1329 Niagara St., Buffalo, NY 14213
"The cheese flowed over the mound's sides like a gooey, dairy Niagara Falls, and the squeezably soft, lightly garlicky bread made us want to eat every bite."
Look. It's right there, in the first picture. Can you guess what it is? Hint: Santasiero's has sold this item in Buffalo for decades, and we know people who actually trekked in from the suburbs to bring it home to their families. If you guessed tomato sauce - yes, seriously - you're right. Since we were on an Italian kick this weekend, we decided to stop by this long-standing Niagara Street restaurant to try the sauce, and also paid a visit to Guercio & Sons (250 Grant St., Buffalo, NY 14213, 716.882.7935), quite possibly the most famous Italian market in the area. Both offer similar old-world charms and low prices with little pretense, catering to everyone from thrill-seeking gourmets to price-conscious neighboring families.
Let's start with Santasiero's, where virtually all of the menu items are touted on huge boards that have been wall-mounted in two small dining rooms. One of these rooms includes an old-fashioned bar and a partially open kitchen, with tables that double as waiting spots for take-out orders; the other is just for seating, with similar 1950's and 1960's decor. Between the wood paneling, the sign touting its 81 years in business, and the staff shirts noting that Santasiero's has been family-operated for five generations, it's obvious that this place wants you to know that it's proud to be old.
One common thread in the menu is the aforementioned tomato sauce: billed as "the Original Sauce," it's an ingredient in most of the dishes, and the place also sells it in containers to go for $4.50 a quart, or $3.25 a pint. That's roughly the same price per ounce as buying a bottle of Ragu or Classico at the store. While we didn't find the sauce to be stunning in any way, we definitely liked it: it's obviously fresh, a little sweet and a little chunky; it helps that Santasiero's uses it to drown the items it arrives with.
Take for instance the Ravioli, served on the half-plate we ordered for $6.25, or full-sized for $7.50. Our black-rimmed but otherwise white china dish arrived with eight or ten of the soft, ricotta cheese-filled noodle pockets, but the red sauce so overwhelmed them that we had to fish for them with our forks. That actually turned out to be fun, as each of the raviolis was an unexpectedly sweet treat: the sauce's mild sugar content seemed tame by comparison with the ricotta in the raviolis, which wasn't at a dessert-like cannoli-level, but still had a decidedly fresh and surprisingly sweet taste. We were impressed.
Santasiero's approach to using mozzarella cheese also earned some smiles. An order of Garlic Bread with Cheese ($5.25) was deliberately over-the-top, a thick mini-loaf that had been sliced in half, garlic-buttered up, and then placed in an oven under an oversized sheet of mozzarella. The cheese flowed over the mound's sides like a gooey, dairy Niagara Falls, and the squeezably soft, lightly garlicky bread made us want to eat every bite. We weren't quite as blown away by the Chicken Parmesan ($8.75), which looked surprisingly beautiful by parm standards due to a thin top cheese layer and an ample dose of the red sauce; the sauce separated the twin cutlets from a bed of included spaghetti. For the price, this was a nice plate and an ample meal, but the breaded chicken was only decent and the sauce ran low by the time we reached the plain pasta.
Thankfully, we had ordered a side plate that came in handy here: an Italian Sausage ($2.50 each) and a single large meatball ($1.50 each) showed up on a dish together, hidden under another generous layer of sauce. We called on these items when the pasta's sauce ran low, and used a little to help wet the spaghetti down. Mildly spiced and properly cooked, the sausage was good, and the meatball was fine, though the sauce competed with and most often overwhelmed their flavors.
For the time being, we're not rating Santasiero's, as there are still menu items - sandwiches, bombers, soups and a special chili - that we'd like to evaluate first, but our impressions thus far are generally positive. In a city that has too many Italian restaurants to count, some old and established, some newer or transient, far too few are affordable or special in any real way. Between its prices, sauce, cheeses, and ravioli, Santasiero's is a standout, though its old school approach - particularly the dated decor - will definitely make different impressions on different visitors. Some will be charmed by its age, while others will see it as an old place in need of renovations. We'll offer more opinions after we've stopped back again.
While Santasiero's is a solid choice for a cheap, quality Italian meal, Guercio and Sons is probably the City's best place to find affordable, high-quality Italian ingredients to make your own such meal at home. Occupying somewhat less than a quarter of a street block at the intersection of Grant and Lafayette, the 48-year-old Guercio's contrasts sharply with the area's destination-class Wegmans supermarkets, large, numerous stores with plenty of options for their many types of customers. This place is instead in the same single location it occupied back in 1961 - now in the middle of an increasingly Arabic residential area - and focuses almost exclusively on selling a wide and deep selection of Italian goods.
But unlike Wegmans, which comes across as focused on the needs of individual consumers, Guercio's has two sides. The market's consumer storefront is on Grant Street, an old-fashioned storefront that caters to individual customers, but on Lafayette, there's a commercial and truck entry for delivery vehicles that supply many of the area's Italian restaurants. Collectively, these entries are the ends of an L-like set of buildings that are surrounded by houses on all sides, with a considerable amount of space allocated to storage for the restaurant supply side of the business.
The reasons for Guercio's continued success on both fronts are quickly apparent. Once you step into the place past its small sidewalk produce section, which we found bursting with bright red tomatoes and rich green avocados - the latter at half Wegmans' price - the "something special" signs are hard to escape: we walked by rack after rack of different, interesting pastas, big stacks of San Marzano tomatoes, and an overwhelming olive oil section with more options than we'd have ever guessed one store would carry. Look carefully and you'll see things that are hard or impossible to find at local supermarkets: large boxes of Reko-branded, Maple-flavored Pizzelle cookies for $2.89, alongside tons of different maple syrups, jars of jam in niche flavors such as Strawberry-Rhubarb, and Italian deli meats, sausages, and salads in a refrigerator section. The selection is so broad and so deep that it's easy to assume that anything Italian you've seen elsewhere can be found here, but it's more accurate to say that - specific brands aside - virtually anything Italian can be either found or made from what's here, and inexpensively at that. Thus, if you're looking for a place to buy a box of pre-made, chocolate-dipped cannoli shells, Guercio's has them; it also sells fresh-filled cannolis, ready to eat, in its deli.
Somewhat surprisingly, there's also a fair selection of non-Italian items, as well: we spotted some Chinese ingredients near the back, with Arabic items, dates, and sugar waffles in the front, alongside plastic-boxed nuts, and a corner devoted to fresh but common fruits and vegetables. They're obviously not the highlight of the store, and by comparison with places like Wegmans, it's obvious that Guercio's is outclassed and wildly outnumbered on these sorts of offerings - they seem to be there mostly to offer local patrons something closer to the one-stop shopping than they'd otherwise find at a store that's purely focused on one culture's cuisine.
Yet even if Guercio's isn't a supermarket in scale, it certainly strikes us as a super market in quality. We picked up a few items here for a gift basket, and see this as a nice option for future gourmet Italian shopping - a way to make great, restaurant-quality meals at home without breaking the bank. Though its location isn't as convenient as we and certainly other suburbanites might prefer, we're looking forward to visiting again, and willing to make the occasional trip to do so.