Picasso's + Second Helpings: Zetti's, Eastern Pearl + Sake Cafe

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Picasso's Pizza
6812 Transit Rd. Williamsville, NY 14221
Web: Picasso's Pizza
Phone: 716.631.0222
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We're unusually crunched for time this week because of our work on iLounge's 2010 iPod and iPhone Buyers' Guide (enter the contest, cast your vote), but we wanted to post a summary of some of our recent local dining experiences, including one restaurant that we've visited before but not reviewed, as well as updates to three of our past reviews. A warning going in: they're not the happiest items we've ever posted, but we feel obliged to share both the good and the bad with you, so they're all in one article for your reading convenience. We'll have more new (and worthwhile) restaurants to share with you in the very near future.

Picasso's: Nearly twenty years ago - sigh, twenty years - we used to order pizzas and wings from a handful of different Buffalo- and Amherst-based pizzerias - Bocce's, Picasso's, Palladino's, Santora's, and Tomatoes, just to name a few - and the list changed and shrunk over time. Picasso's was one that fell off the list; by contrast with Palladino's in particular, its pizzas and wings were forgettable, and there wasn't much else on the menu that we cared about at the time. Fast forward to 2009, and there are a few Picasso's locations in Western New York, a couple of which we've driven by with enough frequency to wonder what if anything had changed.

Simple answer: the menu's improved - almost excitingly so - but the food quality hasn't; this still isn't a Palladino's- or Bocce's-caliber experience, or even close. Everything we ordered with bread or breading arrived soggy, with the appealing-sounding "1/2 Lb. Onion Rings" ($3) in particular starting out nearly inedible due to their moist batter. That's part of the reason we both shrugged after digging into the Medium-sized Pizza (four items, $15.30), which apart from some legitimately good spicy pepperoni and its generous quantity of toppings was really unimpressive in flavor, and as damp as a microwaved pie. Ten Chicken Wings ($8) were as bland as could be, even when ordered extra hot. Thankfully they weren't moist; instead, they were close to bone dry and barely spicy. An order of three Stuffed Hot Peppers ($4.15) came absolutely loaded with cheese, but neither the peppers nor the cheese had much going on in the flavor department, despite menu promises of "a little zing."

Surprising? No. So-so food was the reason we shifted away from Picasso's orders years ago, and though the menu has some appealing-sounding items these days, such as Spinach & Roasted Red Pepper Garlic Bread ($5.20)- light on the red peppers, fair on the cheese and spinach quantities, bland in flavor - what we had was just passable across the board, and really not worth repeating.

Picasso's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Zetti's Pizza & Pasta. We reviewed Zetti's back in April, rating it two stars - in essence, "fine, but we wouldn't go back." The place specializes in "New York" pizza, by which it doesn't mean traditional coal-fired Lombardi's-style pizza, but rather thinnish-crust pizza by the slice. Big counters at Zetti's restaurants display a wide variety of roughly room temperature, pre-sliced pizzas that you can select from and get reheated for a quick bite of whatever interests you. After sampling an almost crazy array of these pizzas, plus soup, salad, and more, we weren't impressed. But a commenter, hinting at some inside knowledge of the place, claimed that the freshly-made pizzas were "excellent." So after Zetti's opened a third location (7566 Transit Rd., Williamsville, NY 14221, 716.839.2018) in Williamsville, we decided to give the place another chance.

This experience was different from the one before, but not much better. Zetti's new location is a larger version of its Maple venue, with similar decor spread out to fill the footprint of a former Roadhouse Grill restaurant. Rather than ordering a ton of slices, we ordered two full, freshly-made pies, one traditional and one not. The traditional pizza was topped with pepperoni, ham, onions, and hot cherry peppers; the other was a Barbecue Chicken pizza with a sweet barbecue sauce and plenty of chunks of chicken on top. We also ordered a couple of other items, a Pepperoni Roll, and some Eggplant Sticks, to see how they'd taste. Strong, sweet smells from the chicken pizza had us salivating from moment one, and we were ready to be charmed.

Unfortunately, the food wasn't great. The Eggplant Sticks were fat finger-sized slices of eggplant, lightly battered, deep-fried, and served with a good cup of tomato sauce for dipping; they were nearly soggy straight out of the box, and became less fun to eat with every degree they dropped in temperature, such that we didn't want to finish them. We had mixed experiences with the Pepperoni Roll, a Calzone-like bread wrap turned into a housing for pepperoni and cheese; one of us found it dull until discovering a big pocket of tasty pepperoni nestled in one of the corners, overwhelming the otherwise bread-heavy taste with meat and spice, while the other didn't get a big lump of pepperoni, and found it boring throughout.

Then there were the pizzas. In short, they were a little better than the slices we'd had before - the same stuff, without having sat on a counter for hours - but they still weren't good enough to want to order them again. Those spicy cherry peppers were the traditional pizza's best ingredient, not superior to the different peppers we've had on many other pizzas, but enough to give Zetti's pizza a nice little kick. Onions were shredded so thin as to lose most of their taste impact on the tongue, though their texture was definitely interesting, and the pepperoni and ham were similarly reasonable in quantity but forgettable in flavor. The Barbecue Pizza was in the "okay" range, with a lot of cheese that could have used some cilantro or other accent to break it up, interrupted only by bland chunks of chicken that were cooked fully but without special flavor. Apart from the sauce, which smelled better than it tasted, there wasn't much memorable to eat here, and we couldn't help but feel like we would have been better off picking up frozen California Pizza Kitchen items at the supermarket. Crusts on both pizzas were thinner than the typical Buffalo pizza but not quite at cardboard level, and in no way distinctive by comparison with the coal-fired pies we've had in the City. Our verdict remains the same: two stars, two and a quarter at best. We're not planning another visit.

Zetti's Pizza and Pasta on Urbanspoon

Eastern Pearl: There is an important difference between wanting a restaurant to be great and actually discovering that it is great; covered in a previous article, the Cantonese-focused Chinese restaurant Eastern Pearl exemplifies this difference. We have at this point visited four or more times since it opened, every time hoping for a meal that was memorable enough to call great. That hasn't happened. To the contrary, literally every dinner we've had at the place has been forgettable except for the ambience, which is unquestionably several notches above any other Chinese place in Buffalo or its suburbs. This is a place to have a nice meal, but not a place to expect anything earth-shattering; we've had better Chinese food at less impressively decorated local places.

We could go into great detail regarding our subsequent meals, but there really isn't much more that needs to be said other than that they were fine. Seafood is Eastern Pearl's strong point - a Seafood Delight ($15), for instance, was a big plate of prawns, scallops, squid, seemingly artificial crab and vegetables in a conventional white sauce, and a bowl of Seafood Noodles Soup ($8) was a sub-entree-sized portion of thin egg noodles topped with the same seafood items, scallions, and a chicken broth. All of the fresh seafood dishes we've tried here have been acceptable in flavor, simple rather than dressed up in any way, but nothing has stood out on preparation or taste; it was just there. Mongolian Beef ($12), Spicy Shredded Beef ($11), and other entrees were competent renditions, similarly not much better than one would find at a local take-out. That having been said, the prices are reasonable enough given the surroundings that we'd cut Eastern Pearl some slack; in many cases, you'll find that you'd pay as much to eat the same dishes in much dumpier settings.

Appetizers have been a fairly consistent Eastern Pearl weakness. The various Egg Rolls ($4 for two), Dumplings ($5 each), and standard soups ($3-$5 per bowl) range from poor to okay, hitting buffet quality at times and cresting only with the soups; Chicken Lettuce Wraps ($7) are by contrast generously proportioned and fresh enough, though in no way memorable in flavor - a brown soy marinate makes the warm ground chicken filling good enough to stand apart from the cold lettuce leaves you stuff yourself. Sadly, Small Juicy Buns Shanghai Style ($5), or soft-skinned dumplings with pork and soup inside, have on two occasions been mediocre due either to inexpert storage, preparation, or sourcing; we've had much better versions at home after bringing home freezer bags from Ni Hoowa. We've sampled many other dishes, of course, but our comments are mostly the same; service has varied only a little from visit to visit, always friendly and generally attentive, but not always on the ball. Apart from the front counter staff, which on some days actually includes the former proprietor of the sadly shuttered Rita's Crystal Palace, more polish continues to be needed.

As we've said before, Western New York needs a truly great Chinese restaurant, and to our chagrin, Eastern Pearl isn't it... yet. While it fills the class gap left when Chang's Garden burned down, and provides a far nicer venue for Chinese dining than any other place in the suburbs, the food quality is only enough to merit a "good" rating from us. We'll return, but with less enthusiasm than we'd hoped; hopefully Eastern Pearl will find some way to really stand out in the months and years to come.

Sake Cafe: Our 2008 visits to this Asian fusion restaurant were so throughly depressing that we'd planned never to return, and we have been entirely content to just try and forget its awful renditions of satay and the like. But friends suggested that we give it another try - a change in management, perhaps? - and we obliged with a visit, hoping for the best. Little had changed, except there were relatively few people in the place, and staffers seemed to be watching tables like hawks, eliminating any sense of privacy or comfort we might have taken in our meal. It was another sad reminder of the venue's glory days as the comfy, always-delicious Shepherd's, where patrons might have seen their friends, but never felt as if they were under surveillance by the staff.

In an effort to avoid a repeat experience of our prior meals, which had included some spectacularly bad renditions of interesting-sounding items, we went mostly with "safe," conventional picks this time. Though it wasn't great, the most memorable part of the meal was a "Miso Eggplant" ($6) appetizer, consisting of cool but cooked, lightly miso-flavored eggplant laid in alternating layers with pieces of pickled Korean kimchi cabbage - items we could eat by the pound in isolation, but found to be little more than the sum of their parts here. Overpriced Spring Rolls ($4.25) and Wonton Soup ($4) were completely and totally plain, and the sushi varied from ehh to good: we left cut Spicy Tuna and Spicy Shrimp Rolls ($5) unfinished, and found a Shrimp Tempura Hand Roll ($5) to be very drab, but the sashimi fish we ordered was as fresh as promised: kanpachi ($3) and albacore ($2.25) were cool and subtle, while the tuna ($2.25) was a rich, healthy red. We'd stick with the sushi if we were going again.

But we wouldn't. The decor's fine and the sushi's okay, but from visit to visit, we've never had a comfortable dining experience here - a big deal considering that we relax easily in Asian restaurants - and the non-sushi dishes have disappointed us too many times to bother again. We're still hoping that something better comes in to replace it, preferably sooner rather than later.

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Comments (8)

HR :

Having sampled and rated Zetti's, you should now visit Great Northern, on Main & Garrison, to make a comparison. I think you will be favorably impressed with what you find there.

Here's our Great Northern review. Yes, you're right: the food is hugely better there.

Chris :

I do not understand the average Buffalonian's taste in pizza. I have not tasted pizza in the area better than Zetti's. That is saying more about pizza in WNY than anything, but Zetti's pizza is generally very good... espcially their tomato sauce based pizzas. Bocce's is a WNY favorite, and I don't get it. Its doughy and cheesy, but that does not make good pizza... in fact that often makes a bad pizza. Just pizza is overpriced, but above average for the area. La Nova's is fine, but not great. In fact, none of these places would be successful in good pizza cities... New york and chicago in particular.

Laura :

I miss the wood-fired pizza at Giacobbi's (sp?), formerly at Main and Eggert. Does any place in WNY cook pizzas in a wood-fired (or coal-) oven? I love those charred edges on my thin crust.

Chris B :

I went to Sake Cafe in 2008 as well, and I'm very surprised you actually repeated a visit. So bad that i regretted going there midmeal. I'm surprised that it is still open.

Erik :

I agree 100% with Chris... my big question is how come in the span of 2 years has Zetti's expanded and opened 2 more restaurants? If it is that forgettable, how could they open more restaurants?

The fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as WNY pizza... you have three styles: NY Style, Chicago Style, and then pizza. WNY does not do pizza better than anyone else. It is mediocre at best.

The proof is in the pizza... go to Zetti's on Maple at 12pm... it is pretty much standing room only. It is not filled with college students from UB, it is filled with Western New Yorkers who enjoy quality pizza. The big difference between pizza found in WNY and pizza from Chicago and New York is that people care about what they are making. No conveyor belts, no missing owners... just quality. It is, in my opinion, by far the best pizza in this region.

Erik: McDonald's operates over 31,000 stores. That doesn't mean that the food is any good.

The very suggestion that people only care about what they're making in NYC or Chicago pizzas - not WNY ones - is laughable. Similarly, the statement that "there is no such thing as WNY pizza" is ridiculous. Enjoy Zetti's, but seriously, it's one thing to say that you don't like pizzas from other restaurants, and another entirely to deny that they exist or constitute a style.

We've visited Zetti's ourselves and with a number of other people. All of us have found the pizza and other food there decidedly overhyped and mediocre; there are also questions as to whether serving reheated slices is permitted or not under state law (see http://slice.seriouseats.com/archives/2009/11/dept-of-health-doh-codes-regulations-reheated-slice-pies.html). Obviously, different people have different tastes.

Andrew Z :

Few things: (1) I think that Zetti's is a nice break from traditional Buffalo pizza. It may not be the best "NY style" out there but it's fun to have a foldable thin-crist slice every once in a while. (2) I've spent 3 years of my short life in front of a pizza oven. And I can say that reheating pizza slices has always been a safe practice and mode of business. There's no difference between the slice behind the counter and the slice left in the take-out pizza box in your fridge. (3) Zetti's had to have done something really stupid in order for their Transit location to get shut down. Restaurants come and go in this town but I've never heard of a 3-month run...especially when it has two very successful (but smaller) outlets in operation elsewhere.

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