Salvatore’s Italian Gardens is known for a lot of things. Craft cocktails has not been one of them. The restaurant, banquet hall, hotel and Western New York standard for opulent decor teeters dangerously close to the edge of gaudy. Visitors can – and do – get lost in its many gold and brocade-draped rooms, and it has long been a destination for weddings, anniversaries and banquets. But to stop in for a drink? Not so much.
When a friend tipped us off to its cocktail list, boasting “handcrafted” drinks with the “finest ingredients and spirits,” we decided to see how Salvatore’s bar staff lives up to that promise. With features like lavender-infused simple syrup and barrel-aged selections on the menu, Salvatore’s list looked promising. At a restaurant that’s all about over-the-top details, we expected nothing less.
As spring tiptoes into Western New York, our taste buds start to crave tangy, fruity and fresh flavors. We start to forgo soups for salads, forage for greens in the produce section and steer clear of dark, amaro-heavy cocktails for lighter, more sprightly spirits. It was in that mindset I ordered “Salvatore’s Barrel-Aged Negroni,” a gin-based cocktail with cherry-red, bitter Campari and a hint of sweet vermouth. Many bars feature a take on the Italian classic, but Salvatore’s barrel-aging took it up a notch. Not unexpected for a restaurant with its own statue garden.
The menu promised a flamed orange garnish, but the drink arrived with a lowly wedge, likely from the bar fruit tray. It was swirled around the rim for effect, but flaming brings out the oils more effectively and toasts them slightly for a caramelized effect a twist alone won’t provide. Salvatore’s also uses bar ice to build its drinks, which came as a surprise from the master of detailed decor. When the star-spangled ceiling has asteroids spinning across the sky and even the glasses feature the estate’s iconic logo, I expected that obsession with minutiae to extend to the cocktails, as well.
Taste-wise, it was good, but not $12 and a 20-minute drive good. Barrel-aging the blend gave the drink a smokier, more complex character than its freshly-shaken version. A classic Negroni has hints of bitterness from the Campari, forest fruitiness from the vermouth and a touch of gin’s herbal brightness.
The type of gin used greatly influences the flavor; try one with Tanqueray and another with Hendricks and see what I mean. Salvatore’s uses a clean gin that either has little herbal character, or is overcome by the aging process. Letting a cocktail rest in a barrel deepens the blend a bit, in this case giving the Campari time to mellow out and the wine room to bloom. It makes for a tasty cocktail, with a smoother, less lively taste than most versions. The aged Negroni is not bad, but at a restaurant with Salvatore’s reputation, we hoped for better.
This is one case where a few adjustments – using the advertised garnishes and better ice, for starters – can elevate a cocktail program from serviceable to satisfying. If you happen to be at Salvatore’s for a dinner, a wedding or any of the hundreds of events it hosts each year, the cocktail menu is fine. It didn’t seem worth a special trip, however. Until it is, visitors may take note of its Wine Spectator Award of Excellence and go with a glass of grape instead.
Barrel-aged Negroni, $12; Salvatore’s Italian Gardens; 6461 Transit Road, Depew, NY 14043; 683-7990; salvatores.net.
Lizz Schumer is the author of “Buffalo Steel,” the editor of The Sun and writes about food and whimsy for a variety of publications. She can be found @eschumer, facebook.com/authorlizzschumer and lizzschumer.com.