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At Mulberry Italian Ristorante, the results of pasta made a priority

At Mulberry Italian Ristorante, the results of pasta made a priority

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Mulberry Street, the heart of Manhattan’s Little Italy, is the epicenter of Italian American culinary imagination. Its iconic logo awnings, natty white tablecloths and seen-it-all servers set the scene.

Pasta and red sauce, workingman’s dishes elevated through skill, love and respect for the old ways, made it the neighborhood that launched a 1,000 candles in wicker-clad Chianti bottles. Few have burned so brightly as Mulberry Italian Ristorante.

Off the main drag in Lackawanna but central to the hearts of red sauce lovers and Little Italy superfans alike, the former neighborhood bar has drawn Guy Fieri’s television coronation, the patronage of politicians and Buffalo Bills, and the sort of relentless patronage that makes parking dicey for blocks.

That was before managing partner and chef Joe Jerge decided that the pasta program wasn’t performing up to its potential. Amid a mini-renaissance of fresh pasta in the Buffalo marketplace, Mulberry’s new noodles are the pièce de résistance.

The place looks the part, from a dark awning that is echoed by another façade inside, anchoring a corner of the barroom. Our server led us on a mini-tour of the three dining rooms before settling us in the corner of the back room.

The menu lays its cards down up front: “Looks like the Bronx, tastes like Manhattan.”

A pair of arancini ($9.99) was surrounded by bright tomato sauce and an emerald ring of aromatic basil pesto. Gently crusted in barely there golden crumbs, the risotto had an orange tint from the fat of nduja, chile-rich Calabrian salami, and cores of molten mozzarella.

The softball-sized Mulberry meatball ($7.49) was tender, almost fluffy, and could easily check off the meatball box for four.

Or consider the pizza-sized chicken Parmesan. Served in wedges, it comes with tomato sauce, mozzarella and one topping ($23.99), but I ordered half spicy cherry peppers and sausage, half pepperoni and mushrooms ($29.66).

This is for six to eight people – if you have a second piece you won’t eat much else. That said: if you’ve ever craved chicken parm, skip the pasta, here you go.

Eric Wood’s favorite chicken wings ($12), offer a spicy-sour blend of spices, Italian cheese and parsley, developed for the former Bills player. (You know wings are tasty when you double back to gnaw off the endcaps.)

Of the 18 pasta dishes, almost all feature in-house macaroni.

Lasagna made with dried pasta can be terrific. Next to the supple spring of fresh pasta, it’s leaden on the tongue. Mulberry’s lasagna ($19.99), ground and braised beef, pork and sausage, between fresh pasta sheets, prompted one guest to declare it their personal best.

Manicotti with a meatball ($16.99) did the same for me. Alongside another meatball were tender, faintly sweet crêpes filled with extraordinarily milky cheese that made base ricotta pale by comparison. (It’s from Vermont Creamery, Jerge said, premium stuff.)

Cavatelli Marea ($18.99), was a clever number, rock shrimp the same size as the pasta, tossed in a kicky tomato lemon cream sauce, accented with the crunch of buttery breadcrumbs.

Agnolotti Don Silveri ($17.99) was swoonfully rich little spoon-sized dumplings, stuffed with braised beef and dressed with beech mushrooms in a savory glacé concentrated enough to leave me sticky-lipped but remarkably bright, lifted with a dash of champagne vinegar amid toasty brown butter notes.

Gemelli ($16) with chuck roll ragu, lima beans and fresh grated horseradish, was a simple pot roast and pasta pleasure, horseradish drawing a memory of kummelweck. Rigatoni ($16.99) was served pleasurably al dente and dressed in cooked-down sausage and broccolini. I wished the greens were more bitter to better balance its big pig aroma.

Tagliatelle pomodoro ($14.99) with fresh mushroom sauce drew the only shrug, with some mushrooms not cooked through.

There should be an order of Occhi goat cheese ravioli ($18.99) on every table. Our server alertly split the order of 16 housemade ravioli, so we each enjoyed four, in brown butter, fonduta and black pepper, which was just about right.

There are still glimpses of the family restaurant when it’s busy, like customers lining up in the passageway to use the restrooms. A server left double sets of silverware, some used, on the table for some reason, after teasing us with an order of garlic toast that belonged to someone else.

That said, things that could be heavy were light: meatball, manicotti, angliotti – and an airy peanut butter cup mousse ($7) with a crumb crust, like a cheesecake, except lighter. (The tiramisu and crème brûlée were up to snuff, too.)

Jerge and company have dialed in housemade noodles, achieving Manhattan quality at Buffalo prices, and nobody leaves hungry. It can be raucous at times, more like a joint bearing a neon-lit façade that blinks HOT NOODS. But it's classier than that.

The name is from Little Italy, but the crush to get into Mulberry Italian Ristorante still reminds me more of Times Square.

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Mulberry Italian Ristorante – 9 plates (out of 10)

64 Jackson Ave., Lackawanna

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 3:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 3:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: appetizers, $7.49 to $23.99; entrees, $14.99 to $34.

Atmosphere: big-city bustle

Parking: small lot, street

Wheelchair accessible: yes

Gluten-free options: penne pasta, meatballs among many choices.

The Buffalo News: Food & Drink

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