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Mr. Ventry's jumps into the Italian food fray with so-so results

There was a commercial on TV the other night touting Domino's as more than "just pizza." Seems the chain wants to be seen as more of a "restaurant" destination now, by offering up dishes like hot sandwiches, salads and pastas in addition to their standard pizza and wings.

The move seems to be trending, as more and more of what were traditionally known as pizzerias pad their menus somewhat and add the term "restaurant" to the marquee.

One example is the recently opened Mr. Ventry's Pizza and Restaurant. Consider it the latest entrant in Niagara Falls' Italian restaurant sweepstakes.

Alas, the likes of Fortuna's, Como and Michael's remain the clear winners in this particular event, but Mr. Ventry's makes a respectable showing -- especially for a newbie. Given ample time and space, there is room for growth here, and the eatery's potential is virtually unlimited.

Inhabiting a space long ago occupied by a Dairy Queen/Brazier, the Mr. Ventry's folks took an axe to the original structure and overhauled it from the ground up, it seems, to the tune of some $1 million. The result is a roomy, inviting space high on restaurant-like amenities and short on pizzeria.

The first things you notice upon entering the main doors are multiple lengthy, padded benches, apparently dedicated to waiting customers. It appears as though management is prepared for any onslaught that may occur -- tour buses, perhaps? -- with the strategy. I can't think of any pizzerias that offer such amenities -- or need to, for that matter.

With booths and tables, it has the look of a restaurant. The walls are of glass tile construct -- or at least some close facsimile -- and there is a huge, built-in wine rack mid-wall in the section where we were seated. That definitely flies in the face of pizzeria.

The lighting was subdued, the sound system softly playing Christmas favorites, and waitresses and greeters were busy managing a steady stream of customers. Like I said, none of it adds up to your father's pizzeria.

But then you turn a corner and there's an area for take-out/pick-up, with a counter displaying pizza slices for sale, and a small waiting area populated with a TV playing sports events and a soda machine. Guess that's the "pizza" portion of the equation.

It is nice that it is well segregated from the sit-down area, and it is conveniently accessed by a separate door so that those picking-up need not intrude on the dining room party.

The new Mr. Ventry's is actually the second Mr. Ventry's, joining the long-established original on Pierce Avenue. That one is much more of a traditional pizzeria, even though it does offer such non-traditional pizzeria fare as ribs and antipasto. But it is basically a take-out joint, and (food aside) pales in comparison to the new building.

Being in our neighborhood, we had been to The New Mr. Ventry's Pizzeria and Restaurant on Pizza Boulevard a few times already, sampling the pizza (it's always good -- more on that later) and the fish (both fried and baked -- also quite tasty) and the subs (ditto). But this time we wanted to see what the "restaurant" portion of the title was all about, so we dropped in one cold and snowy Friday evening to sit down and give it a shot.

Our verdict: menza-menza.

We started with an appetizer of homemade meatballs served with ricotta cheese ($9.25 for three meatballs). They were decent-sized and served with a coating of red sauce, and a little cup of chilled, rigid ricotta. The meatballs themselves were succulent, extremely moist and crumbly. They weren't highly spiced, and the sauce didn't do much to contribute, flavor-wise, but they still were pretty good.

The ricotta was kind of hard to deal with in its chilled state, so the overall grade was probably a B-minus. I used salt and grated parmesan to perk mine up a bit, spread some of that ricotta on the nice, fresh Italian bread we had been served, and made a mini meatball sandwich.

Red pepper flakes would have been helpful, as well, but they weren't offered on the table.

I also had an order of beans-and-greens ($3.25/$5.50) which had excellent homemade flavor. It had a distinct and robust Italian taste to it, probably the best dish of the night.

My companion, Teresa, ordered the grilled chicken dinner ($9.50) and thought it odd that she was asked whether she wanted the sandwich or the "small grilled (breast)." She replied that she wanted the dinner -- the grilled breast -- and was served a sandwich nonetheless.

It was pretty tasty, she said, with some type of seasoning that tasted and smelled like a steakhouse seasoning blend. But it was a sandwich, and a largely dry one, at that.

I went for the eggplant parmesan ($9.50), something I like to sample to see how different it can be from place to place. This one was pretty good; the eggplant seemed fresh, not frozen, with a light breading and that same skimpy serving of red sauce over top. It was served with spaghetti and sauce on the side (also had a choice of penne pasta).

There were three slices of eggplant, which wasn't much. The cheese was very tasty. The sauce was very garlicky and in need of additional seasoning. It was also quite thin, and didn't really stick to the bones of anything. I prefer my sauce a bit heartier.

All in all, no match for the aforementioned Michael's, Como or Fortuna's.

However, when taken as a whole, Mr. Ventry's has a lot to offer the hungry consumer. Their pizza is excellent, and their experimental flavors (i.e., sesame chicken) create options that are not available elsewhere. Their steak-and-cheese pizza is quite good; their old-fashioned not too far removed from the late Trusello's masterpiece.

The fish fry (beer-battered, $10.95, bruschetta baked $12.95) is right up there with the best of them, of ample size, crispy and fresh, served with loads of fries and cole slaw. My wife raved about the baked fish, as well.

They are equally adept at producing quality subs and wings. Throw in other offerings like rice balls with marinara ($9.95) or eggplant caprese (same), and you should be able to satisfy just about any appetite.

Sauce is a big thing in these parts, however, and there is plenty of hearty debate as to who offers the best. Perhaps Mr. Ventry's needs to tweak theirs a bit to be considered in the same discussion as the big hitters in the area.

Mr. Ventry's Pizzeria and Restaurant

10051 Niagara Falls Blvd., Niagara Falls

3 stars (out of four)

Favorite dish: Beans and greens

Needs work: The red sauce

Healthy choice: Julienne salad

Price range: Average

Service: Good

Noise level: Acceptable

Wheelchair access: Yes

Parking: Connected lot

Kid appeal: Plenty

Phone: 297-1111

Hours: Open Mondays through Thursdays, 10:30 a.m. to midnight; Fridays and Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

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