"Good morning, Janice: My wife and I reside in St. Catharines and have family in Kenmore. I read your columns when I can.
"I have a problem. My birthday is coming up in two weeks (63, thank you very much!) and we traditionally come over every year and go out with our family for dinner. For years, we always went to, in my humble opinion, one of the best Italian restaurants anywhere -- Billy Ogden's. Unfortunately, with Andy's passing [owner Andy DiVincenzo died in 2009], it never really survived. I still miss him and his food to this day.
"My question to you is this: Is there anywhere that you could recommend for great Italian food that could possibly come close to what we experienced at Billy Ogden's? His stuffed peppers, scallops wrapped in bacon, fried calamari, linguine with clam sauce -- I can taste it all now!
"Seriously, if there's anywhere that has the same kind of ambience, a liquor license, great food and everyone just has a good time, could you please let me know, and I'll call and make a reservation? Thanks very much for your help, Janice, and bon appetit."
A. This is not too much of a problem, John. I miss Andy DiVincenzo and Billy Ogden's, too, but there are many restaurants in Western New York that can come close to meeting your specifications -- although, to be honest, not all of them specialize in creativity.
We have more Italian restaurants than any other variety, in fact. Many of them are casual, as you describe; many even serve the dishes you mention. Fried calamari have almost become a restaurant staple in recent years; stuffed peppers are everywhere; ditto linguine with red or white clam sauce.
I grant you, though, some places are better than others. Here is my birthday present -- a few from that very long list.
You said Kenmore, so have you ever eaten at Jovi's Italian Grille and Bistro, 2795 Delaware Ave., in the center of the village?
It may not have as exuberant an ambience as Billy O's had, but the food is very good. Try their Ziti and Italian Greens, or Tortellini con Vodka.
DiTondo's, 370 Seneca St., is only open for dinner on Friday nights. (It is open for lunch all during the week.) Ambience is everything here. You cannot get any more old Buffalo than this. DiTondo's was founded in 1904 and not all that much has changed.
The food is not dainty -- this is a pretty conventional menu and surprises are few. The dishes are based mainly on red sauce, but it is good sauce. And the old building is a wonderful place.
Continuing with the old-time Buffalo theme, Ilio DiPaolo's Restaurant, 3785 South Park Ave., Blasdell, has been open since 1965. It offers a well-prepared, conventional menu with a surprise or two. You get your Penne with Broccoli, but you also get Cannelloni Florentine. Besides, at what other Western New York restaurant can you find an (outdoor) bocce court?
I haven't talked about Chef's, 291 Seneca St., because it is so well-known you probably already have been there, and I've left out Mulberry, 64 Jackson Ave., Lackawanna, because I mentioned it in this space not long ago.
But Mulberry may be closest to what you are looking for. It is a big place in Bethlehem Park; it is jolly and always crowded. And the food sometime veers away from the same old, same old. There are Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms in season, and the Meatball (singular) is justifiably famous.
That darn thing is as big as an elephant's foot.
Send your dining out questions and comments to longtime News restaurant reviewer Janice Okun at firstname.lastname@example.org.