Janice: Recently my family and I took a trip to Italy – Milan-Maranello (Modena), Florence, Rome, Venice. As expected, the food was unreal – and Northern Italy was outstanding. Maranello is in the Emilia-Romagna region, where we had probably the best meal ever.
"We are lifelong residents of Buffalo. In your opinion, what is the best restaurant here to find food similar to what we ate in the northern region of Italy?"
— Kevin S., Orchard Park
Mama mia, Kevin — that's like asking how high is up. Italian food is everywhere in Western New York. If you look at the telephone directory or go online, you'll quickly discover that when it comes to ethnic restaurants, Italians have by far the largest presence.
And that's true anywhere in the United States. Americans just love Italian food and always have, going back to the early 20th century, when spaghetti and meatballs was considered to be exotic. (It's still good, of course, but the menu has broadened considerably.)
It's no accident that the slow ?food movement began in Italy. Italians were very early locavores; they always have eaten what grows around them. ?As such, there are differences in the ?food as you travel the peninsula. ?(The many city states of Italy were not unified into a single country until late ?in the 19th century.)
Every region specializes in what ?is at hand.
Though there's no cut-in-stone definition, and you didn't say what you were eating, as a general rule the food of Northern Italy — reflecting local products and cuisine of adjacent European countries — often includes more butter than olive oil; rice or corn; and less dependence on vegetables such as eggplant and tomatoes that grow in warmer southern warmer areas. Emilia Romagna is noted for cheese — especially Parmigiano-Reggiano, but also Gorgonzola and fontina, plus prosciutto, pork and stuffed pastas. And Modena is practically balsamic vinegar headquarters.
Here are some good places to find Northern Italian food locally, but since culinary fusion is the name of the game now, not all of these restaurants are strictly Italian. Start here:
Siena, 4516 Main St., Snyder. Like Florence, Siena is in Tuscany, and the theme of this restaurant is the Palio, an exciting, no-holds-barred horse race that occurs twice a summer in the city's gorgeous central square. Yes, you will find wood oven pizza at Siena, but you may also find the Milanese dish Ossobuco — veal shank with risotto and gremolata (a condiment made from parsley, lemon zest and garlic, sometimes with other herbs and anchovies, too).
Also, look for salmon served with fennel and olive salad and, with a contemporary twist, chilies and tangerine reduction. Let's hear it for fusion cuisine.
And there is Il Fiorentino, obviously Tuscan and very authentic, at 5100 Big Tree Road, Orchard Park. Try the spinach-stuffed ravioli with gorgonzola and walnut sauce.
Carmelo's Ristorante, 425 Center St., Lewiston, is the epitome of local eating. The Butchers Plate is an assortment of cured meats served with Fruit Mustarda (fruit with mustard.) Or if there are six to eight of you, reserve in advance for the Butchers Supper involving a whole roast pig.
Hutch's, 1375 Delaware Ave., is not an ?Italian restaurant per se, but try the saltimbocca veal chop stuffed with fontina cheese and sage, then wrapped in prosciutto.
And finally — Daniel's, 174 Buffalo St., Hamburg. Sometimes the restaurant has ?on the appetizer menu Butternut Ravioli, stuffed with the squash and topped with ?sage brown butter, sundried cherries and Parmigiano Reggiano.
I ate something very similar to this in Parma, Italy, about 15 years ago and, as you can see, have never forgotten it. It is one of my favorite dishes of all time.
Send your questions and comments about dining out to Janice Okun at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will respond in this column, which appears every Wednesday in the Taste section of The Buffalo News.