Is one of the few true institutions in Niagara Falls starting to slip? If you judge by opinions expressed on the Internet, you might start to think so.
Common criticisms of the Como Restaurant and its first cousin, the Como at the Airport, range from indifferent service to outdated decor to inconsistent food. Many still swear by the two places, which share enough attributes to be conjoined twins. But a growing number of critics appear concerned the restaurants are simply existing on reputation.
Well, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the Como's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
That's not to say there isn't some complacency setting in there, not to mention some maddening inconsistencies. Any place that's been around for going on nine decades will probably experience that, to some degree.
But the best advice I heard came from a woman on one of the rating websites, who said simply to "stick with the basics, and you'll be fine." Get too adventurous with your ordering, and you're taking chances. Remember where you are and what they do best, and stick with that to avoid disappointment.
The homemade pastas and sausages, the Italian specialties, the red sauce -- all solid choices.
Many diners believe it is the sauce that makes an Italian restaurant, and I can't disagree. Some find fault with the Como's no-frills version, but I'm still a fan of its relative simplicity. It's clingy but not overly thick, tasty but not overly seasoned, effective but not overpowering. What more could you ask of a sauce?
The best thing is that it's consistent -- unlike the potatoes and peppers, which are sometimes great (when sufficiently browned and crispy) and sometimes greasy and tasteless (when not). You know what to expect when ordering the signature Como sauce, and you get it time after time. You know what Como's pizza bread will be like -- thick and subtly seasoned -- and it rarely varies.
Stick to the basics. Good piece of advice.
Unlike its more upscale compadre up the other end of Pine Avenue, the Airport Como serves breakfast daily. During a recent stop we discovered that it does, indeed, abide by its mantra, "best breakfast in town." We sampled several of the offerings and found each to be tasty, not to mention filling. The breakfasts offer large portions at decent prices, ranging from about $3 all the way up to $12.
Members of our party tried the Belgian waffle ("cooked to perfection, not too crispy or too doughy"), the French toast ("on the plain side; I prefer it egg-ier") and the pancakes ("nice, with a light dusting of powdered sugar").
We also sampled the Italian Stallion ($7.75), which consisted of eggs, wonderful Italian sausage links and "a crazy amount" of garlic toast, enough to feed a Sicilian army, along with a pancake and a fruit garnish. The sausage was a hit, split down the middle and griddled up to a delicious crispness that really accentuated the Italian seasonings.
The Reuben omelette was another smashing success -- and one that would seem to break the mold of sticking to the basics. It's essentially what it says -- a Reuben wrapped inside an omelette -- and our diner beamed, "I didn't know a Reuben could taste so good inside an omelette. Moist, tasty, excellent!" The potatoes and peppers that came with the meal were oily, however, and not cooked sufficiently to his liking, leaving some hard and chewy. I guess when you make a dish so often, there are bound to be batches that don't stand up to the rest.
When it came to lunch and dinner on another excursion, we stuck to what we thought would be dependable fare. We were mostly satisfied, with one major exception.
The "Como's own" Italian stuffed peppers ($14.95) was a major disappointment and might illustrate why some think the Como is in decline. Billed as green bell peppers stuffed with a combination of ground beef, rice, bread crumbs and cheese and topped with a mushroom sauce, it immediately rekindled childhood memories of my mother baking similar concoctions.
Hers were like mini meatloaves on the half-shell. Como Airport's were more of a mush shoved into a pepper that was either too old or had been previously frozen. Either way, it ruined the texture of the dish and made for an indigestible container, too chewy to readily consume and bitter, even if you were able to chisel off a piece.
And the filling was quite inconsistent between the three pepper halves on the plate. The first seemed to be virtually all bread crumbs and very little meat, which made itsquishy and almost tasteless. The other two had only flecks of meatand were a little better, but not much. It was served with a side of pasta (I chose shells) topped with an ample amount of red sauce. That basically was my meal -- and a satisfying one, at that, except for the price tag. I took the peppers home and revisited them later; they seemed to have gained a little flavor from sitting around, but they still were nowhere near what I remembered of Mom's.
We also sampled the Western sandwich ($8.50), which was a real mouthful, stuffed with peppers, onions and diced ham, atop a Kaiser roll. My wife loved it. The meat lasagna ($12.95), likewise, was a meal and a half, a hulking portion with sufficient amounts of ground beef, sausage, ricotta cheese and, of course, that red sauce. Served with a mighty meatball, it was enough for a whole day's eating.
The Como's signature soup, Italian eggdrop, is another can't-go-wrong choice, oozing with tasty ingredients and always hot and satisfying.
So you may have to choose your spots a little bit, but all in all, the Comos remain a viable choice for everyday Italian.
The Como at the Airport
10158 Niagara Falls Blvd., Niagara Falls (297-7497)
3 stars (out of four)
Favorite dish: The Reuben omelette
Needs work: "Como's own" Italian stuffed peppers
Healthy choice: Stuffed tomato?
Price range: A little pricey
Noise level: Subdued
Wheelchair access: Yes
Parking: Connected lot
Kid appeal: Not a problem
Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, except to 7 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Monday; for more information, visit www.thecomorestaurant.com