The server at 99 Brick Oven Bar & Grille wasn't sworn in as a witness, but her words could have been introduced as evidence in the case of the People of Western New York vs. Boring Food.
Every time I ordered a Neapolitan-style pizza at the Lancaster restaurant, she asked: with fresh garlic? Yes, I repeated. Why, at a restaurant with so much Italian food, does garlic become a pizza opt-in? "A lot of people don’t like it," she said.
I immediately added Lancaster to my list of towns (including Buffalo) whose citizenry ought to be investigated for vampirism. Lancaster is a long way from Naples, or even Manhattan's Little Italy. So my heart goes out to places trying to offer more Italian-ish cuisine – with garlic where appropriate – treading a fine line between gutsy dishes and turning off the allium-averse. That’s one of the things that makes 99 Brick Oven more than just another tavern with pizza.
A sign sets the dress code: No M/C colors. The place offers three sound settings, in pleasant weather at least. Chatter and televisions made the barroom hostile to pleasant conversation. An adjoining dining room on a lower level was more peaceable. A jog down another step brought us into the covered patio, a suitable perch to share a temperate night.
David Dischner, who owns the place with his wife Nadine, grew up in the pizza business. A former owner of Depew's Penora's Pizza, Dischner was smitten with Neapolitan-style pizza and decided to make its pursuit a focus of another restaurant. He bought an Italian oven, Italian flour, tomatoes and extra-virgin olive oil, and decided to make his own fresh mozzarella. The results are pies that offer a pleasant alternative to the Buffalo-style standard.
The pizza-of-the-day special ($16.99) was topped with salami and house-made mozzarella, heated up with chile flakes and dotted with fresh basil. Plus fresh garlic, at request. Like all of 99's pizza, its crust was crispy-edged, slices sturdy enough to avoid drooping. That meant the texture was chewier than optimum, but it didn't take two hands to eat, as limper versions do. I did leave crusts behind, though.
The spicy salami flavor was satisfying, except the fresh basil wasn't adding its fragrance, having possibly been added after the pie cooled somewhat. Serious garlic fans might even consider asking for double garlic, as the dose on our pies was more of a murmur than a shout, merely whetting my hunger.
A Royal Parmesan pizza ($15.99) brought a stylish version of the Buffalo pizzeria standard Royal sub to table. Loose sausage and spicy capicola pork layered atop fresh-tasting tomato sauce and dusted with Parmesan cheese arrived surrounded by a crust marked with dark bubbles.
A little char to bring out the flavor, relatively thin crust and smaller doses of higher-value ingredients typify Neapolitan-style pies. Its eaters shouldn't expect to get the cheese payload of a Buffalo pie, but they deserve a more fine-tuned flavor.
That was the case with the 99 pizza ($15.99), a pie topped with thinly sliced prosciutto, asiago as well as fresh mozzarella, halved cherry tomatoes as a tomato booster, and a frizzy topknot of arugula salad. The juxtaposition of freshness and richness, bitter and sweet made it my favorite.
Another pizza-like treat was rosettes, pieces of dough wrapped around filling to produce items the size of a fat plum, then baked. The glory of the rosette is the way some of the filling oozes out to create a ring of browned cheese, as in the Tuscan version ($14.99) I sampled, holding spinach, artichokes, mozzarella and asiago cheeses.
There was more than pizza to admire. A nice piece of fish, an interesting spin on wings, and a solid chicken cutlet are all viable options. There's also gluten-free alternatives for pizza, pasta and bread.
A special of orange and feta salad ordered with salmon ($18.98) delighted with a colorful assemblage of fresh orange slices, candied pistachios, dried cherries, plum tomatoes, marinated red onions, and arugula, dressed with lemon vinaigrette. It was colorful, vibrant, and juicy, topped with a piece of salmon cooked well, crunchy at the edges and tender within.
The usual assortment of wing flavors were joined by “99 Signature Hot & Spicy” wings ($12.49/$21.49). The secret sauce – with a flavorful dose of chile and cumin and some other undercurrents of flavor that had us guessing – gets an additional flavor boost from a ride in the oven.
The chicken Milanese ($18.99) was satisfying as well, a thin expanse of chicken breast crumbed and fried before being topped with juicy arugula tomato salad tinged with balsamic vinegar.
Not all the dishes I tried were winners. Penne pasta with four shrimp, artichoke hearts and tomatoes was disappointingly anemic in flavor. Next time I'd ask for fresh garlic on that as well. The best part of the French onion soup ($5.99) was its cap of browned cheese. The crock offered wan broth and pale, uncaramelized onions.
On the whole, 99 Brick Oven Bar & Grille makes a solid case for a visit. It’s got one of the more diverse menus you’ll find this far east, halfway to Darien Lake. Riding the border between rural and urban, with Neapolitan-style pizza but a convenient stop for roaming motorcyclists, 99 will meet you halfway.
99 Brick Oven Bar & Grille - 7 plates (out of 10)
Location: 99 Aurora St., Lancaster (393-3847)
Prices: appetizers and sandwiches, $2.99-$14.99; pizzas, $11.99-$16.99; entrees, $13.99-$22.99.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; noon to 10 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes, from the back. There are steps in the front.
Gluten-free options: pizza crust, bread and pasta.