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'Monday Lunch Crew' relishes its milestone

Here’s a quick quiz for some of the Buffalo area’s most passionate eaters, especially those who love going out to eat:

Name 50 restaurants in the region, excluding fast-food joints and national chains.

OK, that’s doable.

But can you name 100? Or 150?

That seems virtually impossible, especially if they all have to be open for lunch on Monday.

But eight local professionals and longtime buddies, five of whom met at Wanakah Country Club, can do it, with a little help from the spreadsheet one of them created.

They call themselves the “Monday Lunch Crew,” or the region’s “unofficial food critics.”

And on Monday, they met for lunch at their 150th different restaurant, Patina 250 on Delaware Avenue downtown. Most grew up in Buffalo, and they enjoy celebrating their milestone lunches at places reflecting downtown’s rebirth; their 100th restaurant was (716) Food and Sport.

These guys are food critics without portfolio. You won’t find their critiques on any blog or website. They don’t give out any stars, although they do come to a consensus on each restaurant, whether they definitely, maybe or won’t return.

So while they’re debating presidential politics or the current Bills season, they’re also paying attention to whether the french fries are too greasy or the bologna-and-onion sandwich’s a bit skimpy or the hamburger’s not cooked to order or the service is shoddy.

These eight men seem to get a kick out of the reaction they get when people learn they’ve found 150 different places that serve lunch on Mondays.

“People are amused,” said Sam Gullo, longtime jeweler and founder of the group. “Typically, we’re creatures of habit. Generally, people like maybe a half-dozen restaurants. You go to places that are close to home or you enjoy the food or you feel comfortable there. This forces us to go to places that we never would have tried.”

These restaurants range alphabetically, from Acropolis to Wiechec’s Lounge; geographically, from Lockport to Ellicottville to Letchworth State Park; and by restaurant type, from a burger joint to a fine Italian restaurant, according to the group’s keeper of the spreadsheet, Frank Kopfer.

The food, of course, is just part of the attraction.

The camaraderie is what keeps the group going. The group has become such good friends that some of the members, along with their wives, spend other time together socially. On Monday, they went around the table and learned they've been married an average of more than 48 years apiece.

“We relish the camaraderie we have developed over the last six years,” Gullo said. “We all enjoy each other’s company.”

Gullo started the group in early 2011 after he moved his Crinzi and Gullo Jewelers from downtown to Orchard Park. Other original crew members included Jim Harrity, an optician; Kopfer, a retired CFO; Fred Occhino, a real estate broker; and Roger Pasquarella, a retired restaurant owner. Others who joined the group include Dennis Dargavel and Karl Puzio, both real estate agents, and Walt Jaros, a retired insurance executive. One other crew member died, and another moved away.

The group’s age range appears to be 66 to 78, a mix of retirees and guys still working.

“As you get older, and we’re all getting older, you can isolate yourself,” Pasquarella said, noting that it can be tougher for retirees to make friends. “This is a way to get together. It’s kind of nice.”

With a group tilted toward the real estate and financial worlds, those become popular topics at the lunches. There’s also plenty of talk about their grandchildren, current events, Buffalo’s rebirth, food, their golf games and, of course, sports and politics.

“We’re probably no different than any other groups of guys that get together,” Dargavel said.

The discussions can get spirited, but never mean-spirited, the members suggested.

“I’m one of the very few Democrats in the group, so it’s always a little rough on me,” Dargavel said. “They were kind of smirking after the election, but they’re good about it. I’ve never been aggravated by anyone at the table.”

Lunch-crew members are reluctant to rank their restaurants, especially in public. But they did release a list of their top 10 restaurants from the last two years, between their 100th and 150th new places. In alphabetical order, they are Allen Burger Venture, Cabaret Restaurant, Ellicottville Brewing Company, Frankie Primo’s +39, Giancarlo’s, Glen Iris Inn, RiverWorks, Trattoria Aroma, Village Eatery (Lockport) and Wellington Pub.

Each Saturday, the crew begins exchanging texts on the next restaurant, whether it’s a new or old site. To hear them tell it, after celebrating number 150, they may have to find another 50 new restaurants.

“My goal initially was 100 restaurants,” Gullo said. “Then we went to 150. I guess our next goal will be 200.

“We’ll go as long as we’re all enjoying it – and we’re all healthy.”

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