Last spring, Diane Serra moved her bakery, Caramici’s, down the street to bigger digs formerly occupied by La Marina and Victor’s Bar and Grille. She added a menu of Italian standards like arancini, pastas and shrimp scampi, and a full bar. A recent dinner on the patio gave us a chance to try Caramici’s as drizzle gave way to a rainbow soaring over Little Italy. Caramici’s doesn’t break any new ground on Hertel Avenue, but its family-style, Italian-American flavors give customers solid reasons to stop by for dinner, not just dessert. ¶
The menu is both sides of a laminated card, with a list of starters that includes the power trio of Buffalo Italian appetizers: calamari ($9.95), stuffed banana peppers ($9.95) and arancini, or stuffed deep-fried risotto balls ($7.95).
There’s caprese ($9.50) among the salads, featuring the house-made mozzarella, and panzanella ($7.95), or bread and tomato salad. Pasta, including a gluten-free version, can be had with marinara or “gravy,” a tomato-meat sauce. There’s fettucine alfredo ($16.95) and penne con vodka ($16.95) here, and lasagna ($17.95) is offered Thursday through Saturday. There’s also the usual chicken and veal entrees (marsala, parmigiana, piccata, saltimbocca), ranging from $18.95 to $28.95.
We were one of a few tables occupied early on a Saturday evening, and had the full attention of our capable server. We ordered calamari, arancini and garlic bread with mozzarella ($5.45) for appetizers, and a cup of cream of broccoli soup ($3.95).
For entrees, we ordered chicken saltimbocca ($22.95), veal Parmesan ($24.95), pork stuffed rigatoni ($16.95), sausage and peppers with garlic and olive oil over rigatoni ($15.95), and tilapia en brodo ($16.95).
Cat has taken to calling me the “calamari crank,” but I’m not going to apologize for having standards when execution of this basic fried seafood varies so widely in Buffalo. Caramici’s version made my good list, with a jumble of tender rings and tentacles with moderately crunchy crust. Fruity marinara and sweet Asian chile sauce made worthy dips.
More garlic would have been welcome in the garlic bread, but the bread was fresh, its mozzarella topcoat was bubbled brown, and the teenagers wolfed it down so fast that I had to battle for my sample. The arancini, stuffed with ground beef and peas, were well seasoned, but the crust was rather chewy. The cup of soup was cream of mushroom, not broccoli, but I enjoyed the meaty helping of sliced fungi and didn’t complain.
The salads were fresh and plentiful, the caprese, with its milky mozzarella and in-season tomatoes a relief after many pallid versions. The panzanella was built on halved grape tomatoes, cucumbers and crunchy croutons, not crusty bread, as other versions are. Croutons are inferior tomato juice sponges, a well-soaked hunk being a panzanella’s signature joy, in my eyes. The menu did say croutons, however, so I should have expected such.
Cat enjoyed her chicken saltimbocca, tender pan-fried chicken cutlets topped with salty prosciutto ham and cheese, with a few small sage leaves flavoring the dish. The sauce of white wine and butter added fl-avor and moisture unobtrusively.
My veal Parmesan was decently crafted too, delicately breaded veal cutlets pan-fried so the crust stayed on and the meat remained tender. It was sauced and cheesed with restraint, welcome after so many versions offered up in a wading pool of tomato sauce. The sautéed vegetables alongside – tomato wedges, red onion, green and yellow squash – were summery, firm and fresh. The baked potato was waxy and barely warm.
Sausage and peppers in oil and garlic was a plate of just-barely al dente pasta with minimal sauce yet plenty of flavor. The tilapia, served with nutty wild rice mix and herbed spinach, was firm, moist and flaky, another understated success.
My favorite dish of the night was the pork-stuffed rigatoni. Pasta tubes filled with long-simmered ragu, napped with “gravy” and cheese then run under a broiler, this was the kind of hearty home cooking that could lead to guests overstaying their welcome.
We trooped inside to view dessert choices, and chose cannoli ($4.25 each), lemon cake, cassata cake and chocolate cake ($6.50 each). The chocolate and lemon cakes were decent, and the cassata cake, rimmed with chocolate chips and almonds, was terrific.
The slices of cake were big enough to share, but do not attempt to share the cannoli, unless your date is lactose intolerant. Get your own. The toasty, crunchy shell, filled to order, was outstanding.
After eating a lot of pasta on Hertel Avenue, I’d put Caramici’s in the minimalist camp, satisfying with flavor instead of volume. Which makes sense, since you really ought to save room for dessert.
Caramici’s Bistro & Bakery - 7 plates out of 10
At this bakery turned Italian bistro, you should save room for dessert.
WHERE: 1501 Hertel Ave. (874-2253)
HOURS: 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. Bakery opens at 11 a.m.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $3.95-$10.95; soups and salads, $3.95-$10.95; entrees, $11.95-$32.95.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.