By Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette — If you love the handmade orecchiette pasta at Westby’s Pub in Wheatfield, you will have a famous Italian cookbook author to thank.
Marcella Hazan, an internationally lauded Italian cook whose books are credited for bringing traditional Italian cooking to the United States, once sent Western New York native Joe Venezia to work in Italy to prepare him for his post as head chef in her Atlanta restaurant.
So these days, when he makes the orecchiette at Westby’s, handcrafting the pasta that gets its name from looking like “little ears,” he is using skills he learned under her guidance.
Just recently, Venezia returned to his Niagara region roots to reinvent the kitchen at Westby’s Pub, at 6935 Ward Road in Wheatfield. He moved his family back to the area when his father became ill. They decided to stay and Venezia was offered the job of head chef at Westby’s.
While Venezia has some impressive credentials from his years at the Bel-Air Hotel in Los Angeles where he mingled with celebrities from Wolfgang Puck to Ringo Starr, and where he creates a wedding meal for Nancy Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, it is the training he received in Italy that may endear him to the hearts of his Western New York customers.
While the written menu remains the same, offering favorites from pizza to pasta to strip steak, virtually everything has changed about the preparation. Venezia said when he took the job as head chef at Westby’s he copied a famous TV chef’s behavior by throwing out nearly everything in the freezer.
“I basically did a Gordon Ramsey two months ago when I got here,” he said, “although I don’t yell and scream like he does.”
Venezia prides himself on using all fresh foods, nothing frozen, from chicken wings to handmade pizza dough and pasta. He even roasts the beef for the beef on weck, and uses fresh fish for the Friday fish fry. Even the desserts are made by hand. “That was my first move … to turn Westby’s into a place that deals in fresh food. If nothing else, I knew that would make a big difference and it did.”
Venezia does not seem to be afraid to talk up his food. “My big complaint is that sometimes I sit down at a restaurant and look at the menu and I think to myself, ‘I don’t want anything on the menu.’ On our menu, I could order everything,” he said.
“You come over here for dinner you’ll have the best meal you’ve had in a long time,” he added.
Abban Westby, who co-owns the restaurant and bar with his partner, Bill Occhino, says the new chef is just a simple guy who is passionate about food and has changed the restaurant’s menu to more like that of a trendsetting “gastro-pub,” where traditional tavern food is handmade from scratch.
“He makes his own chips, french fries, and breads his own chicken,” he said, noting the chef also makes his own soups for the new “fast lunch” soup and salad bar. “His passion is crazy — he’s like a 21-year-old kid,” Westby said of the father of four.
The best part is that the new chef enjoys sharing his cooking expertise, which spreads his wealth of knowledge among those who work with him.
“He enjoys teaching,” Westby added. “You can see him teaching the guys in the kitchen and they’re really enjoying it.”
Contact Features Editor
at 282-2311, ext. 2263.IF YOU GO WHO: Westby's Pub and Eatery WHERE: 6935 Ward Road., Wheatfield FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call 260-1863 or visit www.westbysbuffalo.com