Hanan Samuel grew up close to the tourist frenzy in Niagara Falls, watching the flood of visitors from across the globe as he completed his education at Niagara Catholic High School, then Niagara University.
Comfort with and an understanding of his surroundings prompted Samuel to open his first restaurant, Catania, on Feb. 12 in the Wingate by Wyndham hotel at 333 Rainbow Blvd., Niagara Falls, a block south of the Seneca Niagara Casino. The upscale restaurant seats 110, with a patio for warmer weather.
Although Niagara Falls harbors a few Italian restaurants, Samuel intends to distinguish Catania through a focus on southern Italian and Sicilian cuisines, adding touches from his own Pakistani background.
Catania is a city on Sicily's east coast, directly south of Italy, known for its proximity to an active volcano. Although Samuel has traveled to Italy but not Catania, he intends to do so with his family following the busy summer season.
Samuel tries to evoke a feeling of the region through a large mural near the bar, created by Buffalo pop artist Theodore Winters, of a couple enjoying a glass of wine, flanked by the majestic Piazza del Duomo in Catania, Sicily.
The opening menu doesn't stray too far from Italian classics North American eaters have come to expect, with brick-oven pizza (Neapolitan-style, $10-$15), pasta dishes ($14-$19) and beef/chicken/seafood entrees ($16-$28) common to upscale hotel restaurants. Fortune Macri, who helped open the Lodge on Chippewa, heads the kitchen at Catania, which serves only dinner.
Samuel notes that the arancini appetizer (a fried rice ball filled with Arborio rice, Parmesan and mozzarella cheese, and diced pancetta, $8) has been a standout so far. Pomodoro sauce adds creaminess to the crunch. Native to Sicily, arancini are a bit controversial, as Palermo and Catania boast rivaling recipes; Palermo's includes peas, while Catania's does not, Samuel explained.
The owner's Pakistani roots come into play in the chicken tikka pizza, where the poultry is flavored by a marinade, deepened with Middle Eastern spices, and then joined by vegetables atop the pizza. Margherita, a classic-and-simple Italian pizza, is wonderful if done well.
Twelve beers, including local brews from Community Beer Works and Resurgence, are on tap, and Catania will feature a specialty cocktail every Friday.
INFO: Catania, 333 Rainbow Blvd., Niagara Falls. 299-0523. Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight daily.