Growing up, Richard Semonian ate his mother’s tomato sauce three days a week.
The former Maryann Torregrossa would mix crushed tomatoes and tomato paste, onion and spices, before simmering spare ribs, meatballs, or sausage in the sauce.
When he left for college in Pittsburgh, Semonian couldn’t bring her along – but the sauce was his lifeline. “I always took a giant Tupperware of it back with me,” said Semonian, now chef-owner of Novel, on Transit Road in Amherst. “It reminded me of home, and that was comforting to me.”
In the depths of a dreary January, chefs took a moment to reflect on what comfort food means to them, and offer suggestions from their own menus, and elsewhere.
When he’s eating out, he said, Semonian is drawn to the duck poutine at Winfield’s Pub in Lackawanna.
At Novel, Semonian suggested Sunday night, when he serves $10 pastas, including a spaghetti and meatballs much like his mother’s.
“It’s great to see how many families we get Sunday night,” he said.
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Chef-owner, Winfield’s Pub (Lackawanna)
"For me, comfort not only is warming and filling, but should also warm the mind and soul, making you feel good, maybe reminding of family times or special event. That's why Kiki’s warm potato salad is on the menu. It's my favorite comfort food, something I grew up with."
In house: "We have one of the ultimate comfort foods in chicken pot pie."
Elsewhere: "One of my favorites to make is a Bolognese, cause if made properly, you can taste the care and love that was put into it."
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Chef, 800 Maple (Williamsville)
"To me, comfort food means stick-to-the-ribs kind of food. Basic, not fancy. Like from childhood, pasta and red sauce twice a week."
In house: "Orecchiette Bolognese. We use pork, veal, and beef, and put a little seasoned ricotta on it. That’s a stick-to-your ribs kind of thing."
Elsewhere: "When I go out, I go to these basic places. Like Tully’s. They just have these basic pork chops, with sautéed mushrooms and onions. White rice. That’s as basic as you can get."
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Cook, Seabar (Buffalo)/ex-chef, Siena (Snyder)
"Comfort food and conversation go hand-in-hand due to its familiarity. We all crave satisfaction, and during the winter months, comfort foods can enlighten the long, dark days."
In house: "My mama’s giambotta: hot Italian sausage, big chunks of potatoes, zucchini, and green beans in a rich, garlicky tomato sauce, with a fresh loaf of crusty Italian bread and lots of freshly grated Pecorino. Although this never made it to any of my menus, it made a great staff meal."
Elsewhere: "Comfort food is something I’d rather do myself at home. Even through traditional dishes, only you know the secrets to your family’s version – and nothing is more comforting than family."
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Chef-owner, Gigi’s Cucina Povera (Kenmore)
"Comfort food is nostalgic, bringing back memories, smells and scenes from my childhood, and my Sicilian culture. Most of my menu items and the theme of my restaurant are based on my Sicilian heritage, the recipes passed down from my father, grandmother and others."
In house: "Mama Dano's chicken pastina soup, with toasted ciabatta."
Elsewhere: "At home, breaded chicken cutlets with rapini greens and mashed potatoes."
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Chef-owner, Colter Bay (Buffalo)
"When you’re a kid, you need that warmth after a long day of sledding and snowball fights or snow fort building. When you’re an adult, you need it from digging your car out, then when you get home shoveling the driveway so you can park, and then the next day it all starts over again."
In house: "For the winter, we've been running a chicken pot pie that I would say is the best winter comfort food."
Elsewhere: My favorite comfort food will forever be spaghetti on Sunday afternoon. It was really underappreciated in my youth, but as an adult it has become almost a crutch, if I don't have the sauce enough I’ll be a little grumpy."
[Read more: Dining review of Colter Bay]
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Chef-owner, Black Iron Bystro (Blasdell)
"People like to talk about comfort food all the time. Cold weather is the excuse. We, as Buffalonians, lack the vitamins gained from sunshine in the cold weather months. We need that discussion to get our thoughts on high."
In house: "Teriyaki short rib poutine. I’ve always been sweet on cheese curds. Add the tang of teriyaki and the sexy savoriness of slow-braised short ribs, melted like molten earth bubbling over crispy, double-blanched Idaho spears."
Elsewhere: "TJ dawg at Ballyhoo. Pork and bacon sausage married with bright pico de gallo, queso and avocado for more of that rich, creamy, godforsaken goodness."
[Photos: Smiles at Black Iron's Festivus party]
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Owner, Gypsy Parlor and Gypsy Bohemian Grove Bar (Buffalo)
"Comfort food is hearty food. It's eating when you stop caring about everything and you'll pick yourself back up tomorrow."
In house: "West Side trash plate (Lorigo’s Italian cheese sausage or cheeseburgers, avocado mac salad, sriracha dry-rubbed fries, fried pickle, dijon aioli, sautéed peppers and onions, house meat sauce)."
Elsewhere: Royal sub from Bob's Price Rite on West Delavan and Potomac. I’ve been eating these joints since I was a kid. Homemade sausage, spicy capicola, lettuce, tomato, onion on a Costanzo roll."
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Chef, Stack Burger (Lackawanna)
"Everyone has a dish or meal that makes them happy or brings them up. To share it with people, having good conversations and warm beverages, makes the winter go by fast."
In house: "Deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich with grape cream. Warm. Gooey. Sweet. Crispy. Love."
Elsewhere: "When I need a pick-me-up, I go to Winfield's Pub for fish tacos (so fresh and light) and BBQ burnt ends (so smokey and spicy)."
[Read: Recent review of Stack Burger]
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Chef-owner, The Black Sheep (Buffalo)
"Perhaps people like to talk about comfort food in the winter simply to distract themselves from the lack of sunshine. There's always a huge string of cloudy days at some point, and it always feels good to fantasize about your favorite food."
In house: "The burger. We have other things I love that come and go, but one that is always there is the burger. It's just so gnarly, you have take a shower after you eat it."
Elsewhere: "When I'm at home during these cold months, I honestly love to cook meatballs. It just makes the house smell so damn good and the labor is totally worth it when you're leaning over the bowl taking your first bite."
[Read more: Steven and Ellen Gedra take Manhattan, in 2016]
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Chef-owner, Rin Thai Bistro (Buffalo)
"Ask about comfort food and I’m thinking of the dishes that you grow up with. It can be so simple, but when you smell it, it feels like home. My comfort food is jok, or rice porridge, usually served as breakfast in Thailand. As a child, when I was sick, my mom always made it, because it’s really easy on the stomach, and it became one of my comforts."
In house: "I serve jok at my restaurant, called ginger rice soup."
Elsewhere: "Truffle fig pizza with prosciutto at Roost."
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Wine director, Carte Blanche (Hamburg)
"The feeling of being bundled up on the couch in comfy layers watching the snow howl and swirl outside your window is second only to discussing what delicious, warming, filling dish you're going to concoct or consume when hunger makes you roust yourself from the nestled comfort."
In house: "A dish in development: roasted cauliflower and roasted potatoes tossed in an almost alfredo-style cheese sauce, then baked in the oven with a sprinkle of gruyere or sharp cheddar."
Elsewhere: "My daughters love pumpkin soup, and they also love to help in the kitchen. I do most of the cutting and the ladies get to dump the prep bowls into the soup pot, with the satisfying crackle as the vegetables start to sear and caramelize and release their magic. At the end, we call my wife in to adjust the seasoning. No better comfort food for me as I sit surrounded by my family as we share our creation."
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Chef, Yoshi (East Aurora)
"When people talk about comfort food it seems to always be something stemming from their childhood. In fact, the nostalgia alone is a warming thought."
In house: Our shoyu ramen: pork bone broth simmering for 16 hours, finished with a soy-based tare, thin noodles with the perfect chew and slurpability, crispy slow roasted pork belly, a marinated soft boiled egg, and a generous pinch of scallions."
Elsewhere: "Chicken and sausage gumbo or chicken sauce piquant. The smell of a dark roux with the Cajun trinity and spicy smoked andouille cooking away, while rich chicken broth fills the room almost brings me home to my mother’s kitchen. Sauce piquant is equally comforting, heavily seasoned chicken slowly braising away in a spicy, rich tomato and dark roux-based gravy."
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Pastry chef, Churn (Buffalo)
"There’s a theory that we are predisposed to want to bulk up a little bit when the weather gets cold, much like wildlife who are getting ready to hibernate. Food that brings back fond memories is like a hug for your mouth and your soul."
In house: "A classic hot fudge sundae and a cup of coffee is hard to beat. I also really like an affogato in the winter."
Elsewhere: "My favorite comfort food is chicken pot pie, with pimientos and lots of peas in the filling."
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Chef, Prescott’s Provisions (Tonawanda)
"Comfort food is stick-to-your-bones food, nostalgic or a dish that’s simple, not fussed over, but with a flavor punch."
In house: "Our casarecce pasta with wild boar ragu and burrata."
Elsewhere: "One of my favorite places to get comforting food would be Pho Dollar. It’s on my street, and it’s warm and filling. I get pho with rare beef, dumplings, and banh mi."
[Related: Dining review for Prescott's Provisions]
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Chef-owner, Prosit truck
"Comfort food is therapeutic food for the soul, easy to eat, tastes great, rich in taste where there's no work involved."
In house: "Schlaubraten, which is actually sauerbraten served with spaetzle and gravy. The beef is fork-tender, due to a long cooking process, marinated for 24 hours minimum."
Elsewhere: "We love Novel's homemade pastas and meatball dishes. If my babcia was Italian, she would be working at Novel."