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Starters: Neapolitan pizza with unabashed Buffalo roots at Sonny Red's

A fresh concept newly settled on a sleepy strip of Abbott Road in Lackawanna, Sonny Red’s is bringing trendy Neapolitan-style pizza into the heart of “cup-and-char” pepperoni country.

A sister restaurant to the iconic Mulberry, this new venture strays just far enough from its origin to establish its own identity while preserving some of the most revered items and styling of one of the Buffalo area's most beloved Italian-American eateries.

Before delving straight into pizza, I’d be remiss not to mention the breadth of accompanying dishes worth sampling and pairing with wood-fired pies.

Several classics are either lifted from the Mulberry menu or inspired by it, including tempura baby artichokes ($9), prosciutto-wrapped smoked mozzarella ($11), and of course the famous Mulberry Meatball ($6.50), which would fit snugly in your grandfather’s bocce set.

Fresh Wu-Tang clams with grilled ciabatta (Phil Wagner/Special to The News)

Included in this selection are the Wu-Tang clams ($13) that arrive open and happily afloat in a garlic white wine sauce that’ll test your table manners as you suppress the urge to spoon it like soup.

Soak up what you can with the grilled ciabatta bread that accompanies the dish alongside crunchy broccolini and peppadew peppers that add pleasant and lingering warmth between dishes.

delicately tempura-fried zucchini blossoms (Phil Wagner/Special to The News)

On special this evening these tempura-fried zucchini blossoms ($11) were piped full of a creamy Taleggio cheese and crimini mushroom blend. The tempura was tissue-paper thin and as delicate as the tender blossom it coated.

The tangy mayonnaise pooled below was an excellent complement, whereas I found the truffle oil drizzle somewhat overpowering. Certainly the richest, but not most captivating bite of the night.

"Bruno," the mastermind behind Sonny Red's Neapolitan style pizza (Phil Wagner/Special to The News)

“Bruno” here is Sonny Red’s heart and soul. The wood-fired behemoth is nestled comfortably in the corner of the restaurant where he’s fed a healthy diet of hardwood to keep at a cozy but comfortable 800-900 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you’re lucky you can snag a seat at the counter safely on the perimeter of his domain and watch your pizza bubble and brown on its short journey to your plate.

The featured image of this article, 0ld smokey ($14) comes topped with its namesake smoked mozzarella and little Mulberry meatballs that I’ve always believed to be a highly underrated topping.

Surprisingly, the smoked mozzarella was the outstanding ingredient on this pie. Far from any overblown campfire-caliber liquid smoke experience, the subtle natural smokiness played into the strengths of the wood-fired oven and lifted the pizza to a greater dining experience.

Simple but shockingly flavorful white pizza. (Phil Wagner/Special to The News)

Ordering a white pizza ($14) for the sake of contrast, it actually wound up the narrow favorite of the two. Roasted red and yellow tomatoes licked by the flames unleashed a signature sweetness that balanced the red onion and pungent herbaceous notes of garlic and oregano, fresh and vibrant in every bite.

If pizza isn’t your thing and a medical doctor has already cleared you, Sonny Red's also serves a weekly rotation of fresh house-made pastas and a succinct entree listing.

On my visit, features included ricotta gnocchi Bolognese ($15), smoked beef brisket agnolotti (think tiny ravioli), and a hearty pork shank ($24) served rustically with pan sauce and smashed potatoes.

Joe's signature wings. (Phil Wagner/Special to The News)

They’ve also got wings. I find the notion of Neapolitan pizza puritanism absurd, and I needed to test the metal of these wings. Available in a single or double order ($11/$21) Joe’s wings are something special.

Fried hard as all good wings should be, they’re coated in a light and grainy sauce mixture that Joe refused to divulge. I’m guessing there's some Parmesan and garlic in the mix. The blend produces a nice mild to medium spice with impressive flavor.

Wood-fired Neapolitan pizza is a highly regarded craft in the culinary world. Sonny Red’s staff is already off on the right foot and like any craftsman they’ll only get better with experience.

From the simple and safe cheese and pepperoni in the Gary Kashino ($13) to the intrepid Salty Pimp ($15) with Calabrese salami, green olives and Pecorino Romano, Sonny Red’s has a slot in the menu for everyone’s interest, even if it isn’t pizza.

INFO: Sonny Red’s, 1841 Abbott Road, Lackawanna. Phone: 322-0664. Hours: 4-9 p.m. Tuesday -Thursday, 4-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday, Monday.

*Read Phil Wagner's previous Starters, which paid a visit to Buffalo's Best Cucina:

Starters: Standout beef-on-weck pizza at Buffalo's Best Cucina

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