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Fiamma’s New Year’s Resolution

Having just celebrated its four-year anniversary, Fiamma Steak is turning a corner in customer satisfaction.  Always a wonderful restaurant when one was looking for a great steak dinner, Fiamma is less known for all of the other incredible menu items.  For instance, did you know that Fiamma is the best place to get fried chicken in the city?  Hands down, Fiamma’s fried chicken may be the best north of the Mason-Dixon line, and that’s just one surprise this restaurant on the corner of Starin and Hertel holds.

Resolution wise, co-owner Joe Mantione says, “We learned a lot from Restaurant week last year.  The house was packed every night, and we extended it an extra week, just to be able to accept the reservations we had to turn away the first week.”
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So Mantione (right) and his partner, Chef Noel Morreale, are going to offer five nightly entrees for $20.10, Monday through Saturday, of the 2010 year.  CIA trained Chef Matt Zoda says, “You could always come in here and get three or four great meals from the menu – a meat, a vegetable, a starch – for under twenty dollars, but people who weren’t regulars often didn’t realize that.”
Maybe it was the valet parking, the swanky curb appeal, or simply the impression that Fiamma is a “regular” steakhouse, but that’s the image the trio was able to shed during restaurant week, and that’s what the boys are playing on for the new year.  “People may have been intimidated until they walked in the door,” Mantione says, “but that’s not what the Fiamma experience is.”
A downtown dweller, Mantione says he’s been known to visit a chain restaurant or two on occasion.  “Two people can spend eighty or ninety dollars there easily,” he says.  “You can do that here and get better food, so why not?”

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The downstairs of the restaurant is divided into three parts.  There’s the dining area, the huge restaurant kitchen, and guests enter into the bar/lounge area that’s smack in the middle with a two-sided, glass enclosed fireplace that serves the lounge and dining areas, giving off a soft glow and warmth.  
The entire upstairs has restaurant seating also, and can be rented as a whole for special occasions. And now that they’ve settled in nicely, they plan on doing a lot more catering.  “There’s a call,” Mantione says, “and we’re ready.”
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At the fully stocked bar, Fiamma has a few signature drinks, the one Tom “Ski” Skibinski (the man with two skis in his name) served up came in a tall glass with muddled strawberries at the bottom, accompanied by a healthy shot of dragonberry vodka and Limonata, a gently carbonated Italian lemonade.  Next to that, he placed a big martini glass full of homemade potato chips, dusted with Fiamma’s special dry steak seasoning, and accompanied by a salsa/mayo dip.
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“So, if a person wanted to come in and just hang around the lounge for drinks, you’d provide the chips and the fireplace?” we asked. Mantione says it happens all the time.  “We don’t have a dress code here; you can be comfortable no matter what you wear,” he explains. “People come in wearing jeans and button-downs, people come in wearing suits after work.  We got a four-star rating off the bat, which may have set our reputation, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect our personality.” (Hostess Nichole Wittman, right.)

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And what about take-out if we don’t want to take our sweats off, but we want

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 good food?  “Pull up to the valet, and he’ll get it for you,” Mantione answers.  “That’s what we’re here for.  We do some take-out every night, not a ton, but our signature chopped salad (above, left), mac and cheese (right).  Those are pretty popular.”  

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In the dining room, Mantione points out that the restaurant looks like anything but a typical steakhouse.  It’s open, airy, glassed in, soft-hued – in short, comfortable and inviting.  Morreale (left) and Mantione have known each other since kindergarten, and Mantione says, “Noel’s the restaurant guy.  He ran some of the best restaurants in Las Vegas, and when he came back and we found this place, he was sold on the kitchen.  The rest we completed in a year with our bare hands. One of our goals was to move away from the traditional steakhouse with dark wood that says ‘men’s club’.  We created a lighter atmosphere.” 
 
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We sit next to a table full of bankers, and can’t help but eavesdrop.  Two are from Buffalo, one from North Carolina and one from Boston, we learn later.  The story we overheard was about the night before, when they were in New York City at a legendary steakhouse.  There, they were seated and were immediately asked what they wanted.  They asked if there were menus, to which their waitress answered, “Yeah, but they’re kind of dusty.”
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Steak with Tobacco Onions
We mentioned this to our waiter, Dan Reisch, who said, “Probably Peter Luger under the Williamsville Bridge in Brooklyn.  See, that’s the difference between a steakhouse and a steak-based restaurant, which is what we are – the next evolution.  In a steakhouse there’s not a lot of choices.  We have choices, and we make decisions as a team here, working on our likes, our tastes, and done in a specific way.  We’re particular about sourcing our local producers and distributors for wines, pro
duce, meats, and then we come up with recipes to fit each cut. We know if our meat was grass fed, corn fed, if it should be dry-aged, wet-aged, cooked over hardwood, and whether that hardwood should be apple or cherry.”
chop, fries.jpgPork Chop with Carmelized Apples, and Sweet Potato Fries with Honey Butter
The variables seem limitless in the decision-making process, but Reisch says, “We’re an educated staff.  There are things particular to 1735 Hertel that take 14 or 15 different things into account.” Reisch describes himself as being in sales and distribution, and as such, he makes it a point to know what his customers like, and to deliver.  “I’ve made a culinary journey through New York City, and Luger’s is one of the places I’ve been, along with Carmine’s, the Oyster Bar.  

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“True, we’re inland, but we get our seafood – a big item here – within 24-hours (Lobster Bisque, left). What we do here is a combination of all those things.  I know where to get a ridiculous mutton chop, and these guys next to you…they know their food too.”  
Lest Reisch come off as a “chatty” waiter, understand that he can be a nearly invisible  purveyor of food, but if you ask him a question, expect an education. 
 His dry sense of humor and storehouse of knowledge made the visit to Fiamma a learning experience that paired nicely with our food. And when he would come by with a dish for another table, he would pause ever so slightly near us and nod to the camera on the table. We were able to quickly photograph things like the chocolate cake (below), which we didn’t have, but now we know where to find it.
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I asked Reisch what his favorite menu item was and he said, “Likes and dislikes are a funny thing, If people have never had good food, they don’t know what they like.” Of course, since he’s had part in devising the menu, Reisch likes all of it.  “It’s like Danny Wegman says,” he explains. “You know, ‘Food you feel good about.'”  

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The formula for feeling good takes some doing and a lot of input from everyone who works at Fiamma (Chef Matt Zoda, left). Mantione says it’s not always easy to keep an open line of communication in the restaurant industry but, here at Fiamma, no one carries a title, and everyone wears a lot of hats.  Reisch says everyone has to be comfortable communicating guest suggestions, and they do constant check-ups on the menu, reports of what’s selling, what’s new, how they can evolve.  They sit down, they talk like a family.
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Dessert is an extravaganza at Fiamma. Our banker friends had Adult Hot Chocolate that came with little liqueur bottles on the side.  
We went for the less adult Root Beer Float and Chocolate Chip Cookies and a Creme Brulee trio (chocolate, vanilla and Grand Marnier) that made us understand we had liked the dessert for years without ever having it done correctly (or so creamy!) until now.  Reisch explained that the texture should be between pudding and flan, “It shouldn’t keep its shape, but it shouldn’t be soup.”  Our past experiences had been flan-ish.  Perhaps the small top surface area of these cups required less torching and therefore left the brulee creamier.
One dessert item that caught our attention was a thick slice of panettone, done French toast style and slathered in a syrup of dark rum, brown sugar and caramel, and topped with ice cream (below).  
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I’ve always held the theory that there’s one dusty box of panettone in the world that gets passed around, unopened, for generations and generations, but this rendition was no joke.  Since it was one of the desserts we only got to experience photographically (as it passed by on its way to another table), I’m going to leave room for one after my next Fiamma visit, or make a special trip just for it.
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After the brulee, a basket of Italian fried dough (sfingi) came by for a photo, accompanied by a dish of Nutella, a chocolate and hazel nut spread.  We only heard rumors of the small homemade s’mores Chef Matt makes from scratch, with his own marshmallows, and his own graham crackers, but we want them soon.  Imagine a winter night at Fiamma, enjoying fireside s’mores.

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While we were there, the dining room filled with people of all ages looking for good food.  It’s a good place to grab a burger on your way home with your teen, bring your friends for drinks and dessert, or have a business get-together.  You can park your own car or take advantage of the valet.  Mantione says that one of the first phone calls he got when he opened was from the woman who owns Angelo’s Full Service Salon across the street.  “She said, ‘I’m not open when you are, so feel free to park cars in my lot,'” Mantione recalls.  “Our neighbors are pretty great.”
Fiamma’s staff (“Ski” at left) is happy to see people coming from the South Towns and suburbs, Toronto, Rochester, and they’re glad to have more venues to direct their guests to on Hertel these days.  Happier still, their $20.10 specials should create a lot more traffic for their commercial neighbors up the street.  When we say “That’s phenomenal!”  Mantione laughs, “Well, we like to say that’s Fiammenal.”
1735 Hertel Avenue
Buffalo, NY 14216
716.834.2662
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