A Little Background
One late night in Buffalo, N.Y. – March 6, 1964 to be exact – Dominic Bellissimo was tending bar when his friends arrived. He asked his mother, Teressa, to prepare something for his hungry friends to eat. She spotted a pan of chicken wings – the “reject” cuts, usually left for soup stock – and set out to create something new. She deep fried them and tossed them in a sauce made with butter and cayenne pepper, among other secret ingredients. The dish turned out to be an instant hit and a pivotal staple of American cuisine. 50 years later, the chicken wing is beloved more than ever before. The Anchor Bar is legendary in the wing world, and Western New York has become a chicken wing Mecca for many aficionados. Many restaurants set out to make the wing their own with breadings, dry rubs, different sauces and obscure additions.
Over 150 miles southeast of The Anchor Bar, Ithaca’s wing scene is still budding. In 2011, Wings Over Ithaca was voted the best by The Ithaca Times, but it was time to update. Does Wings Over still rank supreme, or is there a new hot spot in town?
The restaurants included in this search were Wings Over, Sammy’s, Ithaca Ale House, Napoli Pizzeria, Ciao! and Kilpatrick’s Publick House, and each had their own schtick, but I based my rankings on crispiness, cohesive flavors, amount of sauce, and quality of bleu cheese (if applicable).
“I think we have, by far, the best boneless wings in Ithaca,” said Wings Over employee Taylor Barker, “I think our bone wings are probably the best as well.”
Barker said that Napoli Pizzeria is Wings Over’s closest competitor as far as bone wings go, but only if they make their wings fresh.
“They just sit around forever and then they sauce them,” he said. “We make all of our stuff fresh.”
The next logical wing destination was clearly Napoli, and Barker was right. The wings were lukewarm and not crispy at all. The breading didn’t soak in much sauce either, so the flavor was barely there. I could barely tell which sauce was on them. They also forgot to include a side of bleu cheese, which is a must for all Buffalo-style wings, in my opinion.
After taking to Twitter, I was told that Ciao! had something to be desired.
“You better like onions, garlic and flavor!” said Gavin Keaty, an Ithaca resident.
Ciao serves wood-fire cooked wings, topped in caramelized onions, adding a depth of flavor unlike any other. The downside was that the wings marinate in their own juices, creating one soft, fleshy consistency, which I found displeasing. That aside, Keaty was right when he said that the wings were flavorful. They were sweet, but I could not quite put my finger on what the sauce was – the menu nor the staff clarified – but it was reminiscent of a Thai chili sauce. The onions were different, but cooked well, and would have been a better addition if the wings had been crispier.
Sammy’s Pizzeria, popular among Ithaca College students, has had mixed reviews. But in recent months they seem to have stepped up their game. When I had them about two years ago, they were nearly inedible; they were burned, dry, and the sauce was sub-par.
Tuck Dowrey, a sophomore at Ithaca College and frequent Buffalo visitor, said that he’d rather have his wings overcooked and crispy than just plain soggy, and recommended that I give them another chance.
“[They] get the seal of approval from this Buffalo guy,” he said.
Considering what I had experienced before, anything would be an improvement. Despite still being slightly overcooked, the classic buffalo flavor was present and pretty decent as well. Not the best, but far from the worst.
Ale House prepares their wings most conservatively by sticking to the fry-and-toss method that The Anchor Bar developed half a century ago. The sauce was liberally distributed (although they may have been able to use less – that much sauce will stain fingers), they were served piping hot, and the bleu cheese was slightly tangy, but not pungent, and had a medium consistency that works especially well to tone down the sauciness of the wings and keep them from dripping.
Last, but not least, is the dark horse of the bunch. Kilpatrick’s was not the first place I would think of to grab some decent chicken wings. I’d expect to find them at a pizzeria or American-style bar. This Irish pub offers up not just cold pints and wild karaoke nights, but also “Patty’s Wings,” which come in a variety of house-developed flavors. They are seasoned, baked, soaked in ale in for 24 hours and then deep fried and seasoned once more.
The variety platter I was served included “Not Your Daddy,” a sweeter mild buffalo sauce, “Houdini,” which is explained as a “garbage” sauce, made up of a little bit of everything, “Fire and Ice,” which packed more heat and also had a garlic aftertaste, and “Hot Cranberry,” which was definitely more spicy than sweet, but did have whole cranberries in the sauce that tasted like they had been soaked with hot pepper. The two latter flavors are not mentioned on the menu, but after hearing of the wing challenge I was creating among Ithaca restaurants, they seemed eager to prove themselves.
So the question still stands, who has the best wings in Ithaca?
I’ll give Napoli and Sammy’s an honorable mention, but their flaws put them too far behind the other competitors.
After consulting my fellow wing-tester (shoutout to Sean Barry for not letting me eat all these wings alone), we both agreed that Wings Over still held the top spot for boneless wings, and they offer the best price for the amount of wings you are given. Ale House was on the upper end of average, Ciao offered a taste of something different, but Kilpatrick’s held the number one spot overall…by a long-shot. The flavors were unique, but balanced, and stood well alone without being the supplement to a meal.