Machu Picchu, that ancient city built into a Peruvian mountaintop, is no secret. You’ve seen the pictures, seen the Facebook posts. ¶ Yet people travel. Nothing like standing there in person, marveling at it all. And thinking that humans did this, on purpose. ¶ That’s what it felt like going to Salvatore’s Italian Gardens for the first time. ¶ My wife, Cat, incredulous that I had never been, made me drive around to see the lighted display window tableaus, statues and multistory lobbies whited out in a blizzard of Christmas decorations. The massive banquet center and restaurant boasts so much decorative eye candy that when my friend Ben said “I haven’t even walked in yet and I’m full,” I knew exactly what he meant. ¶ There’s no way the steak can match the sizzle, I thought. ¶ Then it did. (Cue “Indiana Jones” theme music.)
It was built by the best-known restaurant owner in town, Russ Salvatore. A guy who said “gaudy is good for business,” and was so right that he makes enough money to buy out Ralph Wilson Stadium, when he feels like it. After a business divorce he opened Russell’s down the street. Son Joseph and his children run Salvatore’s now.
Salvatore’s, a 65,000-square-foot banquet facility with its own gift shop, still does a volume business. But there’s no more spaghetti and meatballs or chicken parm. The new Salvatore’s menu is a focused list of appetizers, flatbreads, steaks, seafood and Italian specialties like osso bucco and chicken Milanese. Many entrees are candidates for a three-course special that includes entree, soup or salad and dessert for about $35. Our server, attentive and informative, explained it all.
Cat said yes to the “Salvatore’s Classic” deal ($34), an entree that’s a best-hits compilation: small helpings of Steak Russell (sliced tenderloin with mushrooms and butter), chicken Milanese (panko-crusted chicken filet, arugula salad) and prosciutto-stuffed tortellini in truffle cream. For a $6 upcharge she got the Vermont, a feature salad with candied pecans, apples, Yancey’s sharp cheddar, dried cherries and maple dressing. For appetizers, she ordered tasting-sized artichokes Francaise ($6) and a stuffed meatball ($5).
Ben got the special veal chop ($49), stuffed with sausage, spinach and provolone, and steamed clams with fennel and chorizo ($13). Colin had the roasted halibut with cider beurre blanc over orzo with pancetta and cheese ($39), and braised pork belly with polenta ($10). They chose Caesar salads over soup.
I ordered the 9-ounce Australian Wagyu sirloin with truffle butter ($59), and caprese salad ($12). We also asked for a caramelized mushroom flatbread ($13), and glasses of wine.
Warm, crusty Italian bread appeared, with a coarse, salty olive tapenade pungent with garlic and cheese. We ate far more than we should have, but still said yes when our server volunteered more.
Then the plates started arriving. My three tablemates, all repeat Salvatore’s customers, were shocked at how much better it was than they remembered.
The littleneck clams were a hit, their broth enriched with slices of smoky sausage, chopped fennel, herbs, tomatoes, capers, lots of garlic and a whack of chile heat. It was the sort of dish that made you want to wave off everything else, ask for more bread, and finish the job properly. The caprese salad featured enjoyable, tender, juicy heirloom tomatoes, plus milky Italian burrata. Egads, good tomatoes in January. The Caesar salads impressed, too, with crunchy house-made croutons, crispy romaine and a piquant dressing.
The pork belly was tender and meltingly rich, offset well by its accompaniments of cheesy seared polenta cake and bright chunky tomato sauce. It was quite enjoyable despite not being crisped.
Our flatbread was outstanding, crispy edges, not too much cheese over a bechamel base, and hearty mushroom flavor. The decently tender meatball oozed a dab of cheese. The artichoke coating was dry, but tasty. The Vermont salad had lots of fresh ingredients, but the maple dressing took over and smacked strongly of a pancake breakfast.
The entrees were excellent, despite some flaws. Cat adored her sliced steak and chicken cutlet, which I thought slightly dry. The prosciutto-stuffed tortellini on several plates was delicious but slightly overcooked. Our grilled asparagus was properly tender-crisp.
Ben loved his stuffed veal chop’s flavor and tender meat, even though it would have been better without the thick, salty sauce. Colin’s roasted halibut was a splendid plate of tender fish and firm, cheesy pasta, but some of the accompanying yellow squash was soggy.
My steak? That was perfect, the most tender, juicy beef I can remember. Browned briefly for flavor, at medium rare its richness, mineral tang and yielding texture made it as satisfying as a 24-ounce porterhouse. If you want to eat less, better meat, this was a luxury larded with virtue.
Dessert sealed the deal. The tiramisu, which came with Cat’s dinner, was terrific. It tasted like creamy coffee, liquor, cocoa and cinnamon. The sugar-powdered and chocolate funnelcakes ($9) and warm chocolate chip cookies with ice cream ($9) were worthy desserts. The chocolate peanut butter cupcake ($8) was nutty enough but slightly dry.
With a 20 percent tip, we spent $377, and it was worth it for a night to remember, an interesting and delicious flight from normal. Salvatore’s, man. It’s a trip.
Salvatore’s Italian Gardens: 9 plates (Out of 10)
After menu updates, this Italian showpiece offers steak and more to match the sizzle.
WHERE: 6461 Transit Road, Depew (683-7990, www.salvatores.net).
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 4 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $5-$16; salads and flatbreads, $9-$14; entrees, $29-$57.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.