Filippo's Real Italian
Italian restaurants are much loved here in Western New York. People from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds cherish the hearty, homestyle flavors of this Mediterranean cuisine. However, for the large group of immigrant and first-generation Italians here in Buffalo, several of the local Italian restaurants miss the mark.
With a mother from Calabria (southern Italy) and some training in the culinary arts, I fall into this category of disenchanted Italians yearning for true Italian cuisine. So upon walking into Filippo’s Ristorante Italiano, I hoped with all my heart that this one would be different; that this one would right the wrongs done for so many years, by so many “Italian Restaurants.”
As I entered Filippo’s, past its noir colors, modern lighting, and classic Italian background, I was welcomed by Andrea. He was not a host asking me, “How many will we be seating today?” He was a singer of Italian songs (every Friday and Saturday) and the sound was pleasing. This was a good start to what became an extremely satisfying evening.
I sat down with the owners of the restaurant, Filippo (Phil) and Dave Gambino. Filippo moved here from Brooklyn 10 years ago. After running a restaurant in Lewiston for about 6 years, he moved to his current location at 1264 Hertel Avenue. It was obvious from the start that Phil is passionate about his food. His passion translated into savory, well though-out dishes. His offerings are so authentic that before becoming a partner in the restaurant, Dave Gambino ate there every day.
“I ate here so much, I figured I should just buy into the business,” Dave explained as I received a tour of the kitchen. There I met head chef Angelo Marinello, and sous-chef Nelson Torre. They had no time to chit-chat as the dinner rush was fast approaching. Phil then showed me the bread station, where they make their own bread daily (no prefab rolls here). The muffaleta dough was the star of the bakery. It takes 24 hours to properly rise (Subway rolls take about 3). I couldn’t wait to sit down at my table and try some. The muffaleta bread was light and fluffy with a buttery finish. If that was all I ate that day I would have been happy, but Phil and Dave suggested a few appetizers that were unlike anything I’ve tasted before.
The first appetizer was the stuffed peppers ($8 a plate), with a smooth pecorino cheese sauce complemented by creamy gorgonzola. The heat of this pepper was just right. It wasn’t too hot, but it was flavorful. Next came the involtini di melenzane ($7 a plate). These thin slices of eggplant were filled with ricotta cheese, tomato and covered with mozzarella. It melted in my mouth—tender as can be.
To top off my appetizer extravaganza I was served an arancini, or stuffed rice ball ($8 for two large servings). This award winning rice ball (2006 Taste of Buffalo winner) is deep fried for a short time (enough to brown the breading) and then baked to perfection. Its finish is so clean and delicious you would never guess it was put in oil. Every element worked together (the rice, the breading, the peas) to form a single, coherent work of art.
When my discussion with Phil and Dave ended, I was greeted by my waiter, Gabe. Gabe was an anomaly in local Italian restaurants; he actually spoke Italian. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken relatives from Italy to Italian restaurants here in America, where nobody on staff can speak Italian (okay, every time). Gabe handed me the wine list. As I glanced over the stock I noticed something peculiar that made me laugh. This place is so Italian that the wines from California are listed in the International Section. The price range satisfies the most frugal of customers, as well as the clientele that doesn’t mind spending top-dollar for the most sought after vintages.
As I enjoyed my wine choice (pinot noir) I glanced over the entrée menu. Sitting in an authentic Italian restaurant, I selected my primi e secondi (first and second courses). To start, I chose the gnocchi Bolognese ($12). This dish was served with a creamy Bolognese sauce that went well with the texture of the gnocchi. Gnocchi is such a unique food. Made of potato and flour, its rich consistency goes well with a velvety sauce. Filippo’s nailed this concept.
The crowning glory of my night came with la specialita del giorno (the special of the day). It was the sea bass livornese ($26). I was served an incredible cut of sea bass, sautéed and lightly dressed with capers, roasted garlic, black olives, and fresh tomato, then finished with white wine. Every bite was better than the last. The lowest point of the night was when I looked down at the plate and realized it was over.
I finished my meal with a beautiful cappuccino and a stracciatela, a parfait consisting of chocolate, mascarpone and a hint of hazelnut (every good Italian dessert has a hint of hazelnut). The last time I had a dessert like that I was in Italy--Pizzo, Calabria to be exact.
What a night, what a dinner, what a restaurant. If you are looking for a truly unique Italian dinning experience, I strongly recommend driving to Hertel Avenue and going to Filippo’s. Its clean, fresh décor will charm you, and its food will ravage you.
Above: Angelo, Filippo and Nelson