6970 Transit Rd., Williamsville, NY
"Peppers and onions were obviously there but not adding much, and if something was supposed to be special in the oil, we couldn't detect it - it seemed to add only greasiness."
For a time, Buffalo's sub shops weren't just places that you wound up visiting on the way to or from somewhere else; their submarine sandwiches were, at least by local standards, something close to destination-quality meals. But over the past 10 or 15 years, something changed - blame Quiznos, Subway, or changing neighborhoods, but apart from Jim's SteakOut, locally-owned sub shop chains such as Mike's have either disappeared or significantly downsized. Then there's DiBella's Old Fashioned Submarines, with three locations in Buffalo's suburbs and an interesting backstory: it was founded in 1918 in Rochester, where it operates seven restaurants, and when Wegmans decided to offer fresh subs at its stores, it bought DiBella's recipes and techniques. That's quite an endorsement, right?
The secret to the company's success seems to revolve around one thing: bread. Rather than bringing loaves in from other bakeries, DiBella's locations have their own on-site ovens, and offer four types of rolls - plain, multigrain, sesame, and "everything." Expel any image you may have in your mind of a hard, two-day-old baguette taking a puncturing slice down the center and spraying dusty crumbs into the air like a ninja in a samurai movie. Whatever else can be said about a DiBella's sandwich, there's absolutely no question that the bread is going to be completely fresh, soft, and if not inherently flavorful, certainly no distraction from whatever else it includes. Virtually all of the subs are sold in three sizes - small, medium, and large - and the menu has little else to offer besides these sandwiches.
But is fresh bread enough to make a sub great? Of course not, and once we got past the rolls, we didn't find much to like in DiBella's offerings. We were initially intrigued by the Hot Roast Beef Sub, available only at the Rochester and Buffalo locations because the meat's provided by a Batavia-based prime rib and steakhouse called Red Osier. Sold only in a small 7" size, and ordered with a plain roll, the Roast Beef Sub was filled with plainly sliced, dry beef that we found to be all but devoid of flavor and appeal. If it hadn't been for the included cup of beef broth, which transformed the sub into a French Dip and added only a little to the plain beef and bread, we probably wouldn't have finished the sandwich. DiBella's may need a Red Osier on site alongside the bakery.
Another sandwich, the Meatballs in Marinara with Mozzarella, also suffered from the curse of mediocre meat. Since DiBella's offers patrons their choice of a standard portion of oil, mayo, horseradish, lettuce, tomato, onion, three types of mustard, three types of peppers, or four types of cheese, we decided to add onions and hot peppers to this one in an effort to produce something with some pep. On a positive note, DiBella's meatballs were big enough that the few veggies were dwarfed inside the multigrain roll, but regrettably, nothing inside really seemed to taste that great: the bun absorbed the little marinara that had been put inside, and the meatballs could almost as easily have been matzoh balls in flavor and texture. It was the first time we could recall having a meatball sub with so little inherent flavor or spice; we wouldn't ever order it again.
We tried a third sub, DiBella's Cheesesteak with Peppers and Onions, with plain mustard, "DiBella's Famous Oil Dressing," lettuce, and provolone cheese. Unlike the roast beef sandwich, this one's available at all of DiBella's locations, and contained chunks of beef rather than Red Osier's slices, but the issue was the same: the meat was really unimpressive in flavor, depending on the surrounding items for help. They didn't do their part, as the peppers and onions were obviously there but not adding much, and if something was supposed to be special in the oil, we couldn't detect it - all it seemed to add was greasiness. Only the provolone made a little dent; it was melted nicely, and tasted fine. This was the best of the subs, and we'd give it perhaps two stars out of four.
Our meal ended better, with one of Grandma DiBella's Old Fashioned Chocolate Chip Cookies, popular enough that they're offered as large individual items, with or without nuts, and also in multi-packs of smaller cookies to go. Like the cookies at Great Northern Pizza Company, we were entirely pleased by the freshness, softness, and flavor here, noting that we'd have considered returning for one of these, if nothing else. But obviously, a good cookie does not a sub shop make, and in all honesty, we can't see ourselves rushing back to DiBella's any time soon; meat flavor strikes us as too critical to a good sandwich to pass up in favor of an especially soft roll, so for the time being, we'll make our occasional sub runs to places that do a better job with the interiors of their sandwiches. Given the prices and flavors, we'd pick a Banh Mi from 99 Fast Food any day, and a Quiznos or Subway would do the trick, too.