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THE SAUCE BOSSES <br> AT CHEF'S THE FARE MAY BE OLD-STYLE BUT A NEW GENERATION IS STORRING THINGS UP

Gibraltar never falters, Niagara still thunders, and the traffic on the Peace Bridge remains a mess. These are eternal things.

But if you've always thought that Western New York's 74-year-old Chef's restaurant belongs in the same category, you're making a mistake.

True, on the surface the restaurant seems just as it did when Lou Billittier took over. It is, and has always been, the quintessential "Buffalo thing."

The checkered tablecloths remain in place; the popular distinctly non-trendy red-sauced dishes are still listed on the wall menu. And there is -- as ever -- one heck of a big step to climb to enter the front door. (Fortunately, the back door has a ramp.)

The soft white bread is as fresh as it ever was. When Chef's supplier, the Mangano Bakery in Lackawanna, closed its doors several years ago, Lou Billittier brought the oven to Chef's -- in one piece, and they had to close the street to do it.

He brought the baker over, too. Benny Perez is still on duty, 5:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day.

Other things have an aspect of permanence about them. Nine evenings out of 10, Irv Weinstein is sitting in the front dining room. "I've been coming here for 30 years and you never get any unpleasant surprises," Weinstein says.

Not to mention a Sabre or two. And an infinite number of politicians. Lou Billittier, a genuine nice guy who knows just about everybody in town and has generously helped just about everybody with their charitable causes, prefers to call these people "elected officials." So be it.

Billittier may be joining their ranks himself in November. He's running for supervisor in the Town of Hamburg. The race is against another restaurateur, Patrick H. Hoak, the owner of Hoak's Armor Inn, a Democrat who is the incumbent.

But with all of this, it's a different Chef's from what it used to be.

Not all the changes are surprising, perhaps, when you realize that the restaurant's management has been expanded.

"I'll never quit working," says Lou Billittier, who has recovered from a bout with cancer. But he goes down to Florida for the winter and has been joined at the restaurant helm by his children. Son Lou Jr., 38, who attended the Culinary Institute of America for a while, is a Town of Hamburg police officer by day. Daughter Mary Beth Billittier-DiSciullo, 28, who was once in charge of the restaurant at the Small Boat Harbor, is vice president.

Both grew up in the business, but they look at the restaurant through younger eyes.

Chef's menu, for instance, has been expanded. Since early this year it has offered appetizers, and plenty of old-timers might be astounded at that. They'd be even more shocked at the number of desserts available. Spumoni and Tortoni, of course. But Black Forest Cake?

And what's this Tiramisu?

"We found that the volume of customers at night had decreased as the number of people in the city decreased," explains Mary Beth. "So we added appetizers like homemade mozzarella sticks, clam strips and mussels in marinara. And desserts. And flavored coffees."

The additions have been, she says, attracting a "younger, hipper crowd" who like to come downtown (Chef's is at the corner of Seneca and Chicago streets) to have dinner before attending the theater or the Chippewa Street bar scene.

The Billittiers agree it's more challenging to run a restaurant these days than it used to be.

"There's more competition now," Lou explains.

So Chef's indulges in more promotional activities than it once did. They advertise, where once they depended on word-of-mouth.

"You just have to remind people," says Mary Beth, who is married to John DiSciullo, head of marketing and promotions at Channel 7.

DiSciullo is working with the family on its newest project, the marketing of its spaghetti sauce. Already the sauce is being sold at all four of Western New York's supermarket chains.

No one is divulging the recipe for the restaurant's thick, dark red sauce. But all three Billittiers know it by heart. Mary Beth, in fact, who started to work at Chef's when she was 12, once stirred the sauce while standing on a box.

"We still do it the old-fashioned way," says Billittier, referring to such ingredients as canned tomatoes, tomato paste and a mysterious "Italian seasoning." And though this type of sauce may be out of favor these days when fresh tomato sauces are the "in" thing, it's something many Western New Yorkers are comfortable with.

"That style of sauce came over from Italy in the 1800s," says Frank Grimaldi, owner of the well-liked San Marco restaurant in Amherst, which features what Grimaldi describes as a northern Italian menu.

"Both Italian cuisines are great. They are just different," he says. "The early immigrants brought their cooking with them. And everything stemmed from tomato sauce. Meat, vegetable, seafood -- they were all covered with tomato."

Chef's sauce, Grimaldi says, is a matter of geography. "The tomato that grows in southern Italy doesn't lend itself to quick sauce. It must be cooked for a long time.

"In the northern part of the country they use the San Marzano tomato, what is called a Roma tomato. This can be cooked quickly.

But, Grimaldi is quick to add, there's room for everybody in the restaurant business. And on any given night, "Chef's is a lot busier than I am."

The restaurant has always been busy. Its history goes back to 1923 when it opened at the current site, around the corner from where Lou Billittier grew up. It consisted of one tiny room -- now the anteroom most customers walk through to be seated.

In 1941, Billittier was hired as a dishwasher by owners Gino Silverstrini and Lee Federconi. Billittier eventually worked his way up to manager before going into the military.

By 1954 he became the owner, and he made some changes. At first the menu had been limited -- spaghetti, ravioli, chicken and veal cacciatore. Items like spaghetti parmesan, Special Mix Salad (a sort of minced antipasto, dreamed up by the late beloved waitress Vi Silverstrini) and the justly famous zucchini salad were added through the years.

Also, the building was enlarged. Two big dining rooms were added; it now seats 325 people, with space for an additional 125 in the banquet room.

There may be more changes yet.

"We are already selling our sauce in Connecticut and New Jersey, and maybe someday we'll go national," says Lou Jr. "We're going to install an 800 number so all the snowbirds who go to Florida can order it."

And if that goes well?

"We'd like to add frozen food to the retail line someday."

The menu may change more, too. "My father is very traditional," says Mary Beth. "And he is hesitant. 'If it's not broke, don't fix it,' he says.

"But possibly down the road a little bit, we'll offer something lighter. Maybe vegetable lasagna.

"Maybe foccacia bread."

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