Russ. Henry. DeeDee. Joel.
Everyone involved in Western New York's vibrant food scene knows these names. No last names necessary.
They, and several others you are about to meet, are the movers and shakers in what we like to call the local "culinary community."
They're the force behind the food. They're some of the restaurant owners, the wine experts, the chefs, the suppliers and others who make Western New York's thriving food life the treasure that it is.
Don't know the first names? You probably know their businesses. And you'll recognize the names soon, because we're here to clue you in to our local culinary visionaries.
Food, of course, is one of the biggest assets of Western New York. We don't have movie stars or a serious fashion scene, but we do have a fabulous food life, and the people who are responsible have mostly been behind the scenes.
One thing all on our list have in common: a passion for food and drink in the Buffalo Niagara region and an influence on our lives as patrons.
With apologies to the dozens of other culinary folk who didn't make the cut but still have great influence on the community (we know we have left out many), here are 14 people who have and continue to make a difference in what you eat:
Role: An owner of Oliver's on Delaware Avenue, one of the area's best-known upscale restaurants. Oliver's is often called "Henry's Place" by area chefs. Gorino is also an owner of Siena, a trendy Italian trattoria on Main Street in Snyder.
Gorino has the restaurant business in his DNA; he has been in it from age 13, when he started work at a neighborhood pizzeria. He was a night cook at Cole's, going on to manage Fanny's and the late Valentine's on Niagara Square. In opening Oliver's back in 1983, he took a big risk, creating a glamorous spot from a beloved neighborhood hangout that was known for its (delicious) 85-cent hamburger plate, Welsh rarebit and free french fries for the kids on Halloween.
When he opened Siena, he took another chance, installing what was probably the first wood-burning pizza oven in the area, imported from Italy. It practically took an act of God to get the permits to get the thing installed. Eventually, his empire expanded to include a line of gourmet products and a busy catering business.
But perhaps Gorino's most influential role has been in the mentoring of the chef community. Starting with the guy Gorino calls "the Frenchman" -- one Jean-Yves Garel, who opened Oliver's and subsequently went back home to open a restaurant outside Paris.
Many of the best-known chefs have worked with Gorino. Andrzejewski, now of Tsunami; Mark Hutchinson of Hutch's and Tempo; Daniel Johengen of Daniel's; the late Andy DiVicenzo of Billy Ogden's; Rick Mills, chairman of the culinary arts department at Erie Community College City Campus; Paul Jenkins of Tempo; Brian Mietus of Marinaccio's; and, of course, Oliver's present executive chef, Chris Daighler, and Siena's chef, Charlie Mallia.
Culinary wish: "I don't want to sound snobby, but I would like to see fewer chain restaurants here. They take all our culinary talent, and they take away our customer base. People get in their minds that they are cheap, but that really isn't true."
Role: Owner of the Dessert Deli, Maple Road, Amherst.
"I am not a pastry chef -- I am a helper," says Trish Mullaney, whose business started in 1986 and was one of the first in the area to bake and and deliver fine desserts to area restaurants that don't have pastry cooks. The business now has 44 employees and sells to about 16 restaurants, and it operates a retail operation and cafe too.
One thing Mullaney feels strongly about is variety. She changes her restaurant lineup every month or so.
"In July, we offered Margarita Pie and a Daiquiri Cheesecake," she says. "This month we're going for Apple Almond Tart and Pumpkin Chocolate Cheesecake."
That works out for both customer and restaurant, she explains.
"These are things the server can get excited about; and getting excited about desserts helps them to sell," she says.
Culinary wish: "I guess being in the pastry business, I would wish people would start their meals with dessert.
"On a more serious note, I'd like to see people extend their taste horizons and go with new things. Chocolate is always going to sell, but there are so many other flavors out there.
"Another thing, I wish restaurants would offer smaller main dish servings. The plates are always so covered. There is too much food."
Role: Owner and CEO of Ultimate Restaurants. So far, that includes: YaYa Bayou Brewhouse and City Grill on Main Street, Bacchus on Chippewa, and Calvaneso's on Transit Road in Amherst.
Calvaneso is high on the area. He has announced his willingness to run for mayor of Buffalo. Still in his early 40s, he's opened a diverse lineup of restaurants from the Cajun fare of YaYa to the wine menu at Bacchus. He knows restaurants intimately, having started in the business as a dishwasher when he was 15 years old.
Each of his restaurants may be different but all offer fine food. Calvaneso is also the owner of the Ultimate Men's Shop on Delaware Avenue and is contemplating a new restaurant location in the Eastern Hills Mall.
This guy takes what he does seriously. Wine is as important as food to Calvaneso, and he has gone so far as to take a sommelier course. Mike DePue is chief of operations, and he is one the most knowledgeable wine stewards in the area. Calvaneso also has his own own pastry chef, Debbie Clark.
What's next on his plate? "I don't know where my political aspirations will take me," he says.
But he's still excited about redecorating City Grill -- it's one of the few places left in downtown Buffalo where people can have a power lunch.
Culinary wish: "Buffalo is a great dining city, but if I had one choice it would to emphasize and encourage more ethnic restaurants. That goes hand-in-hand with redeveloping neighborhoods."
Role: An owner of the Saigon Cafe on Elmwood Avenue, Saigon Bangkok on Niagara Falls Boulevard and a part owner, with Mike Andrzejewski, of Tsunami on Kenmore Avenue.
Truong is responsible for an ever-growing Asian food scene in this area. His knowledge is huge. "My father ran a Chinese restaurant on Elmwood Avenue called Golden Chop Sticks," he says, "and I spent five days a week making egg rolls and dumplings."
Truong goes on to explain that his father is half Chinese and half Vietnamese, his mother is Vietnamese. Eventually, Golden Chop Sticks closed, but the family has relatives in Boston, and Truong noticed that Thai and Vietnamese food were very popular there. Chinese food was still the big deal in Western New York.
"I knew it would be popular here, too," he says. "I forecast it. Saigon Bangkok. But when Saigon Bangkok opened in 1996, it was still unknown.
"It was a learning curve," Truong says. "And it was slow at first. When we first opened, I was the only one in the front of the house. Now we have six servers on weekends, plus a hostess."
By the time Truong had graduated from college, the family went back to the Golden Chopsticks site, but it became the Saigon Cafe in 2002, serving Thai and Vietnamese fare. That one took off right away.
Next, Truong opened Tsunami, a fusion restaurant. "Mike has good ideas about presentation," he says of his partner. "He has showed me all sorts of new ideas."
Truong may be a successful restaurateur now, but he still spends time in the kitchen. "I still do a lot of dumplings," he laughs. And he is looking forward to the future opening of Papaya in the Hampton Inn on Delaware Avenue, where the menu will include food from all of Southeast Asia, including Thai, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Culinary wish: "I would love to see a greater supply of fresh Asian vegetables and herbs. They are really lacking in this area, and what there is is very expensive. But the Asian population is growing here."
Role: Owner of Warm Lake Estate winery, Lower Mountain Road, Lockport
In 2000 VonHeckler was a man with a dream. He was determined to produce a $30 bottle of wine from the Pinot Noir grape -- a red wine grape that originated in Burgundy, France, and has a reputation as a difficult one to grow.
Von Heckler wanted to produce the wine in an area where not many fine wine grapes were growing. But he's a former electrical engineer with a scientific bent and researched the subject, discovering that Niagara County was on the same latitude as Burgundy with similar climate and had the same soil of successful wineries across the river in Ontario.
So Von Heckler bought and planted seedlings shipped from France. In 2000, the plants looked like nothing more than green fuzz. Segue to 2002, the first vintage -- a big success with knowing wine drinkers. Von Heckler sold out and started selling futures. The same thing happened with the 2003 vintage.
VonHeckler believes that fine wine can have a big affect on our community. Growing and marketing fine wines, he says, will bring tourists to the area. He is one of the founders of the Niagara Wine Trail, and he sells and promotes various fine New York State wines at his winery.
He will also begin selling his own wine in restaurants starting this year. Now customers won't have to buy it "from the cellar door."
Culinary wish: "I would like to see serious wine bars in the area that could give you a horizontal tasting. In other words, you might get eight different Pinot Noirs from all over the world to taste at one time. Then you could really compare one with the other."
Role: Restaurant designer
You probably know LaMorticella's work. He has designed, among many others, Oliver's and Siena, the Buffalo Chop House and Laughlin's, a new place on Franklin Street, where he is still working. "That was one of the worst," he says. "It was a beautiful building, but we had to strip it to the brick."
LaMorticella is known for amazing, over-the-top decor that adds excitement. The Chophouse ladies room has crystal sinks and little stools next to the dining chairs where women can place their purses. His decor makes a restaurant experience memorable, and that is important to him.
Lighting is also important, he says. "You want the room to be elegant," he says, "but you want to be able to read the menu, too."
LaMorticella lives and works in southern California much of the time now but still keeps a house in Williamsville and is often in touch with Western New York. His company, PLM Design, will have several other jobs here this year.
"Buffalo needs places to be seen in," he says.
Culinary wish: "A real restaurant district is the best thing that could happen. I mean, a number of restaurants within a few city blocks so you don't have to get in your car. You can go to a bar before dinner, then walk somewhere for dinner then go to another bar for an after-dinner drink and finally to a cocktail piano bar to end the night.
"There's a little bit of that going on in Franklin Street and some on Chippewa and some on Hertel. . . . That's what big cities have to offer. And Buffalo is on its way."
Role: Owner of Salvatore's Italian Gardens, Transit Road, Lancaster.
Russ Salvatore started in his father's restaurant at Delavan Avenue and Harriet.
"It was a typical Buffalo tavern, and I used to shine the spittoons every morning," he recalls.
But in 1967 things changed radically. He bought a little restaurant on Genesee Street and Transit Road with the intention of opening a supper club.
"I figured it was near the airport and I could get some spinoff," Salvatore says. "It sounds stupid now, but I wanted to be famous."
And he did win fame; his 100,000-square-foot operation seating some 500 or 600 people at dinner is a landmark. The restaurant is elaborately decorated with statuary; at Christmas the lobby is full of trees, old-fashioned scenes and actual falling snow.
There's a reason for all this. Salvatore calls it "selling the sizzle." It's important to have good decor and good service, he believes.
Success did not come quickly. "The first year I did not do well, but then I put on a small banquet room. And I leased a Cadillac. When you do that, people think you're doing well."
The banquet business saved the restaurant, eventually. Salvatore's hosts so many weddings and community affairs he can hardly count.
"The dining room business is different today -- there are so many good restaurants. But the banquet business is automatic. If you do a good job with a banquet, you've got the people for the rest of their lives."
People who have worked in Salvatore's kitchen through the years (many of them going on to become lawyers and doctors) describe Russ Salvatore as a tough taskmaster. He has an answer for them.
"When you go on to think about it, being a tough taskmaster is simply just asking people to do things right. I have people who have been with me for 30 years."
Culinary wish: "I would like to see downtown Buffalo go back to where it was years ago. If you're busy in downtown (or at the airport) that spins off on everybody."
Andree "DeeDee" Lippes and Joel Lippes
Role: Owners of Rue Franklin restaurant
Rue Franklin, one of the first really sophisticated restaurants in the region, began life as a coffee house in 1971, complete with folk singers and dim lights. But the coffee and the pastries were very good. Gradually, the place began serving dinners on Saturday and Sunday nights featuring what was then exotic fare in a basically steak and potato culture.
Shish kebab turned up. Moussaka. And there were classical French dishes too, like Sole Bonne Femme and Duck with Green Peppercorns.
Finally, the Rue opened as a full-fledged restaurant, and the ambience reminded everyone of Paris. At first Joel did the cooking, taking recipes from cookbooks. It was very much learn-as-you-go. DeeDee, with her French background, handled the front of the house superbly. And still does.
Eventually the menu grew more varied, and the restaurant actually hired a chef.
It was one of the first in the area to change its menu with the seasons. "Buffalo is not a tourist town, and you have to give customers a change," Joel explains, but the seasonal menu also pointed up the Rue's total commitment to fresh food.
Today, some dishes are contemporary, but the Lippeses are careful not to go too far. Flavors tend to be subtle and very balanced. "We don't just throw the food on the plate," says Joel.
Culinary wish: Better markets. "I would like to see a real city market, which is what Bidwell is trying to be. But I would like to see markets like the ones in the south of France, which sell not only food but crafts, soaps, olive oil, clothes. That's a lot of fun.
"I would also like to see them move from one section of the city to another. Be at Bidwell for one day, say, and downtown the next day. They should locate in a different neighborhood five days out of seven. . . . It would improve our quality of life."
Role: Developer and owner of restaurants
Mark Croce has opened several restaurants or nightclubs on Franklin Street in downtown Buffalo. Among them: D'Arcy McGee's, the Sky Bar, Brownstone Seafood House & Oyster Bar, Buffalo Chop House and its new addition, the Franklin Room and Laughlin's. All are in the blocks between Chippewa and Edward.
He's not finished yet, however. The Warehouse, planned for Franklin Street across from the Brownstone, will be a nightclub. After that, he has plans for a pizzeria and a sports bar.
"Franklin Street, my Main Street," Croce says. "It is Restaurant Row."
This developer, a Williamsville North graduate in his mid-40s, and his executive chef, Sam Reda, are optimistic about downtown. "People like to go to hip places," Croce says. "Restaurants have broad appeal"
Croce operated a deli and a hair salon in the suburbs before coming downtown to develop restaurants about 10 years ago.
"I love downtown, and I love where it is going," he says enthusiastically. "The city is on fire. People don't see it yet, but the whole is greater than sum of the parts. We are going to the stars."
Culinary wish: "I want the suburbanites to rediscover downtown Buffalo. They have to realize they can't get the culture, the architecture, the ambience, anywhere else.
"The city did hit bottom, but it's rebounding strongly. We have to get them downtown, so they can see what is happening."
Role: Owner of Premier Gourmet, Delaware Avenue, Kenmore.
When we caught up with Ostrow, she was standing in the middle of an isle in Premier, extolling to a customer the virtues of trendy smoked paprika.
That's typical. She knows esoteric foods; she has tasted them all. And she's not afraid to say which one she likes best.
Ostrow came into Premier (then known as Premier Cheese) in April 1996, buying it from Burt Notarius, who owns renowned Premier Liquor next door.
She had worked for Notarius and had always been interested in food.
The store, with its vast amounts of well-priced culinary material from books to small appliances, imported beers to fresh-baked goods, is a destination for many out-of-towners. Everyone gets tastes before they buy.
They get advice, too. When Ostrow and her staff sell something, they know everything about it. They have tasted every variety of honey, roasted their own coffee, checked out every variety of balsamic vinegar.
But one of her greatest accomplishments is to promote Western New York products. Premier stocks the store with offerings from Doan's Honey Farm, the Anchor Bar, the Quaker Bonnet (especially Buffalo Chips, made by fellow Western New York booster Liz Kolken) and locally made pottery.
"I won't bring in lower quality, but I do try to support the Western New York community," she explains.
Culinary wish: "I would like to see the ethnic restaurant scene expand. We do have ethnic restaurants, but we are still missing a lot. I'd like to see South American food, Belgian food, a fine patisserie. . . . I want people to have fun with food. I do."
Role: Owner of Allen Street Hardware Cafe, Goldman also teaches a course about city rejuvenation at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture.
Goldman opened the late Calumet Arts Cafe on Chippewa Street, and he is generally credited with revitalizing what was once a model for downtown blight.
"My interests," he says, "were never particularly culinary. But I recognize the role the hospitality industry plays in revitalizing an area."
Before Calumet opened 1999, Goldman rehabbed the building, hoping that the restaurant would appeal to a sophisticated clientele interested in the arts. He was successful, especially since the Irish Classical Theatre performed there.
But when the group moved to permanent quarters, the population became less diversified, he says, when many taverns moved in.
"The whole neighborhood became so bar-driven, there was no parking, and there was virtually no daytime use."
So he leased out the restaurant (now Bacchus) and opened Allen Street in a quirky setting in an old hardware store. It fulfills all his requirements. "It's in a 24-hour neighborhood, is open seven days and has a strong appeal to a variety of people, diverse in terms of age, race, gender. I think it is the model we should follow."
Culinary wish: "The cost of converting a restaurant is so huge in terms of getting it up to code that I wish some public entity could assume the cost of it. That would encourage young people just getting started to go into the business. I think this is legitimate, because restaurants have a ripple effect to improve neighborhoods and revitalize the community."
Role: Owner of Gigi's, 257 E. Ferry St.
Harvin opened the doors of this restaurant on Jefferson Street in 1960, moving to her present location in 1976. Since then, Gigi's, open from 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week, has become a central meeting place in the East Side. Just about every politician in town makes sure to stop in for Sunday brunch.
"We're the center of everything," Harvin says. "Politics, football, basketball."
Ask Harvin what her long-term goals were in opening a restaurant decades ago, and how she thought she'd reach them, and she looks at you strangely.
"I didn't think," she says.
Maybe she was just too busy cooking. The favorite dishes at Gigi's are still fried chicken, macaroni and greens. All are made the old-fashioned way, without much too many labor-saving devices. Example: Ten cases of greens have to be washed and precooked for several hours every Monday. "It's a four- or five-hour operation," Harvin admits.
"We've been through a lot of things since 9/1 1, but we are still here, thank the Lord," she says.
Culinary wish: "I would like people to stay in Buffalo. We've lost so many customers. The young people leave after college, the older people go back down South. There are no jobs."
Role: President of Guercio and Sons, a produce business on Grant Street.
Guercio has five brothers and one sister, and everybody works in this family business, which has been open since 1961. Since then, it has become a fixture in the city food scene.
But it has changed in other ways, too. Guercio's still has a retail shop -- and the amount of produce on the sidewalk during harvest season must be seen to be appreciated -- but the biggest part of the business is selling to restaurants.
"We started this about 13 years ago and just get busier," Guercio says.
Now, he delivers to more than 100 restaurants and runs eight trucks. There are other produce suppliers, but chefs know that if they're looking for an exotic ingredient, Guercio will research and get it for them. Somehow.
"The business is much different from what it used to be," he says when asked to describe the kind of ingredients he looks for. "We carry fresh herbs all year long, we carry truffles. People are a lot more sophisticated and more interested in food."
He has to stay alert, he says. He watches the Food Channel to see what the next hot produce item might be.
Culinary wish: "I would like to see my neighborhood get spruced up and get the street cleaned up. That would be great."