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The two Polish gentlemen of Verona

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In food circles, the West side is considered a wasteland, which isn't entirely fair. Though most of our fancy restaurants are on the East side, the West and Southwest sides abound in Hispanic, Jamaican, and soul food. But move outside the city and even this apologist scratches his head. Greece has jewels in Bernard's Grove and Moscow's, and Brockport has the Apple Tree Inn. But Greece, Gates, Spencerport, and Brockport really lack choices for the discerning diner.

            Enter Piotr Wojtowicz and Jozef Gora. Gora wanted Wojtowicz to come work with him in their own computer numerical control (CNC) business. Wojtowicz, a longtime Portabello cook, suggested a restaurant instead. In CNC, you deal with 60-day payment terms. In food service, Wojtowicz argued, you pay your expenses and see your income immediately (a sad oversimplification). Furthermore, there was the idea of filling the great West side food void.

            And fill a void they have. Don't go to Verona expecting lasagna and meatballs; these things you can find elsewhere. At Verona, Wojtowicz is making more Northern Italian fare: seafood, risotto, and light sauces. That's nice in my book.

            Verona's lunch prices are phenomenal for the quality of food it serves. Nothing is more than $6.95. Penne with bacon, onion, and a vodka sauce is just $5.95, the same price as a fine spaghetti carbonara. Pork or chicken marsala is $6.95. The signature chicken Verona, with roasted peppers, scallions, and shitake mushrooms in a fresh marinara sauce is also $6.95. I had that with pork as a special and was bowled over. The lunch menu also includes various burgers and sandwiches, most for just $4.95.

            On my second visit, I took my 7-year-old daughter. Verona is more expensive at dinner, with prices from $10.95 to $19.95. There isn't a kids' menu, but Wojtowicz later told me he's happy to make chicken fingers or otherwise accommodate families and kids.

            A 10-ounce veal chop Diane ($20.95) had a strong and sharp sauce. I often let a chef cook a piece of meat as he sees fit, and this chop was on the well side. In the future, I'd specify medium-rare. The side vegetables were lightly cooked broccoli and cauliflower, as well as terrific roasted potatoes. All went well with the various dishes' sauces.

            Two months ago, Verona was serving a great mesclun salad (a deal at $1.75). But customers wouldn't pay for salad, so now it's iceberg, fine for what it is, but that's a shame (you can pay extra for a decent Caesar salad). My wife had the caprese appetizer, fresh mozzarella with tomato slices and basil. With olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper, it was as good as possible with May tomatoes. It will be outstanding by midsummer.

            Wojtowicz tries to keep specials on the inexpensive side, and the grouper with clams and mussels was a bargain ($15.95). The white wine and garlic sauce forced me to sop it up with Verona's terrific, crusty bread, baked on premises. There were three risottos; my wife chose the primavera ($14.95). Wojtowicz makes each risotto to order, which means you might wait on a busy night, but ours was ready when we were. It was creamy without being saucy, with excellent mushrooms adding depth of flavor.

            Verona is fairly smooth at the edges. It doesn't yet have the screaming business required to hire and keep the best wait staff, but all my servers did fine (make them slow down when explaining the specials). Gora and Wojtowicz sweep through regularly, the former looking like a dad waiting for his wife to give birth, the latter looking very much the chef. Desserts come from Australia, and the seven-layer chocolate cake was good if not remarkable ($3.94). The espresso was almost excellent, just a tad on the bitter side, served Italian style with lemon rind.

            At first, you might find Jozef Gora and Piotr Wojtowicz rather somber, but that's a misread. They're practical guys, but they'll deadpan bits of sarcasm at you until you start to get it. When Piotr walked away, Jozef griped about the difficulty of the business ("Work, work, work," he says). Then Piotr got his turn, and spoke of patience.

            Two years ago, the Moscowitz brothers (owners of Moscow's) argued that, demographically, Greece had to be able to support fine dining. Gora and Wojtowicz say the same thing of Gates. We saw a couple from Brockport who said they've become regulars. If Verona can stick it out, it will find plenty of that kind of customer. It's an overdue and welcome addition to not just its neighborhood, but the area in general.

Verona, 777 Spencerport Road, Gates, 247-8880. Hours: lunch Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m., and Sunday 3 to 8 p.m.

Food tip

The Budapest closed years ago, but now Hungarian cuisine has returned to Rochester at 1930 East Ridge Road (formerly Venezia). Karpatia is open for lunch Wednesday through Friday and dinner Tuesday through Sunday (starting at 2 p.m. on weekends). It will also have Hungarian wine in the near future. Look for the Great Win Chinese Bakery and Polska Chata European Delicatessen on the south side of Ridge Road.

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040. Tune in Saturday mornings for gardening, restaurants, and Finger Lakes travel, and on Sunday mornings for Toronto restaurants and wine.

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