One man, 40 tickets: A pilgrimage to the Taste of Buffalo - The Buffalo News
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One man, 40 tickets: A pilgrimage to the Taste of Buffalo

I have been thinking about this moment for 24 hours, since my editor approached my desk, told me I’d be covering the Taste of Buffalo and instructed me to “have fun with it.”

Oh, I will. My stomach was rumbling seconds after the words left his lips.

Nothing else mattered Friday. Not LeBron James. Nothing. All I could think about was my upcoming visit to the outdoor Buffalo buffet, the vast assortment of samplings from one of the greatest food cities in the country.

The Taste of Buffalo has been going 30 years now, with some of the city’s best restaurants – 60 of them this year – packing into the area surrounding City Hall, setting up shop from Chippewa Street to Niagara Street.

And now it’s finally here. Armed with 40 tickets, I scan the array of booths and think how much I’d like to sprint to every single one, grabbing foot-longs and French fries like batons.

By the time my tour is done, though, I don’t expect to be able to run. I might even float into the sky, like one of those bloated balloons at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

If I float away on this one-day pilgrimage to portliness, what follows is the log of what led to my demise:

11:43 a.m.: As I enter the Taste of Buffalo, Taylor Swift’s “Trouble” plays through the speakers: “I knew you were trouble when you walked in.” How did they know?

11:48 a.m.: My tour starts with the Ebenezer Ale House, where I purchase the Mini Mediterranean Platter, which comes with fresh roasted red pepper hummus, couscous, bruschetta, cucumber slices and pita wedges. The fluffy pita and just-spicy-enough hummus are delightful.

This dish is my warm-up. You don’t exercise without stretching, and you don’t do the exact opposite thing and dominate an eating festival by going right for the big stuff.

11:53 a.m.: Kim Capozzi, of Buffalo, who is judging the Taste, informs me that I can’t leave without trying Danny’s chicken wing soup and the meatballs at Bambino’s. Noted.

11:56 a.m.: So. Many. Tank tops. You’d almost think they were required for admittance. The sun is out, and the guns are most certainly out as well.

12:04 p.m.: I find one of the day’s hidden gems, JD’s Smokin’ Grill n Bar, which opened a location in West Seneca in November. I order JD’s smoked wings and get three for four tickets. They taste less like traditional chicken wings and more like rotisserie chicken. They’re kissed with just the right amount of barbecue sauce.

Joe Grimaldi, who owns JD’s with his wife, Dinah, explains his recipe: They spray the wings with lemon juice and homemade basting sauce, add steak seasoning, smoke the wings for 30 minutes and put them on a broiler. In the process, the sauce caramelizes.

The wings are not as popular as Grimaldi’s original egg rolls, though, which he makes with pulled pork soaked in apple juice and coleslaw. Grimaldi rolled 4,500 over two weeks for the Taste.

12:15 p.m.: Enthusiastic employees wearing hats with plastic chocolate-covered strawberries on top lure me into Landies Candies. One man standing outside the booth asks everyone walking by, “How are you doing today?” with a thick Spanish accent.

Another man, inside the booth, speaks into a megaphone: “It’s lovely and it’s luscious.” I buy a frozen, dark chocolate-covered banana. Lovely and luscious indeed.

12:20 p.m.: It’s gut-check time. Dessert has fooled my stomach. I’m somehow getting full after using only 17 of 40 tickets.

I refocus. Remember, you’re trouble. This festival can’t stop you.

12:26 p.m.: One buff college-age fellow – wearing a tank top – is motioning toward his arm, flexing and asking a girl in a sundress to feel it. She hesitantly pokes his muscle. He smiles contentedly.

12:29 p.m.: Per Capozzi’s instruction, I arrive at Danny’s. The soup is as expected – it tastes just like liquid wings, and my mouth is now on fire.

12:35 p.m.: On the Tops stage, band West of the Mark performs Luke Bryan’s country classic “Rain Is a Good Thing.” Three women dance in front of the stage. It’s a catchy tune, but the theme is not fitting: Today is about as beautiful as it gets in Buffalo.

West of the Mark is the first of four acts today, followed by three more on Sunday: Heard of Buffalo, Dave Constantino Band and the Strangers.

12:43 p.m.: As I turn onto Delaware Avenue, a man chases me down and hands me tickets, saying they had fallen out of my pocket. City of Good Neighbors, right?

12:47 p.m.: The Louie’s booth has the longest line I’ve seen – Ms. Goodies has also drawn a crowd for its fish-and-fries wrap – but I won’t let it stop me: I wait patiently for my hot dog.

12:55 p.m.: MUSTARD ON SHIRT.

1 p.m.: A drink vendor wearing bright, multicolored pants is excitedly yelling, “Embrace your smile!” to passers-by. She does not have mustard on her shirt.

1:07 p.m.: I find my MVP item of the day, the Joe’s Deli caprese ball, deep fried and filled with risotto, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil, and topped with balsamic vinaigrette. “Everyone is coming back for seconds,” an employee says.

This baseball-sized Italian concoction blows my mind. It’s kind of like a mozzarella stick, but thicker, more grown up and with some added zest.

I struggle to find words to describe how good this caprese ball tastes. Biting it is like a life experience. It’s as sweet as envisioning Sammy Watkins sprinting past Donte Whitner and hauling in a touchdown Nov. 30 at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

1:11 p.m.: Traffic jam. With more than 200,000 people crammed in here today, the frequent hold-ups are to be expected.

1:17 p.m.: Kids pose for photos with local celebrity Buster Bison, who once comforted me when, as an 8-year-old, I was hit in the head with a foul ball. Buster and I high-five.

1:19 p.m.: Down to 12 tickets. It’s crunch time. These next couple items will be my last, so I need to be selective.

1:22 p.m.: I arrive at Bambino’s, the second place Capozzi told me to check out, and order the meatballs on a stick. The dish comes with two, and they live up to the hype.

1:30 p.m.: I finish my travels with lemon ice from Anderson’s, because the only more Buffalo way to end the Taste of Buffalo would be getting lemon ice with Johnny Rzeznik and Jim Kelly.

1:35 p.m.: I walk off down Franklin Street feeling victorious. A sunburn is spreading over my neck and arms, cavities are likely attacking my teeth, and fat is surely being added to my lower stomach, but I’m all smiles.

We’ll call it a cheat day.


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