THERE ARE so many restaurants like Rizzo's in Western New York, thank goodness. Small, modest and inexpensive, they are comfortable places in which to settle down -- and stoke up. Portions are huge; the food is hearty.
Come hungry, come casual, is the rule.
Rizzo's looks a little different from many of the other eating spots, though. It has been designed to resemble an outdoor Italian piazza -- fake storefronts surround the dining room. You'll note the "shop" that sells flowers (fiori), the "newsstand" (giornale), etc. A cute idea. (It would be an even cuter idea if someone would replace the black carpeting in this particular piazza. Black flooring in a restaurant is a very bad idea, because every single tiny crumb or piece of discarded paper napkin shows up in dramatic relief.)
The menu here, it will come as no surprise to learn, is basically Italian, made from, in many cases, homemade pastas. Of course, you'll also note a few foreign influences like Italian Nachos (corn chips with sausage, peppers and melted mozzarella, $5.95), Louisiana Shrimp ($6.95) and Barbecued Ribs ($10.95), but hey, God bless America! These items simply add variety to the bill of fare.
We began our meal with two soups: a cup of hearty, slightly spicy Minestrone and a cup of Pasta e Fagiole (a k a Pasta Fazool). Both were $1.50. Both were very satisfying in flavor.
And both should have been served hotter. The soups were lukewarm.
My Cannelloni ($7.95) came out on the plate heaped as high as Mount Etna. The homemade pasta stuffed with meat and ricotta was topped with meat sauce before baking. In other words, not exactly delicate food.
Tasty food, though. An interesting flavoring note was added with a slight hint of fennel. Sesame-topped Italian bread was a fine accompaniment; it came with garlicky pesto for dipping. The salad was fresh and tasted fine.
The Companion's choice wasn't exactly what you'd call subtle, either. Sausage Cacciatore, the thick spicy links topped with highly flavored tomato sauce and served over fettucine, came in a portion large enough to serve three, for $8.95.
Just about every night at Rizzo's, a special main dish is featured. And served equally generously, we couldn't help but notice. On Monday nights, it's all the spaghetti you can eat for $2.99; Wednesdays, Chicken Parmigiana with a side of pasta ($3.99); and Thursdays, Lasagna. Friday is fish fry night.
Other appealing dishes at Rizzo's include a Homemade Pasta Platter with Cheese Ravioli, Meat Ravioli and Manicotti ($8.95), Skillet Eggplant and Pasta ($7.95) and Vegetable Lasagna (homemade spinach noodles, cheese, eggplant, artichokes and fresh vegetables, $7.95).
Vineland Estates ***(Oct. 3)
Vineland Estates, 3620 Moyer Road, Vineland, Ont. (905-562-7088). Canada's own Napa Valley!. This pleasant restaurant sits in the middle of the Vineland Estates vineyard. It serves elaborately constructed food made from unique ingredients. Reservations necessary.
K. Gallagher's ***(Sept. 26)
K. Gallagher's, 73 Allen St. (882-3550). Everything from a sandwich to Cajun blackened haddock in this charmingly furnished tavern/grill. Food has a definite contemporary slant.
North Park Cafe ***(Sept. 19)
North Park Cafe, 1434 Hertel Ave. (836-6684). Informal restaurant specializes in homemade soups, salads, sandwiches and baked goods. The food is very fresh, quite original and carefully prepared.
Harry's Harbour Place Grille *** 1/2 *
Harry's Harbour Place Grille, 2192 Niagara St. (874-5400). Great big and gorgeous, this newly opened steak and seafood restaurant has beautiful views, classy furnishings and a sophisticated menu.
Tapestries ***(Sept. 5)
Tapestries, 209 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. (905-468-4588.) In the Kiely Inn, this Victorian-looking restaurant serves contemporary food. Beautiful gardens.
Tandoori Express **(Aug. 29)
Tandoori Express, 484 Elmwood Ave. (881-5223). This busy little outpost of a more elaborate restaurant on Transit Road, Amherst, offers a small selection of Indian foods, eat-in or takeout. Many vegetarian items.
Wild Flower ***(Aug. 22)
Wild Flower, 200 Highway 20 East (at Rice Road), Fonthill, Ont. (905-892-6167). A tiny restaurant in the midst of farm country that offers contemporary cuisine.
Don Pablo's ** 1/2 (Aug. 15)
Don Pablo's, 6727 Transit Road, Williamsville (633-0933). Tex-Mex invades New York. This huge and happy food dispensary is very informal and very busy.
Amici ** 1/2 (Aug. 8)
Amici, 2516 Elmwood Ave., Kenmore (874-0143). A casual neighborhood restaurant that specializes in Italian. All your favorites are here.
Da Caruso *** 1/2 * (Aug. 1)
Da Caruso, 26 Church St., St. Catharines, Ont. (905-641-0279). This tiny restaurant is colorfully decorated. "Regional Italian cuisine," with unusual pastas a very big deal.
* Indicates restaurant is so new that this is a provisional rating.
** Rating based on the Early Bird special.
2763 Eggert Road, Tonawanda (834-4404). Popular eating place with a mostly Italian menu. All the usual pastas (all-you-can-eat spaghetti on Monday nights), subs, pizzas, seafood, etc. Enormous servings. (Another Rizzo's is at 15 New Road, Amherst.) Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express.
BEST DISH: Cannelloni.
NEEDS WORK: Food should be warmer.
PRICE RANGE: Pasta dinners including salad from $7.50. House special dinners from $7.95. All-you-can-eat spaghetti is $2.99.
HOURS: Lunch, Mon. through Fri. Dinner, seven days until about 11 p.m.
HEALTH-CONSCIOUS CHOICES: Spaghetti, Broiled Fish Marinara (Fridays only), Pasta e Fagiole.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.
PARKING: In the lot.
KID APPEAL: Bambino menu.
KEY: *FAIR, **GOOD, ***VERY GOOD, ****EXCELLENT, *****EXTRAORDINARY. Stars are awarded for the quality of the food only.