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Osteria 166 brings Italian bustle downtown

The evolution of the Buffalo stuffed pepper continues. ¶ Popularized by Andy DiVincenzo of Billy Ogden’s in the late 1980s, the cheese-filled yellow Hungarian has gotten on half the menus in town. Not just Italian places, and not just appetizers, either: I’ve seen “Buffalo stuffed pepper” soups, meatballs, pizzas and pierogies, plus other mutations best forgotten. ¶ Then I got to Osteria 166, the new downtown Italian restaurant that opened in June behind the Statler. It’s owner Nick Pitillo’s first place, but he spent the last seven years at the Seneca Niagara Casino’s La Cascata. He was working the room, chatting with customers and shuffling tables to accommodate groups. Amid a moderately ambitious menu featuring house-made burrata and porchetta, his spin on stuffed peppers paid off handsomely during a recent visit.

Crispy batons of pepper-flecked risotto cake ($7) were oddly light, with distinct grains of tender rice, yet plenty cheesy. We didn’t need the creamy tomato dipping sauce to make us happy.

The burrata ($9) was sold out, but there was pork confit ($8) and flatiron pizzas ($7-$14). Besides risotto sticks, we asked for grilled octopus ($10), an arugula and zucchini pizza ($9) and a coconut shrimp with peach sauce special ($12).

The pizza’s crust had been seared on hot metal, topped with provolone, herbs and grilled zucchini, baked until bubbly brown and topped with fresh arugula. I found the crust slightly underdone in spots, and might have complained, except my mouth was full. Later it didn’t seem as important.

Service was expansive. A tablemate spilled half a glass of wine, and our server returned and topped it off.

Coconut shrimp, four jumbo specimens, were fried well, with a summery peach sauce that elevated them further. But it was a chore to get the flavors together. Why make a peach sauce that nice, then hide it under a clump of field mix tamped down by lemon wedges?

Grilled octopus is not for everybody, but it is for me. Osteria’s plate had pieces of pinky-caliber tentacles braised in herbs until soft, over fresh arugula. Atop mayonnaise, atop crostini, atop arugula pesto. The tentacles were tasty enough, but I like my octopus with a bit of chew left to it. Here its meekness got lost in all the hubbub on the plate.

There’s a lot to like on Osteria 166’s menu, but also room for improvement. Warm housemade foccacia arrived in a paper bag with our entrees, clearly fresh but underbaked, still a touch doughy.

We ordered three special entrees: white lasagna with breaded chicken ($19); seared diver scallops with berries and crispy house-made pancetta ($24); and the bone-in strip steak over butter bean, escarole and crab ragu ($38), the most expensive dish on the menu.

Asked for medium rare, I got a nice steak that was rare to raw in the middle. Our server apologized and whisked it back to the kitchen. I could have asked for a new steak, but didn’t. My mistake. It returned medium rare in the middle, but due to the inexorable laws of meat and fire, the rest was on the dry side.

The companion ragu offered little solace, its tender beans and greens delivered in a salty jus that didn’t show signs of crabmeat.

Six large scallops were seared well and arranged around strawberries, blueberries and blackberries over lettuces, with diced pancetta. The scallops and berries were fresh and pleasing in their own way, and the fat from the seared pancetta lent a porky, savory background to the dish. It was good, but it could have been great, if the pancetta had been cut differently or seared enough to eliminate rubbery chunks of fat. (Plus more plentiful sauce.)

The pastas were terrific. The Thursday night special ravioli of sun-dried tomatoes and eggplant, served in bright, fruity marinara ($14), were earthy, tender pillows appreciated by all. It was my favorite ravioli of the year.

Cat’s white lasagna was stuffed with spinach, mushrooms and chicken cutlets, swathed in Parmesan cream and browned on top. She praised its comfort food credentials, as the sort of dish you would like to save and eat for lunch the next day, too. But she sat next to me, and I liked it, so that didn’t happen.

Dessert bulletin: Get the caramel almond budino and chocolate terrine with pistachios. Not the fried strawberries (all $7).

A few dishes could have been better, but I would not hesitate to return for appetizers, sandwiches and pastas. The place just opened, but Osteria 166 might have what it takes to become a downtown fixture.