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The taste of Buffalo helps feed memories

It was a dark day in the O'Keefe house last year when Tops pulled out of Cleveland.

Niagara Falls native Vincent O'Keefe knew the loss of Tops macaroni and cheese would not go unnoticed by his daughters, Lauren, 7, and Lindsay, 4. He did what any parent would do: buy Giant Eagle mac 'n cheese and hope for the best.

But that, it turned out, was not quite good enough. The girls turned their noses up at the impostor.

The past several months, the girls' grandfather, Frank Colangelo, has been sending packages of Tops macaroni and cheese to their house in Avon Lake. The girls fully appreciate his efforts.

"It's better than Giant Eagle," said Lauren.

Transplanted Western New Yorkers will go to great lengths to keep a part of their home with them. But sometimes, they don't have to.

Jason Nizialek, the valedictorian who was voted most likely to succeed in his class at Grand Island High School, regularly shops at Wegmans near his Northern Virginia home.

The location is one of three that have opened up in the last three years in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. Three more are scheduled to open in Northern Virginia and three more in Maryland within next couple of years.

"That's another source of pride for Buffalonians," Nizialek said.

Greg Mogavero, Cardinal O'Hara Class of '87 vice president, lives in Woodbridge, Va., future home of a Wegmans. He and his wife -- who was also his high school sweetheart -- live about a half hour from one of the existing ones and shop there regularly.

"We made a special trip down there when it first opened just to check it out," he said. "I've been all over the world, being in the Army, and nobody else in the country or in the world has anything on the same scale and on that level as what we have with Wegmans."

The restaurant franchises that call Buffalo home also create wistful moments for former residents. But not for those who relocated to Tempe, Ariz., where a Ted's hot dog is never far away.

"It's like you never left Buffalo," said Deborah Hewett-Elson, Lancaster High School's valedictorian in 1987. Hewett-Elson has lived in Tempe since 1994 with her husband.

Opened in 1983 after owner Theodore Spiro Liaros retired there with his family, the restaurant has become an oasis for transplanted Buffalonians. A 1927 photo of the original location hangs on the wall, as do team photos of the Buffalo Bills dating to the 1960s. And just about every college in Western New York is represented with a banner.

Dan Klocke, president of his 1987 graduating class at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, relocated to Phoenix five years ago and still misses Buffalo. That's why his wife and three kids took him to Ted's last year for his birthday.

"It's so weird to see Ted's Hot Dogs out here," said Stephen Mease, Lackawanna High School's class president from 1987. Mease works in Tempe at Monster.com but lives in nearby Scottsdale. He stops into Ted's every now and again.

Blaine Webster, who used to work at the Sheridan Drive location in the Town of Tonawanda, has been managing the Tempe restaurant for the past 10 years. He's also the vice president of a Buffalo Bills Backers club of about 350 members in the Phoenix area.

"This place [Ted's] is just a little slice of Buffalo," Webster said. "And people love it."

Satellite TV and premium sports packages on cable mean that not being in Buffalo no longer means you can't keep up with the Bills and the Sabres. Christine Derme, the Kenmore East class president of 1987, who now lives in Southern California, said there's no shortage of Buffalo transplants, Bills fans and Western New York customs out there to "keep me connected to Buffalo."

During the football season, Del's Saloon in Los Angeles is known as the "Buffalo Bills Bar." All kinds of Buffalo transplants gather at Gitana's in Burbank every Sunday to watch the Bills' games on the bar's biggest screen, she said. And there's also a chapter of a Bills Backers club in Los Angeles. They all meet at Q's Billiards in Pasadena.

Of course, there are some things about Western New York that just can't be duplicated.

Ervina Gatling hasn't lived in Niagara Falls since she was class president two decades ago, but she can still hear the roar of the cataract. For years, when life got to be too crazy, she would walk up to the falls to de-stress.

Now, living in Tallahassee, Fla., she doesn't get back much any more to see the falls in person. But she's got reminders throughout her office at the Children's Home Society, where she's a counselor -- postcards tacked up on the walls, the screensaver on her computer all bear images of the falls she loves so much.

"When kids come in my office, I say, 'Do you know what that is? That's my hometown,' " she said. "They say, 'Wow!' "

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com and mpasciak@buffnews.com

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