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Charcoal is key to charm, food at new spot near airport

Three successive days of constant drizzle and temperatures in the upper 40s recently had me thinking only one thing: the Fourth of July.

And you know what that means: picnic. Even if it's inside the car. With coats on. And, of course, the heater.

Rituals, you know.

It being late January, however, I found it unusually difficult to persuade the family to pack up the grill and wieners and join me for a cookout at the beach. So I compromised: indoor picnic. That did the trick.

For indoor barbecue in the middle of winter (even our current global-warming variety), the only place to head is a little shack out off Porter Road at the tail end of the area's longest and least-used airport runway.

This spot used to be called Vic's, home of some of the tastiest hot chicken legs this side of Frank Perdue's. Then it closed, reopened briefly and closed again, remaining shuttered for some time while we all mourned our gastronomical loss.

Recently, however, the place was resurrected by a North Tonawanda pizza maker who came in and expanded the menu in hopes of making a go of a lunch-and-dinner menu once the weather breaks -- and you never know when that might be.

I've been there twice now, and I hope it works, because the place -- now called Pizza Time Plus -- has a certain charm hard to find elsewhere.

It all stems from hardwood charcoal.

You can smell it smoldering as soon as you open the front door. Real charcoal, just like the stuff I dump into my little tin-can thing when I picnic at the beach.

That smell, that aroma, it stimulates a certain mind-set, one that can only be appeased with crackling Sahlen's hot dogs and zesty sausage. And that's exactly what we ordered on our most recent trip.

My wife ordered up two of the dogs -- one plain ($1.79), the other with chili (40 cents extra). I went for the Italian sausage with grilled peppers and onions ($3). The youngest was along for the ride, too, so, needless to say, we had to add an order of chicken fingers, as well ($5.99 for five).

Intrigued by a sign out front ("Buy a two-liter for $1.89, get large cheese pizza for $3.99 -- no kidding!") I also ordered up a slice to see how it was.

I was pleasantly surprised. The crust was thin and a little on the rubbery side, which is just how I like it. It was quite cheesy, nicely seasoned and generous on the pepperoni. The sauce was a little light, but all in all it was tasty.

My sausage was a link cut lengthwise to flatten it, nicely charred and stuffed into a meaty submarine bun oozing with loads of grilled-but-still-crisp green peppers and onions. The sausage had a good flavor, slightly tangy. It was topped with a generous dollop of mustard, and it made for some fine eating.

The two dogs were gone by the time I got halfway through my sandwich.

"Did you chew them or just swallow whole?" I asked my wife.

"I was really hungry," came the sheepish reply.

She did manage to taste enough to note that the chili was good -- thick, not like a soup-chili. May have come from a can, she said, but if so, it was the right can.

She called the dogs "excellent."

Even so, that didn't cap our meal. The fingers were "the best I've ever had," according to Meagan, who should know, judging by the number of fingers she's bitten over the years.

She couldn't say for sure whether it was the tangy barbecue sauce, the crispy coating or what, exactly, that set these fingers apart from the rest. She was just certain that they were the best ever.

That's good enough for me. It has to be, because she didn't offer me as much as a sniff . . . even though I pointed out that I took a solemn oath to personally sample any and all foodstuffs I choose to write about.

In keeping with the picnic motif, Pizza Time Plus offers a few large wooden tables with picnic benches as its decor. Open spaces are filled with bulging bags of charcoal just waiting to be properly roasted.

You also can get subs and deli sandwiches and fries -- and, of course, wings -- at PT-Plus. Just don't plan to order any of that healthy stuff; they don't have it.

Who wants salad for their picnic, anyway?


>Pizza Time Plus

7220 Porter Road, Town of Niagara (298-9999)

Review: Three stars (Out of four)

Favorite dish: Everything was good

Needs work: The decor

Price range: Pocket-friendly (example, whole sub: $5)

Healthy choices: Eating elsewhere

Kid-friendly: Extremely

Parking: Small connected lot

Handicap accessible: Yes

Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday; until 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday.

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