Joe Jerge couldn’t help himself not being born Italian, but he did what a German kid from Lackawanna could do to make up for lost time.
Before launching Mulberry Italian Ristorante with partners in 2005, Jerge traveled through New York to broaden his understanding of Italian cuisine. From Mulberry Street in Manhattan’s Little Italy to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, Jerge discovered a culture full of wonders that went beyond the everyday spaghetti and meatballs.
Back in Lackawanna, Jerge and company aimed to build a restaurant with the carefully exuberant pastas of three-star Ai Fiore and the cachet of Rao’s, Frank Sinatra’s portrait-lined haunt where tables are “owned” by regulars.
Over the years, as photographs of prominent Buffaloians lined the walls, they were joined by a strong contingent of Buffalo Bills players. With Jerge in charge of the food and his partner Tim Eberle running the bar and overseeing the service, Mulberry became something of a Bills clubhouse. When star quarterback Josh Allen was asked in a recent interview if there were any dishes named after him in Buffalo, he invited Jerge for a shot. That’s how “Josh Allen’s doppio agnolotti” ($28) joined the specials menu.
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Agnolotti are plump dumplings the size of postage stamps, the work of skilled pasta artists. The short rib agnolotti ($21.99), already on the daily menu, offers luxe beef bites in pasta whispers, paired with miniature mushrooms and glazed with a sticky beef reduction, thrillingly lifted by a touch of champagne vinegar. One of the most exciting dishes on a menu full of character, it should be ordered for the table, to avoid any hard feelings towards a hoarder.
For Allen, Jerge went the extra yard. Doppio agnolotti are double-barreled dumplings, with two chambers in each bite. One side has prawns, stracchino cheese and lemon, the other has braised prime rib, fontina cheese and mushrooms, served in butter, parmesan cheese and cracked black pepper.
Although Allen hasn’t come by for the new dish yet, Jerge said, it keeps selling out.
Handmade pasta like this – Mulberry does everything except linguine – is the main reason reservations are needed. It’s not the chance to catch a glimpse of a famous person that fills the room, but the all-star performances on their plates.
Arancini is Italian for oranges. On Buffalo’s Italian menus, that means fried risotto balls. Mulberry’s version ($10.99), a pair of Valencia-sized orbs clad in golden breadcrumbs on a lake of shiny tomato sauce rimmed with emerald basil pesto, has a secret. These arancini are orange inside. This comes from the calabrian chili-spreadable pork sausage called nduja, melted and mixed to give the risotto a savory glow.
Mulberry doesn’t just go with the flow. The chicken wings ($16) are served in Calabrian Honey, a slightly tangy nectar warmer than the standard medium or “Tre White’s Spicy BBQ”.
Stuffed Mushrooms Al Forno ($10.99) brings coaster-sized mushroom caps bearing sautéed Tuscan cabbage, shallots and green onions under a snowy comforter of fontina and mozzarella cheeses seared under a salamander. Kind appetizer gave us a vegetarian dish to cheer on before the next meatstravaganza. The bow ties and broccoli ($16.99), manicotti ($15.99) and ricotta gnocchi ($16.99) are also vegetarian.
Not the Mulberry Gnocchi ($18.99), though. Fluffy ricotta balls were cooked with spicy cherry peppers, sausage, a melted mozzarella blanket and a ladle of tomato sauce.
For pure carnivorous exuberance, it’s hard to beat a bone-in pounded veal chop ($34.99) tanned in breadcrumbs, presented smothered in melted cheese with a dollop of fruity tomato sauce judiciously applied to avoid soaking the crispy perimeter. . It comes with a side of pasta as a palate cleanser.
Even the lasagna ($24.99) is an indulgence. Made with silky sheets of homemade rolled pasta, Vermont Creamery ricotta, and a pork-rich stew sautéed with guanciale and enriched with more nduja, it makes an impression and never falls behind.
Goulash ($18.99) here brings cavatelli pasta, small noodles shaped like a hot dog bun, instead of the elbow macaroni of your youth. This stew combines veal, beef, sausage, mushrooms and just a little nduja, hearty as the day is long, even if you don’t get it parmed ($1.99), which we did. No regrets.
Seafood choices include the Amore Scallops ($28.99), a trio of fatty scallops, expertly browned and presented around linguine infused with a creamy shallot, mushroom and green pea sauce. Pasta Joseph ($24.99) features pasta crest de gallo with rock prawns, artichokes and roasted red peppers in a cream sauce brightened with the heat of cherry peppers.
A solid lineup of homemade desserts includes creme brulee ($8.99), cannoli ($4.59), and tiramisu ($6.99).
Besides deep pasta, Mulberry delights because he hasn’t outgrown his shoes. This veal cutlet parmigiana is the most expensive dish on a chockablock menu with high-end food at affordable prices. Football players come and go, but Mulberry knows Buffalo is paying its bills.
Italian blackberry ristorante
64 Jackson Ave, Lackawanna (822-4292)
Opening hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday (kitchen break from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.), 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.
Price: entrees $7.99 to $16.99, entrees $13.99 to $34.99
Vibe: friendly buzz
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free options: pasta and more
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