With SeaBar, chef-owner Mike Andrzejewski made sushi safe for Buffalo fine dining. At Cantina Loco, despite the punishing din of its low-ceilinged dining room, his versions of Mexican standards draw a crowd. ¶ After opening Mike A’s at the Lafayette, his white-tablecloth fine dining place in the historic downtown hotel, Andrzejewski had left one major Buffalo dining audience un-wooed. Hence the creation of Tappo, Andrzejewski’s love letter to family Italian dining. ¶ The former Horton Coffee building on Ellicott Street has a rooftop patio now, and a multilevel interior with a bar and tall ceilings that help keep noise reasonable. The back wall is dominated by a wine rack, with 40 diverse bottles priced to move at $15, selected by Mike A’s beverage director Tony Rials.
Red sauce junkies already know the pasta menu by heart: lasagna ($14), meatballs ($9), spaghetti ($10), Alfredo ($12), chicken cacciatore ($12), amen.
Ditto for the entrees, which include dishes like pasta with clams ($14), eggplant Parmesan ($14), basil prawn risotto ($18) and braciole ($18). Appetizers include olives ($6), tossed salad ($5) and panzanella, or bread salad ($7).
We ordered a special appetizer of stuffed peppers on garlic toast ($9), panzanella, crostini ($6), Italian wedding soup ($4) and a special of butternut squash soup with maple bacon ($7). For mains, we asked for orecchiette with sausage and greens ($14), braciole, risotto, eggplant Parmesan and chicken saltimbocca ($15).
I was recognized at the hostess stand, so it’s fair to say I saw Tappo at its best. May you see it that way, too, for it was a meal I would wish on anyone.
There’s no free bread at Tappo. I took my bread ration in hearty crostini, topped with caramelized onion, mushroom, greens, herbed oil and fontina cheese.
The panzanella seemed light on bread, actually. But it came with a peach-sized sphere of ricotta flavored with Parmesan, snug inside a fried crumb jacket. The juicy jumble of croutons, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion and bracing vinaigrette was engaging, smoothed out with its mild dairy richness.
The banana peppers came stuffed with cheese and sausage, topped with a fried egg that oozed when cut. The combination worked surprisingly well on garlic toast, for both flavor and picking up to eat. The chiles were tender and mild. Like my other favorite versions, Tappo’s are blanched first, then stuffed and broiled.
Tappo’s Italian wedding soup was the heartiest I’ve had in ages, with firm ditalini pasta, white beans, diced carrots and celery, besides the obligatory meatballs. The broth had depth, too.
The squash soup was more American than Italian, velvety, earthy, cream-enriched puree topped with roasted squash seeds, a drizzle of sage butter and two strips of crispy maple-glazed bacon. Despite overly chewy seeds it was homey, refined and satisfying.
The braciole is a contender for best in Buffalo. Instead of the usual stiff beef exterior, Andrzejewski uses boneless short rib. The stuffing of cheese and egg was surrounded by meltingly tender beef that surrendered to the touch of a fork. Like the other specialties, it comes with spaghetti, in a hearty meat-enriched tomato sauce that’s been simmered down to a tangy dark red.
The risotto was perfectly cooked, with fresh peas that popped in your mouth and toasted pine nuts. The eight jumbo shrimp didn’t get much basil flavor from a chiffonade of fried herb, but the lemon-butter sauce and still-firm sauteed zucchini more than made up for it.
The orecchiette was good, with tender ear-shaped pasta tossed with greens and sliced sausage, but my attention was drawn elsewhere.
Cat’s chicken saltimbocca – pan-fried chicken draped with prosciutto, sage and aged provolone, with potatoes and more zucchini – had caught my eye. She swiped a piece though the pan sauce at the bottom of the plate and found it “crazy good.” Once I got my bite I realized that the chicken wasn’t the usual prone-to-dryness breast, but thigh, moister dark meat. I did get another bite, through her mercies. When he came out of the kitchen to chat, Andrzejewski said the saltimbocca was a homage to Salvatore’s, where he started cooking 30 years ago.
My eggplant Parmesan was another dish to remember, the vegetable slices fried well and not mushy, with the eggplant flavor winning over the coating. Six slices were arranged on tomato sauce, each topped with ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan before being browned and sprinkled with fresh basil. I ate some and made sure to take the rest.
There were three desserts, all $6. The chocolate espresso sundae was undistinguished, but the chocolate bread pudding, served warm, was well-spiced and riven with chocolate crevices. Our favorite was the chocolate peanut butter crunch bar, served with caramel sauce and not overly sweet whipped cream.
With upgraded ingredients and spot-on palate pandering, Tappo offers a menu of idealized Italian-American classics, ranging from rustic to fancy-pants, at reasonable prices.
Reasonable, meaning three appetizers, four bowls of soup, five entrees, three desserts, a bottle of wine and a glass of wine came to $157 with tax, before tip, or $40 a head.
Red sauce junkies, Tappo is making a serious bid to be your pasta pusher.
Tappo: 9 plates (Out of 10)
Menu of updated red sauce classics raise the bar on family Italian dining.
WHERE: 338 Ellicott St. (259-8130, www.tappoitalian.com)
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $5-$12; pastas, $9-$14; entrees $14-$18.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.