The bargain hunters of Buffalo did not need Guy Fieri to tell them about Mulberry. The Lackawanna restaurant already had made a name for itself, dishing up coconut-sized meatballs and lasagnas that loomed over the table like the Matterhorn. When it takes a village to finish a plate of pasta, a place in Buffalo’s Red Sauce Hall of Fame is all but assured.
After the spiky-headed mayor of Flavortown added his imprimatur in 2010, its owners could’ve jacked up the prices, low-balled the quality and settled in to count the money. But a recent visit showed Mulberry Italian Ristorante isn’t selling reputation. It’s selling better-than-average Italian-American classics mixed with more-ambitious fare, priced for Buffalo and served with swagger.
The restaurant is wedged into a residential neighborhood surrounded by industrial sites and the railroad. Its parking lots can’t hold the cars it draws, but that doesn’t stop it from filling fast at dinnertime.
The entrance leads into a barroom with tables, decorated with photographs of Buffalonians, and the night we were there, a former Buffalo mayor, in person. We were led into the side room, with more of a New York City motif, lined with Broadway posters and Times Square art. It seemed like a quieter room, until the people at the four-top next to us started really letting their hair down.
I wasn’t offended. Its menu edges toward fine dining, but Mulberry is a family restaurant at heart. There’s white paper on the tabletop, and paper napkins. The bread basket landed with fresh, chewy, room-temperature Italian bread and Land O’Lakes butter pats.
We took our time with the menu, studying the pastabilities. Much of the pasta is housemade, except for extruded types like spaghetti and penne, and there is an entire section of gnocchi, of various types and toppings. Specials included things that sounded like standards (cheese ravioli and a “famous meatball,” $15; clams casino, $11) but also ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossoms ($10).
Where does a restaurant get zucchini blossoms in March? From Israel, the server said, and I asked for some. We also wanted arancini and fried calamari (both $10), and one of those meatballs ($5).
Our entrees were penne Silveri, with smoked mozzarella and crispy pancetta ($16), E. Wood gnocchi, with lobster and truffle cream ($22), gnocchi Telefono ($16), lamb loin with lentils ($22), and veal Parmesan ($19).
The calamari, tentacles and rings served with the night’s first helping of bright tomato sauce, were plenty tasty, not greasy and dusted with cheese. The squid was chewy, cooked a touch longer than optimum, but still acceptable. Arancini, three tennis-ball-sized spheres in a cheesy cream sauce, were outstanding. A crispy crust held firm-grained risotto and peas, not pasty in the least.
The meatball, served with tomato sauce, lived up to the hype, tender but with enough structure to avoid mushiness. One split four ways was about one standard-sized meatball apiece.
Buying produce from Israel is the easy part of serving fried zucchini flowers in March. They have to be stuffed gently, battered and fried judiciously, then delivered to table while still crisp. Ours succeeded on all counts, making the two cheese-stuffed blossoms a worthy splurge.
Then came our salads. They come gratis with entrees, but even free food can be a minor letdown after high-flying appetizers, with standard field mix augmented with cherry tomatoes and half-hearted croutons. The house balsamic vinaigrette was too vinegary for my taste.
Without missing a beat, our entrees arrived. Gnocchi Telefono was thumb-sized ricotta dumplings in tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella. The gnocchi were winners, firm but light.
E. Wood gnocchi was anything but light, an umami blast of truffled cream sauce, shiitake mushrooms, prosciutto and lobster meat tumbled with little potato gnocchi the size of meltaway mints. The gnocchi were tender and just starchy enough to carry the dish. After a couple of bites I realized that it was named after a Buffalo Bills offensive tackle, who could probably polish off a serving and do wind sprints. It was rich as an NFL player, after all.
Cat’s penne Silveri, dressed in tomato sauce, got some flavor from well-grilled chicken breast, but needed more of the smoked mozzarella or something else to make it as interesting as some of the other plates on the table. Like the lamb with lentils, an accurately cooked medium-rare loin plated on a sprawl of smoky, earthy legumes, grilled radicchio and a supporting horseradish crème fraîche sauce. It was a satisfying change-up pitch in a red-sauce world, and enough tender lamb to share a few bites.
My veal Parmesan offered a more-than-large-enough piece of meat with crispy breading. I could still taste the veal, but it was a sturdy cutlet indeed, cooked a little longer than it required. It came with a side of spaghetti, but I was tired of tomato sauce by this point, and just packed it up.
Service was swift and professional, but still friendly. When we dithered over which cannoli filling to choose, our server offered to use standard and Nutella fillings so we could taste both ($4.29). A good call, as it turned out, as the hazelnut-chocolate ricotta was a welcome twist inside the crisp pastry shell, and the standard filling made the traditionalists happy.
A tiramisu ($5.99) was dense but full of creamy, boozy espresso flavor, a crème brûlée ($6.99) was thin-crusted but silky, and cheesecake ($4.99) was solid, rich and grainy under a blanket of raspberry sauce.
The tables are close, and the dinnertime noise can make it hard to hear tablemates. If you don’t watch it while ordering, you may have your fill of tomato sauce well before the meal’s end. (Or maybe the indigestion was really guilty second thoughts about the zucchini blossoms’ carbon footprint).
That said, if you’re looking for family dining and have a red sauce hankering, Mulberry is worth a drive across town. Practically everybody else knows that by now, too, a fact that may bear repeating as you look for a parking spot. But that’s the way the meatball bounces.
Mulberry Italian Ristorante - 8 plates (out of 10)
Family red-sauce joint hasn’t let fame soften its game.
WHERE: 64 Jackson Ave., Lackawanna (822-4292)
HOURS: 4 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4 to 9:30 p.m. Friday; 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday; and 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers and salads, $5-$12; entrees, $14-$27.
PARKING: Lots, street.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.