Lots of eaters weigh the attractiveness of Italian-American pasta houses by the vastness of their servings. Acres of mozzarella, mountains of meatballs, and more macaroni than a marathoner can manage. Diners like personable servers and a mint with the check, but in Buffalo, nothing brings them back like a doggy bag that takes two hands.
So it was intriguing to sit in the former Joe’s Deli and watch customers sip wine while waiting for the chance to pay $18 for pastas whose petite portions would constitute a grievous insult in some precincts.
Inizio, opened in July by chef-owner Michael Gibney, makes it work by serving only fresh noodles. Even extruded fancies like radiatore, mafalde and bucatini are made in-house. Then he adds high-quality accents applied with restraint, none of them tomato sauce. Those are the ingredients that make Inizio stand out like a lighthouse on Buffalo’s Italian scene.
Inizio (“start” in Italian) is Gibney’s first restaurant in Buffalo, after stints in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Boulder. The 2001 St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute grad published “Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line” in 2014.
The space is done in cream and white, with a bookshelf, Christmas tree and sparkling wreath in the rear dining room. The front room facing Elmwood offers people-watching and sunlight, and a bubbly welcome with a gratis glass of prosecco. A brief Italian-dominated wine list starts at $36 a bottle, $8 a glass. Other drinks include five beers and custom cocktails.
The food menu is focused, as well. Twelve small plates include Castelvetrano olives, an assortment of housemade pickles (bell pepper, watermelon rind, cauliflower; $3) and espresso-marinated hanger steak ($18).
The helping of rosy bronze-edged beef was enough to challenge the small plates denomination, but that was my only complaint. Velvety-tender meat bolstered with bites of the underlying smoky potatoes and saffron aioli was a diverting meat and potatoes dish for one, or enough for a whole table to have a couple of bites.
I raise my glass to Breadhive sourdough toast with whipped nduja — the spicy and spreadable Calabrian salami — and milky burrata ($8). Charred radicchio ($11) with caramelized cauliflower, pine nuts and saba was a tough, tangled heap that was partially redeemed through the piquant pairing of sweet Gorgonzola with bitter chicory.
[Related: West Side's Breadhive bustles with patrons]
Brussels sprouts with tiny nubs of cured pork jowl ($12) were fine before considering the ebony drifts of balsamic-soaked whole mustard seed that popped like caviar with attitude. It got even better with the lake of taleggio cheese foam, like feather-light fondue.
Zucca ripieni, ($17), roasted delicata squash with whole-grain porridge, mushrooms, hazelnuts and goat cheese, nailed the vegetarian entrée with a snappy little number with texture and depth.
Among 11 pastas and rice dishes, risotto Milanese with smoked bone marrow ($18) is the most luxuriantly over-the-top rice dish I can remember. Bone marrow – the stuff inside femurs that tastes like beef butter – is luxe enough. Imbue it with wood smoke and it’s a cardiologist’s nightmare.
The pasta-first attitude comes through in dishes like the radiatore Bolognese ($19). Ridged pasta bites were glossed with a beef and lamb sauce with tender meat granules that seasoned the noodles without taking over.
Another favorite was carrot fettuccine with lamb ($19), crispy amaranth and mint. It was rustic with husky lamb and the crunch of toasted grain, freshened up with aromatic herbs and the pop of sweet green peas.
Pasta fagioli at $17 might sound like highway robbery until you see how borlotti beans, chickpeas, porcini jus and roasted tomato butter can make housemade rigatoni fit for royalty, and be reminded that Gibney did not have his Italian compass calibrated in Buffalo.
Bucatini with colatura, calabrian chile and anchovy breadcrumbs ($17) was a briny blast for lovers of little fish, but too salty for others. Casarecce melanzane — short twisted pasta with eggplant ragu, smoked mozzarella and hazelnuts ($18) — was my favorite, offering the toothsome texture of fresh macaroni, the pleasure of eggplant cooked to firm sweetness, and toasty hazelnut crunch.
Among desserts, the toasted hay panna cotta ($7) with green apple gelato tasted more like tea than smoke. Mini pistachio cake ($7) was smaller than a Zinger. But with ricotta ice cream, stewed peaches and candied fennel seeds like the ones Indian restaurants offer apres-meal, this was a small serving with big-time flavor.
The night went in fits and starts, but it didn’t ruin our meal. Servers seemed plentiful, but they didn’t work the room as a team, which you notice when many walk by your spent dishes and empty glasses. Lemons showed up after 30 minutes after a request.
In Buffalo, where the popularity of pasta restaurants is often measured by the pound, Inizio is making the pitch that less can be more, in a pasta restaurant where the only tomato sauce is on the kiddie menu. If you’re looking for fresh pasta presented with fresh-for-Buffalo style, Inizio is an excellent place to start.
Inizio - 8 plates (out of 10)
534 Elmwood Ave. (424-1008)
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday, and Mondays in January.
Prices: small plates, $3-$18; pastas and grains, $17-$22.
Atmosphere: busy but not boisterous.
Wheelchair accessible: yes, a lift.
Gluten-free options: salads, sprouts, steak.