Like a dating relationship, if a restaurant is successful enough, for long enough, there comes a time when the question must be asked: “Are we taking this to the next level?”
After 26 years of going steady with South Buffalo, Imperial Pizza has answered that question with a big “Hell yes.”
Imperial has built a SoBuff empire on fluffy dough, sweet sauce, melted cheese and cup-n-char pepperoni. In February, the venerable pizzeria flung open the doors on a massive expansion. No longer primarily a takeout joint, Imperial is a proper bar-restaurant now, allowing patrons the chance to sit and enjoy their pizza-wings, maybe with a glass of red wine or a local craft beer.
Like many South Buffalo institutions, however, Imperial is more than just a place for food and/or drink: It’s a social hub for the surrounding neighborhood. You can imagine the clientele ranging from extended families out to celebrate grandma’s birthday, to day drinkers at the end of their Blue Light-and-Jameson session.
When I recently went to the new Imperial to interview manager Brian Cowley, we hadn’t sat down for more than 3 minutes when someone came over to say hi and shake his hand. It immediately became obvious Imperial is that kind of place, one where everybody knows your name.
And the revamped pizzeria is the type of place you’d want to come to bump into someone you know. Lots of windows and large windowed garage doors that open onto Abbott Road let loads of natural light stream in. At night, neon beer signs, glowing fluorescent orbs and sports highlights flashing across TVs add to the ambience. On my visit, music over the sound system ranged from country to classic rock to Dropkick Murphys. There’s also an outside patio that’s set to open soon.
“We took our time, maybe took a little longer than what we wanted,” Cowley told me. “But we wanted to make sure as soon as we opened up, there were no hiccups right off-the-bat.”
While the setting may be a bit different, the menu is largely the same as it was pre-expansion.
“Knowing the food we can make and how fast we can push it out,” Cowley said, “that was the main key of what we wanted to focus on: Make sure our food is still the way it should be, and make sure it’s out as fast as it should be.”
He added that serving food in a sit-down format makes Imperial classics even better. The wings, for instance, are a massive upgrade when you can eat them right out of the kitchen.
“When you put (an order of wings) in a box, it’s going to soften up,” Cowley said. “When you put wings on a platter, you’ve got nice, hot, fresh and crispy Imperial wings. I think that’s a huge thing.”
Another big plus is the addition of beer and wine. There were 16 taps and 27 total beers available on our visit. The modest wine list included seven wines, including reds, whites and a prosecco.
I was so struck by how professional everything was, and the broad customer appeal that I asked Cowley if this is the first step toward making Imperial a franchise.
“Maybe,” he said with a wry smile. “Who knows if that’s in the future. Right now, our focus is to start this one, see how this goes and in a few years.. You never know what the future holds.”
Of course, this being South Buffalo, it all comes back to the neighborhood, and Cowley said the feedback from neighborhood regulars has been great so far.
“The neighborhood keeps coming back to us,” he said. “They love it. They love the way it feels. They love the way it looks. And everybody’s waiting for it to get warm so we can open up those garage doors and get the patio going. So, we’ve got a little more to do.”
1035 Abbott Road, Buffalo, NY 14220
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m. – 11:30 p.m.