion-inspired dishes, specials, and desserts. Generally high food quality with beautiful plating and smart, attentive service. Patron-requested entree customization is respected.


Portions sometimes fail to meet menu descriptions or reasonable expectations, despite high prices; some items satisfy more in quality than others.

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"Due as much to good service, plating, and ambience as anything else, it's a place that will most likely satisfy even picky customers, but there are some notable speed bumps."

Many people love Siena with a capital "L." Many years ago, it drew crowds as the second restaurant to bring a wood-burning pizza oven to Amherst, and today - without taking reservations - it remains the sort of thriving, impressive Italian establishment that other restaurateurs have tried and failed to duplicate. Though we've visited Siena numerous times since it opened, it's spent months on our list for an updated opinion; this week, we finally had the opportunity to see what's changed and stayed the same. Not surprisingly, with a small but populated bar up front and a sophisticated, yellow-lit dining room with both traditional and modern design elements, it remains a strong if not completely consistent pick for a truly fine meal, with the sort of plating, service, and ambience that justify premium prices, and tastes that generally - not always - do the same.

In previous years, we have enjoyed and leaned heavily on Siena's $14.25 traditional wood-fired gourmet pizza menu, which has always contrasted sharply with Western New York's less pretentious tastes: whereas the typical pizza place tries to hook you by sticking meats on its dough or cheese in its crust, Siena's options are thin, crispy, and more notable for the types of ingredients than their quantities. One pizza, the Vincenzo, mixes goat and mozzarella cheeses; the Siena blends anchovy filets and sliced tomatoes with fontinella, and the Colonna combines gorgonzola with proscuitto, pesto, sauteed spinach and calamata olives. If the ingredients interest you, you'll find the pizzas to be delicious - enough to stuff two along with appetizers or desserts - but we passed on them in our most recent visit.

Instead, we aimed for more expensive fare. In the appetizer department, we ordered the Eggplant Tower ($13), the Calamari ($12), and the Surf and Turf ($14), plus two appetizer specials: Smoked Ahi Tuna ($13) and a supposedly Milanese preparation of Shrimp ($13). Each of the items arrived in picturesque form: the Eggplant Tower was a legitimately large, vertical stack of breaded eggplant, tomatoes, arugula, and mozzarella, drizzled with a high-quality balsamic vinaigrette. It was, in turns, crispy, sweet, savory, and soft, with flecks of parmesan adding an occasional bittersweet flavor. Similarly, the special Shrimp Milanese arrived as a set of impressively large prawns, each with a deep-fried crust of Japanese panko crumbs, and a garnish of onions and cucumber. Whatever deviation it represented from true Italian, we forgave instantly with our first bite: this is Siena's take on coconut shrimp, light on the coconut and heavy on the shrimp, the prawn managing to preserve its natural texture and flavor beneath the crispy brown panko shell.

Other appetizers weren't quite as exciting to eat as they were to see. Two of us ordered the Smoked Tuna, which was once again served beautifully alongside a salad, here with the green beans, chopped peppers, and onions dramatically outweighing the several slices of tasty rare tuna both in size and flavor. One diner described the salad as better than the tuna, with the smoke adding little to the fish. Our plate of Calamari was more bland in flavor, light in quantity, and only impressive visually: it scored points for lacking the dripping oil that is found in most renditions of this deep-fried, breaded squid dish, but lost some for appearing atop a stack of peppers, asparagus, and spinach rather than possessing enough of its own flavor to justify the $12 price. Similarly, the Surf and Turf - described as "Jumbo Sea Scallops with Grilled Filet Mignon" - included a grand total of one scallop and a piece of meat that would have been unrecognizable as filet. They were appropriately moist and tasted good thanks mostly to a demi-glace with thin, slightly crispy bits of shallot inside, but our view was that the plate was not worthy of the name, the description, or the asking price.

Entrees also varied in satisfaction from person to person. A plate of Pork Milanese ($25), served bone in, appeared to be gigantic due to a deft covering of a flattened, breaded rib chop with an attractive arugula, tomato, and parmesan salad. When the salad was removed, the chop wasn't quite as large as it initially appeared, but it was still filling - thicker than one might expect for its size, and properly fried to a light, crispy brown; what flavor the breading lacked was made up for by the slightly sweet, fresh salad on top. A plate of Florida Grouper ($33) wasn't exactly generous in quantity, but arrived lightly broiled alongside a nice dollop of potatoes and green beans; its sauce was, by request, served on the side. Healthy but expensive, the Grouper didn't disappoint.

The other entrees ranged from good to disappointing. A grilled Fresh Atlantic Salmon ($27) was larger than the Grouper portion and served with a lemon sauce, grilled tomatoes and sauteed onions, as well as a similar set of mashed potatoes and green beans. It was described as generous, tasty, full of diverse flavors, and visually appealing. By comparison, the Sunday Sauce spaghetti dish ($14) was sent back to the kitchen - a true rarity in our group - with its homemade tomato sauce and meatballs earning the equally rare phrase "bad." Its patron described the pasta as closer to uncooked, with a weak sauce and a single large but bland meatball that tasted as if it had spent too much time in the freezer. To its partial credit, Siena offered to replace the dish, and ultimately struck it from the check; this member of our group and another both described Siena's complimentary mixed basket of nice breads and side plate of olives and reggiano parmesan cheese chunks as a highlight of the meal.

Two of the $7 desserts were both pretty good: the Magic Cubes was actually only a single cube of chocolate and fruit mousse blocks that had been covered in a thin layer of semi-hard chocolate, then garnished with whipped cream, strawberries, chocolate sauce and powdered sugar. Such an item requires skill to make and is unlikely to disappoint; we enjoyed every delicate, smooth, and sweet little bite. Another dessert, the Creme Brulee, similarly arrived with a topping of powdered sugar and strawberries, its caramelized sugar top glaze unusually thick - like a pane of sweet glass. Though we found this layer a little hard to break apart, we had no such issue with the soft cream underneath, and did our best to remove it from every curved nook of its ramekin. Recommended by our server as one of the restaurant's homemade items, we'd probably order it again. It's also worth a brief note that the service was generally quite good, smartly dressed, and a real contributor to this place's sense of modern class; most of the patrons here dress well, and expect to pay a bit extra for a nice meal.

As noted up front, Siena has been around for years and has such a devoted fan base that it's hard to merely like it when so many people love it - there are some patrons, particularly those who enjoy a personal rapport with the management, we're told, who can be guaranteed a wholly satisfying meal on every visit here. However, we don't fall into the category of steady patrons, and by contrast with a place like The Left Bank or Buffalo Chophouse, we didn't leave our most recent meal at Siena feeling as if the entire experience had lived up to the $50 per person price tag; some of us really enjoyed the dinner, while others were pleased but not thrilled, and one of us either ordered wrong - unlikely - or just had the misfortune to be served bland and then bad food. Thus, though some would lean towards 3.5 stars and we'd consider 3.25 if we offered quarter stars, we ultimately feel that Siena merits a flat 3-star rating: due as much to good service, plating, and ambience as anything else, it's a place that will most likely satisfy even picky customers, but there are some notable speed bumps that might throw off first-time diners and those looking for simple fare. We'd recommend it as an especially strong place for a classy date in the Snyder area of Amherst.

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