Stan and Diane Nowak of Amherst, flying an American flag from the window of their car, were among the early arrivals Wednesday evening at Chef’s Restaurant on Seneca Street for the “World’s Largest Pasta Dinner.”
“I’ve got flags flying for all these days,” said Stan Nowak, referring to 9/11, “and when I heard about the Wounded Warriors, I’m here.”
Chef’s owners, Lou Billittier Jr. and his sister, Mary Beth, are known for their support of charities and this was no exception.
Proceeds from the dinner, which celebrated the 90th anniversary of the fabled Italian eating place in downtown Buffalo, benefit the Wounded Warriors Project, which helps disabled veterans.
“We had 600 pre-registered,” said Chef’s marketing director Carla LiVecchi, as she dashed about prior to the start, “and we expect 300 to 400 more to walk up at the door.”
Even in its expanded version, the restaurant couldn’t come close to seating that many. Instead, a large white tent was erected on Chicago Street beside the building, with a second tent in the vacant lot behind it. Parts of Seneca Street and Chicago street were closed to traffic.
“It’ll be just pasta and sauce, with salad and bread and butter, served family style,” LiVecchi said. “And then there’s a surprise for dessert.”
The surprise was hidden behind a large screen with a black-and-white photo of the original Chef’s, half a dozen tables with checkered tablecloths, on a stage in the big tent. The man who created it was happy to give a preview.
“The Cake King is in New York City. The Cake Boss is in Buffalo,” said white-coated Manny Lezama, senior director for Chartwells, which operates at SUNY Buffalo State. “This is it.”
He opened the side canvas to reveal a towering likeness of the chef in the restaurant’s logo.
“It’s a cassata cake,” he said. “Nine feet to the top.”
His biggest concern at that moment was to keep it from melting in the near-record heat. Steam from dry ice rose around it.
Dry ice also was packed around the base of the ice sculpture that served as a lectern for the upcoming program on stage.
Aside from the ice, Lezama’s other concern was pyrotechnics. Spotting owner Lou Billittier talking with LiVecchi, he handed him a remote control pad.
“Just hit it twice and direct it to the stage,” he said.
“You hit the detonator when they come out with the cake” to set off the fireworks, Livecchi added.
“Who would’ve thought we’d have this kind of weather in September,” Billitteri remarked after he returned from welcoming the dinner crowd from the dripping lectern. “It’s so hot. I’ve got a cake melting back there.”
Billitteri said that when planning for the dinner started six months ago, the idea was to nominate it for the Guinness Book of World Records.
“There’s no record for it,” he said, “but we’d have to fly people over from England for it. It wasn’t worth it. We’ve got around 1,000 people and I’m happy with that.”
The arrival of the evening’s celebrity guest was uncertain until just before dinner started.
Television personality Dave Thomas, remembered as host of WKBW-TV’s children’s show, “Rocketship 7,” was supposed to leave Philadelphia at 11:30 a.m. but had to switch planes because of a mechanical problem and didn’t arrive at Buffalo Niagara International Airport until 5:20 p.m. An NFTA police escort made sure he showed up on time.
Thomas, who served as emcee for a series of video clips of local celebrities offering 90th anniversary congratulations, recounted his role in creating the restaurant’s signature dish – spaghetti parmesan.
Pointing to the screen at the table where he used to have lunch, he said it began when he and Lou Billittier Sr. were experimenting with spaghetti toppings in 1962.
“We started with pasta with butter,” he said, “and then we tried a dab of sauce. And what if we put some cheese on top of it. And then we’ll put it under the grill.”
Thomas also introduced the evening’s other special guest – Mark O’Brien of Marilla, who lost his right arm and right leg in Iraq. Married, the father of two young sons and a motivational speaker with Dival Safety & Supplies of Buffalo, he told of his ordeal.
“I’ve come a long way from the day I was shot to what I am today,” he said, “and it has a lot to do with my home here in Western New York and the Wounded Warrior Project.”
O’Brien noted that one of the people who helped him was Lou Billittier, who donated meat for a fundraiser for him shortly after he returned home.
Finally, after video greetings from retired WKBW-TV news anchor Irv Weinstein, the surprise moment arrived.
There was the introduction of the new Chef’s mascot, a life-sized version of chef in the restaurant’s logo. A contest will be held to name him on the website, www.ilovechefs.com.
And then the curtain was raised on the cake. It was still standing tall. Billittier pressed the remote control and sparklers shot up from either side of the cake, joined by sparklers shooting from the centerpieces at all of the tables. Waitresses in red Chef’s T-shirts with the number “90” on the back rushed to the tables with slices. It was delicious.