When people of a certain age reach the top of the stairs to the second-floor dining room at Bambino Bar & Kitchen, they may take one look at the wall decor and giggle. Spread out along the handsome restored bricks is a series of photo blowups featuring slightly nervous-looking tots on ponies -- some of them wearing Western hats; some even appear to be wearing chaps.
"I have a picture of me just like that," one of the climbers said, recalling a guy who, long ago, plodded the streets of the city complete with pony and props, all the better to snap photos of the dressed-up kids for posterity -- and for a fee. (Hey, I was one of those kids and spent all last weekend tearing up the attic to find the glossy black-and-white evidence. In, I might add, vain.)
But, coming back to the present day, my point is this: Newly opened Bambino is an interesting mix of 20th century nostalgia and 21st century trendiness. On the contemporary side, you have your small-plate menu, your wood-fired pizza oven, your brick walls and exotic drinks and a drop-dead gorgeous, second-floor patio with a view of Buffalo you may have never seen.
But then you also have some examples of owner Noel Morreale's fondest culinary memories -- homemade Manicotti ($14), homemade Giardiniera (pickled vegetable salad, $3) and Macaroni & Peas ($5). Buffalo-born Morreale and his partner, Michael Vaccaro, opened the place less than a month ago and had a definite reason for doing so. They are owners, too, of the very successful steakhouse Fiamma on Hertel Avenue. About 15 months ago or so, they noticed a change in their business -- Fiamma is seen as a high-end place, and customers, the owners felt, were reacting to the recession.
"So we began looking for a cheaper price point, a more casual place," Morreale told me later on the phone. "All the bigger chefs in the country are doing it -- like Daniel Boulud in New York City opening his Bar Boulud."
Morreale described the new place as having a "dumbed-down" menu. But I don't think that's accurate. "Simpler" could be a better adjective. "Informal" might do well, too.
Whatever the description, it seems to work nicely. At a recent meal (where the servers recognized us), the Companion began with Chicken Soup ($5), rich and well-filled with tortellini made from Buffalo's own Gondola company.
I ordered something not often seen in these parts -- Roasted Bone Marrow ($10). At Bambino, the fatty marrow is served in the bones, which have been soaked, according to Morreale, poached and then finished in the pizza oven. The diner digs the stuff out (with a cocktail fork -- it's pretty hard to find authentic marrow spoons these days) and spreads it on bread along with the accompanying parsley salad.
OK -- it's not for everyone, but it is for me.
For the main course, we stuck with pasta. Mezzi I Rigatoni ($15) is served with Bolognese Sauce; very satisfying, but I'll bet that most diners haven't heard of Mafalda ($14), which looks like someone cut a lasagna noodle in half lengthwise, curly edges and all. Here it's served with a plum tomato sauce, basil and just a hint of toasted garlic. Nice big shrimp atop.
Now for dessert. I love Cannoli as much as anyone, but I'd like to see something a little different for once -- maybe a fruit-based dessert.
We also ordered a plate of Italian Wedding Cookies ($6) made from Morreale's grandmother's recipes and, including what I consider the greatest cookie in the world -- fig-filled Cuccidati. But that was our only real disappointment. The cookies were dry.
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BAMBINO BAR & KITCHEN
3 stars (out of 4)
WHERE: 297 Franklin St. (240-9851). A very urban, very handsome bar/restaurant complete with a stunning second-floor patio and a casual Italian-American menu. Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
FAVORITE DISH: Mafalda with shrimp.
NEEDS WORK: Wood Oven Roasted Chicken Wings not as good as the real thing.
PRICE RANGE: Small Plates from $9; entree specialties from $16.
HOURS: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner, 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Sunday; 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Late-night kitchen until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Ramp on side of building.
PARKING: Free parking in the rear or on the street.
* indicates that restaurant is so new that this is a provisional rating.