By Michele DeLuca email@example.com
Niagara Gazette — There are two things that stand out among the online reviews of Osteria 166 restaurant in Buffalo.
Many reviews mention being personally greeted by owner Nick Pitillo. A Canadian couple who came in one night just before closing reported how graciously they were treated, despite the late hour.
Both had served in restaurants before, according to the reviewer, “Kate H.,” and after Pitillo agreed to feed them, they asked jokingly if he would “hate them,” for holding up closing. To this, he was said to reply “Of course not, I’m going to welcome you like you are family and thank you genuinely for coming.”
When asked about that review, Pitillo said later that his idea of Italian food is all about treating people like family. His restaurant, decorated by his sister, Kim Pitillo, and designer Michael Neffke of Niagara Falls, includes Pitillo family photos hung throughout.
“To me, serving Italian food, it’s kind of like you’re in my home and we’re breaking bread,” he said.
Many reviewers on sites including Yelp and Urban Spoon lauded the authentic, Italian food served in the restaurant, which is located at Franklin and Mohawk streets in Buffalo and which Pitillo has named Osteria because it means “casual pub” in Italian.
The kitchen staff, led by Jeff Cooke of Grand Island, has created a menu that includes handmade sausage and cured meats, as well as traditional favorites such as “Nani’s Sunday Sauce and meatballs.”
A lot of the menu items come from family recipes, including ravioli handmade by Nick’s mother, but the kitchen is led by Cooke, who recently won two awards at The Buffalo Soup Fest, with his line chef, Joanna Congi, former head chef of Wine on Third in Niagara Falls.
In a creative effort led by Congi, the team submitted a broccolini gorgonzola cream soup that won two awards, including Best Vegetarian Soup and Fan Favorite.
Of their collaboration, Congi said, “He’s one of the best chef’s I’ve ever met. He teaches us and he works with us. He’s right next to you whether in thick or thin.”
Both Cooke and Congi met Pitillo when he was general manager of two Italian restaurants, La Cascata at the Seneca Niagara Casino and Patria at the Seneca Allegheny Casino.
Cooke oversees a menu that includes homemade touches including bread delivered in a paper bag and scissors accompanying the pizzas to make slicing easier. The restaurant also uses locally produced goods as often as possible, including pork from T-Meadow Farms in Lockport.
“We do so much from scratch right here,” Cooke said. “I say, ‘God made it and all I have to do is not screw it up.’ “
He calls his opportunity to lead the kitchen “the most positive professional experience of my life.”
“Not only is it eye opening, but it’s really, really rewarding,” he said. “It’s great people, keeping it as real as possible.”
The recipe for Osteria 166’s award-winning Soupfest submission, the broccolini gorgonzola soup, is below:
Broccolini gorgonzola soup
1/2 cup butter
1 white onion
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups vegetable stock
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
Crushed red pepper
1 cup gorgonzola cheese
Salt and pepper
11/2 cups broccolini
Sauté onions with butter over medium-high heat for five to seven minutes. Add salt. Add flour and cook for two minutes. While whisking, add vegetable stock. Turn heat down to medium low. Then add milk and heavy cream.
Add crushed red pepper to taste. Adjust salt, pepper and gorgonzola to your liking. Cut broccolini into bite-sized pieces. Add to soup and cook until broccolini is tender. Just before serving, top with croutons and/or more gorgonzola cheese.