Wings 'n' 'Weck

Fans of Buffalo, N.Y., cuisine: You'll be in heaven at Santillo's

I recently returned from the land of chicken wings, Genesee beer and my mother-in-law, and so it was with great anticipation that John and I visited Santillo's Bar and Grill: The place claims to be "a taste of Buffalo, New York."

It wasn't the eponymous wings we primarily sought; they can be found at just about any bar/restaurant in town. No, we were in search of the elusive beef on 'weck. Beef on 'weck is as much of a part of Buffalo's culinary culture as any old chicken wings.

It's basically a hot roast-beef sandwich, but the beef on 'weck is so much more. The beef is roasted tender in its own juices, then sliced paper-thin and piled high on a kummelweck roll. And it is this roll that makes the sandwich unique. Similar to a kaiser roll, although a tad chewier, the roll is topped with kosher salt and caraway seeds. Horseradish is always served on the side.

The roll doesn't travel well--it usually takes on the texture of a small rock after a day or so--which is why you don't often find this wonderful sandwich outside of the area.

Santillo's was fairly busy when we walked in, especially the bar, which is in the back of the large, open room. All the décor is Buffalo-related (including lots of Buffalo Bills stuff). There is a nice patio with a killer view of the Catalinas.

Service was friendly--maybe a bit overly so--and a tad unpolished, but to the server's credit, when we ordered the wings ($6.99 during happy hour, otherwise $8.99), she made a point of telling us they might take a little longer than usual. We also ordered ravioli ($9.99) and, of course, the beef on 'weck ($8.99). John ordered lemonade ($2), and I tried a glass of pinot noir ($7.50). The wine list reminded me of all the wine lists I'd seen on our recent vacation to the Northeast: simple and inexpensive.

The wings didn't take that long to arrive after all, and the aroma from the hot sauce got our taste buds watering. I love Buffalo wings, and John does not, but we both thought the ones served at Santillo's were some of the best we've ever tried. Underneath the smooth, fiery sauce were crispy skinned wings, juicy yet cooked to the bone. We couldn't eat all 13 of them, and the remainder came home with us. (Cold wings for breakfast ... hmmm!)

Our entrées came next. My cheese ravioli were OK: There were plenty of them topped with a thick, homemade marinara sauce. I found the sauce a tad too sweet, but the fire from the wings was still on my lips, so perhaps that's an unfair assessment.

However, the beef on 'weck totally exceeded expectations. It came with crispy fries and three condiments: ketchup, au jus and "atomic" horseradish. John commented that the sandwich was how they used to be made, with lots of tender meat, a beefy au jus and horseradish that is hot enough to make you sweat. I stole more than one bite, and I agreed.

We ordered the homemade cannoli ($4) and fruit sorbet ($4.99) for dessert. While the sorbet was just sorbet, the cannoli was delightful. The filling was thick with just a hint of sweetness, and the shell crackled at the touch of the fork.

We stopped by on a Saturday night for our second visit. This time, the place was filled with families, small parties of senior citizens and retiree couples from the neighborhood.

As tempting as it was to order another round of wings and a beef on 'weck, we knew we needed to sample other menu items, so John ordered a Santillo burger ($7.99) with a side of potato salad, and I ordered the veal Marsala with risotto ($16.99). John had a Genesee cream ale ($3). We also ordered calamari ($8.99) as a starter.

The calamari was another hit. You could really taste the calamari under the light, crispy batter. The pieces were served with ketchup and Santillo's marinara sauce for dipping. The sauce was much better on the second try.

The burger, made from blackened house-ground steak, was topped with gorgonzola cheese, applewood bacon, lettuce and tomato, and served in a ciabatta bun. Blackened burgers are often dry, but this wasn't the case here: Juicy and full of beef flavor, this was how a burger should be. The potato salad also won raves, as the potatoes were neither buried in mayo nor overpowered by onions.

The veal Marsala was homestyle all the way. Three good-sized slices of tender veal had been lovingly cooked in a rich Marsala sauce loaded with fresh mushrooms. The risotto had been tossed with the spaghetti sauce, and although it was a tad overcooked, it was rich and creamy. There was a pile of sautéed zucchini and squash slices on the side. These, too, were quite good.

We ordered the raspberry cheesecake ($4) for dessert. It didn't quite rise to the level of the cannoli, and it was so big, we had to take it home.

All in all, our meals at Santillo's exceeded our hopes. The place is comfortable and welcoming; the folks in Oro Valley should be thrilled with this addition to the neighborhood. Buffalo Bills games will be on the big-screen televisions throughout football season, but the beef on 'weck is what will really bring us back.