Winging it at the Anchor Bar

by Lawrence Aylward
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Ivano Toscani, Anchor Bar
“Today, we sell about 2,000 pounds of chicken wings a day.”– Ivano Toscani

Last year during the Super Bowl, Americans consumed almost as many chicken wings (1.25 billion) as the population of China (1.35 billion). And to think the chicken wing craze began at a modest Italian restaurant in Buffalo, NY.

That restaurant, the Anchor Bar, is now a bucket-list stop for foodies who want to eat chicken wings at the place they were “invented.” The late Frank and Teressa Bellissimo founded the Anchor Bar in 1935, which attracted a solid clientele for its Italian food. But something happened one late-winter Friday night in 1964 that would change the restaurant – and the entire food industry – forever.

That night, the Bellissimo’s son, Dominic, was tending bar when some buddies showed up to have a few drinks. They grew hungry and asked Dominic for something to eat – but something different and not on the menu. Dominic relayed the message to his mother, Teressa, who was in the kitchen. Teressa scanned the kitchen and spotted a box of large chicken wings that a meat supplier had delivered. She had planned to use the wings in a stock pot to make soup, but decided to feed the meaty wings to his friends. She cut them up, put them in a deep fryer and covered them with a spicy sauce. Then she put them on two plates garnished with celery sticks and bleu cheese and took them to Dominic at the bar.

Seeing the chicken wings – and thinking they were a bit peculiar – Dominic wondered how his friends would react to them. While they were also curious, his friends were too hungry to pass on them. And after biting into the wings they began squawking about how delicious they were.

Dominic’s friends returned again and again to eat the off-menu creation. Soon, others wanted to try them and there was talk of placing chicken wings on the menu. But Frank Bellissimo wanted nothing to do with putting such a low-level meat item on the menu, citing that people came to the Anchor Bar to eat fine, homemade Italian food. But, eventually, Bellissimo conceded to the crowing and agreed to list them, not realizing at the time that chicken wings would take his business to a level he never anticipated.

Fast-forward to October 2015. Ivano Toscani, the owner of the Anchor Bar, talks about how the eatery has become a destination for people all over the globe. Toscani jokes that Buffalo is known for three things: the four Super Bowls the Buffalo Bills lost consecutively in the 1990s, cold winter weather and chicken wings.

“Today, we sell about 2,000 lbs. of chicken wings a day,” Toscani says.

The 65-year-old Toscani, who became proprietor of the iconic restaurant just a few months ago, has worked there for 40 years. When he started, he was Frank’s assistant and learned the business inside out. Toscani says there are three vital components to making an awesome chicken wing: the right wings, the right oil and the right fryer.

“We use jumbo wings,” he adds. “But we don’t want them too big because the meat is tough.”

The Anchor Bar uses Frymaster fryers, which have been around since 1935. The wings are deep fried in vegetable oil at 350˚ F for 10 to 12 minutes before being tossed in one of the Anchor Bar’s original recipe sauces. The Anchor Bar charges $13 for 10 wings, $21 for 20 and $44 for 50. Toscani remembers when the wholesale price of wings was 40 cents per lb. Today, he pays over $2 per lb.

Toscani says it took about 10 years for chicken wings to catch on throughout the country after their debut at the Anchor Bar. But he never thought they would become such a culinary rage. According to Nielsen Perishables Group, Americans consumed about 543 million lbs. of chicken wings for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 29, 2014, an increase of about 4 percent from the previous year.

Toscani is amazed at what has transpired. He thinks back to that winter night in 1964 when Teressa created one of modern culture’s most popular finger foods by…well…winging it – and revolutionizing the poultry industry and the food industry in the process.

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