Thanks to a sustained burst of enthusiasm and investment, Buffalo is a better town to eat in today than it was a decade ago. The breadth and depth of the city's collective menu, the finesse applied to everything from french fries to foie gras, makes this a golden age of eating. But dining? Not necessarily.
Dining well requires the complete package: effective service and appropriate surroundings that heighten the experience of food and drink. Service is where Buffalo's restaurants are, as a group, most needful. The restaurant boom has magnified a shortage of seasoned servers, making places with a core of expert waitstaff stand out.
During a recent dinner at Trattoria Aroma on Bryant Street, when our waiter warned us away from the house-made pasta – "a little heavy tonight" – my momentary disappointment dissolved into thankfulness. I felt well-served before the first bite arrived.
Trattoria Aroma has been serving its Italian cucina moderna and resolutely Italian wine list for 10 years, successful enough to springboard siblings in Williamsville and East Amherst. It also appears on many upscale Sunday brunch shortlists.
[PHOTOS: Gallery from inside Trattoria Aroma - Bryant Street]
Owner Dave Cosentino has made wine satisfaction a particular point of pride. Our server offered to fetch a guest one taste, then another, before she was happy. These calibration efforts, provided without attitude, should come with every $10 glass of wine.
Fresh bread with a hearty crust appeared first, as the server filled our bread plates with seasoned oil. I perched my bread on the rim so it didn’t get soaked.
Aroma restaurants like to feature local ingredients, but in February, it’s slim pickings. Chef Matt Davis offered mashed Oles Farm purple potatoes under his house-made chicken sausage ($13), which got its robust flavor from fresh herbs and a judicious char. A drizzle of ghost pepper oil, served on the side, provided fiery balance to sticky-sweet tomato jam and gave the dish an eye-opening pop.
[RELATED: Review of Aroma's North French location, from August 2014]
The rest of my meal could have used a few more sparks like that. The dishes were well-composed, but muted pleasures.
House-smoked pork belly ($12) on polenta was plenty flavorful, with maple, honey and dressed arugula, but it was chewy as a well-done chop.
Grilled salad ($11) was a salad do-it-yourself kit. Two slim sheaves of romaine leaves had been bound with prosciutto, then rolled on the char-broiler just long enough for the leaves to absorb a hint of smoke. I hacked them up and mixed the greenery with the roasted red peppers, Gorgonzola and walnuts on the plate, for an appetizing interactive salad.
A funghi pizza ($15) with mushrooms, pancetta and fontina cheese sported a thin, cracker-like crust that was not as puffy-edged or leopard-spotted as other Aroma pizzas I’ve encountered in the past. This was more of a flatbread, crispy to the edge.
Pastas included beef cheek ravioli ($23), five plump dumplings stuffed with rich strands of meat in a glossy red wine demiglace enhanced with mushrooms and thyme.
Pappardelle with braised rabbit and goat cheese ($24) offered pasta ribbons tossed with shredded rabbit, diced carrots and pancetta in light rosemary-scented broth. A dollop of goat cheese added tangy funk, but otherwise the dish was tame bordering on bland.
The pork chop ($26) won favor around the table, a hefty bone-in specimen that came on a heap of risotto, topped with mushrooms and leeks alongside roasted squash wedges. The tender pork tasted like pork instead of “the other white meat.” With its vegetable sidekicks, firm-grained rice and pleasant sauce, the dish was comforting as a hug.
Green parsley pesto on a butterflied rainbow trout ($28) looked zestier than it tasted, leaving the flaky fish under-seasoned. Asparagus spears underneath it, having acquired a savory snap from a brief roll on the grill, were dug out and devoured.
Swordfish ($29) was better, cooked perfectly and hidden under a mild caponata of eggplant, peppers and green olives. Like the rest of our non-pasta entrees, it arrived atop properly toothsome risotto.
At no point during the evening did the noise level make conversation difficult, even with the room mostly full. After hauling away entrée plates, our server swapped out silverware and wiped off the table.
Desserts were solid versions of classic forms. The warm apple tart ($9) won hearts with tender fruit, streusel, vanilla ice cream and caramel. Chocolate truffle torta ($9) made a triple play of chocolate favorites with mousse, cake and ganache.
Tiramisu ($8) offered the timeless synergy of cocoa and coffee in such an airy union that I was left wondering why so many versions turn out sludgy.
Trattoria Aroma’s wintertime menu aims for comfort, and the results can be subdued. But it’s still a reliable partner for a quietly satisfying night out, and spring is right around the bend.
Trattoria Aroma Bryant Street – 8 plates (out of 10)
Reliable Italian comforts that go beyond red sauce.
Where: 307 Bryant St., 881-7592
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday brunch, 5 to 10 p.m.
Price range: Antipasti, $8-$14; pizza, $13-$15; pasta, $20-$27; entrees, $26-$38.
Wheelchair access: yes
Gluten-free options: Gnocchi, short ribs, risotto, many antipasti.
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