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Try Orazio’s for Italian-American standards and housemade staples

A taste for fried mozzarella sticks has left me vulnerable to years of appetizer abuse. I saw too many pale, chewy sticks whose journey from factory to plate was interrupted only by a burst of microwave radiation. I had started to wonder what I ever saw in them in the first place. At Orazio’s, my faith was rewarded, with slabs the size of Snickers bars, clad in crunchy golden crumbs, just oozy enough to weep mozzarella as they arrived. Chunky tomato sauce with gusto. When a guest said, “If I wasn’t here with you guys, I would have ordered two of these things and gone to town,” it was like he was reading my mind. ¶ The rest of the meal was satisfying but not as extraordinary, because it’s not as hard to find competent Italian-American pasta favorites in Western New York.

Orazio’s is a red sauce landmark in Clarence, where it moved to larger digs on Main Street after originally opening on Hertel Avenue in 1992. It offers an Italian-American menu with all the standard pastas, veal and seafood, with more housemade staples than some, including spaghetti, fettucine and linguine pastas.

The bread is made there, and a huge, fluffy half-loaf was served warm. I would probably have filled up on the bread and the mozzarella sticks, if I was not there for professional reasons. It would’ve been a satisfying meal, even if it got the nutrition cops on my case.

The brick pizza oven introduced to fanfare a couple of years ago sits dark and cool in the barroom, where the host had granted our request for a table. We ate as “Wheel of Fortune” and then a Bills preseason game played.

Soup ($3.50 cup) included a hearty and homey chicken with pastina, while cream of cauliflower was richer than queso and could have used a spicy note to liven it up. The spinach salad ($4.95 with entrée) arrived with an ample cup of sweet, hot bacon dressing, but the Caesar ($3.95 with entrée) lacked zip, or garlic for that matter. The housemade croutons were little toasty bites of joy.

Oysters Rockefeller ($9.95 for 5) packed lots of sautéed fresh leaf spinach, sweet Pernod cream and a strip of chewy bacon on quarter-sized oysters. I didn’t taste oyster in the first sample, and delved into spinach to confirm its presence. Stuffed peppers ($9.95) struck a balance between tender roasted peppers, moderately spicy, and cheese filling. An “Orangini” fried risotto ball ($7.95) stuffed with peas and ground beef had a decent crust but mushy rice.

When entrees arrived I realized the figures glimpsed wheeling boxes in the parking lot as we arrived were not movers, just people taking leftovers home.

My plate of veal Abruzzo ($23.95) included plenty of tender veal, cappicola and eggplant, submerged in a lake of tomato sauce and mozzarella, with undercooked eggplant adding a discordant note. Cat’s manicotti ($15.95), made with housemade crepes, arrived piping hot, an expanse of edible lava that made me wonder why no one names dishes after Mercury.

Seafood Rafael ($20.95) was right on the mark, angel hair pasta topped with plenty of lush, perfectly cooked scallops and shrimp in a light garlic sauce. Our party of four each sampled seafood and there was still plenty to take home. A steak lasagna special ($21.95) had tender steak suspended between pasta sheets with ricotta, all in a bowl of Alfredo sauce that was enough for another pasta dinner. It was substantial indeed, but the richness felt like overkill.

Desserts ($5.95) are made in-house, too. A cannoli was tasty but lacked a shatteringly crisp shell, and loose cheese filling flowed. Whipped cheesecake was 4 inches tall but not as light as it looked. A custard-filled apple pie delighted with apple slices in eggy custard and fresh crust, the best apple pie variation I’ve encountered this year.

If you’re in Clarence looking for Italian-American standards made in large part from scratch, Orazio’s is the place to have dinner … and take to work for lunch the next day.

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