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Alla Famiglia

Grilled octopus crostini with red wine vinegar-spiked aioli and arugula pesto. (photo by Caitlin Peekstok)

At Osteria 166, old and new friends, at the bar and on the menu

Restaurant owner Nick Pitillo has a reputation. Ask any one of the employees at Osteria 166, his new casual Italian eatery across from the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center (formerly Frankie Mohawk’s), and they’ll all tell you the same thing—he is one of the most genuinely warm, friendly people you’ll ever meet.

From what I witnessed the evening my husband and I cozied up to the bar at Osteria, their sentiments are spot-on, and his personality seems to have rubbed off on his restaurant. From the moment we sat down, we felt as welcome as if we were dining with family. Nick greeted every guest who walked through the door as if he had known him or her for years. Other customers at the bar, people we had never met, engaged us in conversation about food and drink as if we were old friends. All around us, people embraced, shook hands, and caught up on old times. Others met for the first time. It was a convivial atmosphere, and no one was made to feel like an outsider.

In Italian, an osteria is a casual gathering place, similar to a pub or tavern, that serves wine and simple, good food. Nick has created that at Osteria 166 with an affordable wine list (30 of the bottles are priced under $30), laid-back atmosphere, and soulful food that pays homage to his rich family history. The Pitillos, you see, have been in the restaurant business for 100 years. The family’s namesake eatery, immortalized in a photo that hangs by the bar, stood on Electric Avenue in Lackawanna for decades.

Nick is quick to point out, though, that Osteria isn’t a classic red sauce joint. Yes, you can get spaghetti and meatballs if you are feeling nostalgic, but you can also order house-made lobster tortellacci in a saffron brodo or grilled octopus crostini with red wine vinegar-spiked aioli and arugula pesto. Executed by head chef Jeff Cooke, it is a menu that celebrates Italian-American food all the while embracing contemporary tastes and technique. As one fellow patron put it, “It’s food that speaks to the heart.”

More importantly, though, the food—what we tried of it anyway—is good.

Highlights of our evening included an appetizer of homemade burrata—a thin shell of mozzarella filled, in this case, with mascarpone. The lactic, creamy cheese was luxurious and addictive when slathered on perfectly scorched bread with stewed tomatoes and fruity olive oil. For $8, it served two generously.

The aforementioned octopus crostini is Osteria’s best-selling appetizer and for good reason. The bitter arugula played nicely with the bright, acidic notes of freshly squeezed lemon—their delicious attributes bound together by the aioli and a good hit of salt. Smokey char on the octopus countered the freshness, adding necessary depth.

Next, a bowl of campanelle with house-made Italian sausage, rapini, garlic, tomatoes, and cream was hearty and satisfying—the kind of food you’d want to tuck into on a rainy day. The lingering heat from the moderately spicy sausage and the acid from the tomatoes helped keep the richness in check.

For dessert, we sampled the delightfully cakey, delicately flavored cinnamon-sugar zeppole and lightly battered deep-fried strawberries, which turned soft and deliciously jammy under the stress of the hot oil. We dipped both in chocolate sauce and cleaned our plates, despite being full from previous courses.

We left that evening with plans to make return visits to Osteria 166, eager to sample more of the menu. At the top of my must-try list are the restaurant’s flat-iron pizzas. As soon as I saw one being delivered to a nearby customer, in all its craggy, crusty glory, I regretted not ordering one for myself. I’d also be more than happy to try any of Osteria’s sandwiches, only one of which—the veal—will set you back more than $10. The porchetta and eggplant versions call to me in particular.

Luckily, I have plenty of opportunities to make return visits. The restaurant is in walking distance of many downtown offices (mine included) and offers an express weekday lunch service for those who need to get in and out fast. The menu is coded to help you identify the items the kitchen can have on your table in a matter of minutes.

Or I could head over after work. This Friday, 4-7pm, is Osteria’s first happy hour, featuring $1 off house wine, beer, and well drinks and some yet-to-be-determined appetizer specials. Nick is also working on a cocktail program, which he hopes to debut by then. I highly recommend checking it out and staying for dinner while you’re at it. In addition to the menu available online, Osteria offers seasonal steak, seafood, pasta, and pizza specials.

I, for one, am excited to have found a place of such quality and character so far downtown. I imagine I’ll be there again soon. Just look for the girl on the patio, drink in hand, devouring a pizza.

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