ADVERTISEMENT

When you stop in for a drink or a meal at the Wine Trail Italian Bistro, it’s not much of a stretch to conclude that the menu will feature vino from the fertile area around the Niagara Region. Formerly the site of Thaxton’s, this incarnation – ideal for couples, singles or families – opened last December.

Business partners – and former spouses – Colleen and Steve Sardella will likely greet you when you enter the front bar/lounge area. When Dan and I arrived on a Saturday night, we were greeted by Steve, who does everything from tend bar to coordinate the kitchen activities to act as the official Bistro ambassador.

Since the bar was fully occupied, Steve suggested we sit by the fireplace at a high-top table. Two flat-screen TVs behind and above the busy bar were showing college hoops, but most of the patrons were chatting up Josie, the popular bartender who somehow kept her customers happy as she mixed cocktails, served beer, pub grub and full dinners all while maintaining friendly repartee with several regulars.

As Dan downed his first Tanqueray and tonic, at a very reasonable $4.25, I enjoyed a tasting of the Freedom Run Red, a refreshing cabernet and pinot noir blend with a hint of sweetness.

The place stocks wine from five area suppliers: Freedom Run, A Gust of Sun, Niagara Landing, Schulze and Chateau Niagara. All of the house wines are from California’s Robert Mondavi vineyards. Given the venue’s name, it’s no surprise that wine is the top seller, followed by beer; liquor clocks in as a distant third choice. When the owners renovate part of the restaurant in the next couple of months and add a tasting room, they said they plan on including more local wines along with selections from Italy, Spain and California.

A plaque proclaiming the bistro as a 2013 associate member of the Niagara Wine Trail is not just a decoration on the wall. The designation means that the restaurant serves regional wines, conducts tastings and organizes events complete with bus and limo tour packages (including lunch or dinner) that originate at the bistro.

As we relaxed in the comfortable front bar area, far enough away from the dining room to ensure privacy, Dan and I took Steve up on his suggestion that we try the Gondolas, baked rolled dough enveloping tomatoes, onions, cheese and sauce ($5). After we scarfed down the Gondolas, we understood why Steve was so proud of his bar fare creation.

We all agreed that the Gondolas were a nice accompaniment to wine, suds or a cocktail and were a pleasant change of pace from the standard wings, fingers and fries one so often finds on bar menus.

I was craving a drier wine so I opted for a glass of Robert Mondavi merlot, another bargain at $4.50 for a good-sized pour. A nice selection is available from the nearby wineries, including whites like Gewurtztraminer, Riesling and a variety of reds. Martinis, such as the popular Pineapple Upside Down, ($5) are a pleasant switch from the grape; bottled beer can be had for $3.50.

As we warmed up, unwound and ordered another round, we soaked in the ambience: a cozy bar, a giant barrel on the wall that further reinforces the strong association with the wine trail and a welcoming staff. We were in no hurry to leave such an inviting place, so we sampled a flavorful Chicken Marsala dish with spaghetti and mushrooms ($13).

A slew of doggie bags were in order as Dan and I closed out a fun evening at a Niagara County locale that rightfully leads to many happy trails!

Wine Trail Italian Bistro

5949 Campbell Blvd., Lockport (434-5290, winetrailitalianbistro.com)

Scene: Warm and inviting restaurant with several adjoining rooms: bar/lounge, dining room, banquet area, courtyard. Crowd ranges from 30s to seniors.

Drinks: All the standards with a heavy emphasis on Niagara Wine Trail selections; extremely reasonably priced libations.

Attire: Casual and comfy.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays.

Happy Hour: 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday with $3.25 well drinks, $4 house wines and $2 draft beer.

Entertainment: Satellite radio.