A taste of Western New York…in Watertown
Published in the February 14, 2016 edition of the Watertown Daily Times
by SHELBY COHEN ~
WATERTOWN — The signature dishes of upstate New York are some of my favorite foods. Spiedies in Binghamton, salt potatoes from Syracuse, knishes in the Catskills, chicken riggies throughout Central New York and beef on weck sandwiches and chicken wings from Buffalo — they all form a varied, distinctive culinary landscape that’s unique to New York.
Wing Wagon on Public Square has been bringing the signature taste of Buffalo to the north country since I was a kid. When they opened in the early 1980s, Buffalo wings weren’t available anywhere else in the area. So the Wert family was a gastronomic pioneer during an era when Northern New York was just beginning to wake up to tastes other than its own Italian roots.
I hadn’t actually had any food from Wing Wagon since I moved away from Watertown in the late 1990s, so when my parents told me recently that they’d rediscovered Wing Wagon and made it their go-to for pizza, I decided to pay it a revisit. You never know if a small, family-owned place like this will be able to keep up its quality over such a long period of time (see: my consistency column from last week), but what I read online from patrons was encouraging. Wing Wagon seems beloved in this community.
Most of the Wing Wagon’s business is takeout, but our party decided to hit it up for lunchtime and dine in the small, spare but adequate dining space — just six tables and a corkboard boasting letters from the many community organizations the Werts have supported over the years. If you decide to stop in and stay for a meal, you’ll order and pay at the counter, but the friendly staff, or Mr. or Mrs. Wert themselves, will kindly serve you at your table.
Let’s not beat around the bush here; we should address the wings first, no?
The wings (10 for $8.95; 20 for $16.51) were expertly cooked, each one perfectly positioned between crispy and juicy, with lots of sauce pooled in the bottom of the serving container to provide double-dipping opportunities. We ordered them coated in medium sauce — a mixture of a traditional Buffalo-style hot sauce and butter that was well balanced so as not to be too greasy or too spicy — just strongly flavored and lip-smacking.The wings themselves were big and meaty, cooked enough to retain a crisp exterior after meeting their saucy maker, but not so much as to dry out the dark meat.
A lot of local restaurants are cutting back on dipping sauce and celery these days to control food costs, but Wing Wagon provides lots of fresh, crunchy celery with each order plus a generous cup of chunky blue cheese dressing.
The meatball sub ($4.99) is, first of all, a great value — this is an 8-inch hoagie for only $5. The meatballs on the sandwich are small, singing with Parmesan cheese’s salty nuttiness, topped with lots of gooey mozzarella on a light, crunchy toasted roll. Each component — roll, meat, sauce and cheese — provided its own distinct texture, so your mouth was always engaged with good contrasting flavors and consistencies.
A small sausage and mushroom pizza ($7.09) delivers a mouthful of flavor in every bite. The sauce, cheese and crust all smack of high quality, flavorful ingredients brought together in expertly crafted combination to provide a winning product.
The crust was crisp and cooked at a high heat so it nearly blistered over its entire surface, but was still light and buttery-tasting — so the base of each slice tastes delicious but isn’t overwhelming or heavy. The sauce communicated fresh tomato flavor, neither watery nor paste-heavy, just a good, solid, sweet marinara. The cheese had really good flavor — a tiny bit salty and with that concentrated milky taste that a noble low-moisture pizza cheese has.
This reminded me of some of New Jersey’s best pizzeria pie: just a simple amalgamation of homemade, proofed crust cooked at high heat in really well-seasoned pans, with good quality tomato sauce and cheese, and simple but fresh toppings. Each pizza comes with a small cup of hot wing sauce for dipping the crust — a nice touch to remind you that this place may crank out awesome pies, but the wings are the stars.
A calzone ($7.69; plus 60 cents for each additional ingredient) with pepperoni had a chewier, thicker dough than the pizza — or at least presented in this way, the same dough seemed different; I wasn’t really sure which it was. This pocket was absolutely jammed with tons of mozzarella, but we found the thin pepperoni slices to be bland. The cup of tomato sauce alongside was smooth and sweet, but served cold. Warm sauce would have been tastier, for our palates, but I guess an argument could be made in support of the temperature contrast.
A very hearty lunch for three at Wing Wagon, with three cans of soda, came to $31.56. The ambiance was kind of nonexistent, as most of the other orders were traveling out the door for takeout, but we liked most of our food, and really loved the wings and pizza. I appreciated the quality of most of the ingredients used to make dishes that can easily cross over into junky, pedestrian fare. Small accoutrements, like the very fresh (not dried out, as in many instances) celery sticks and cup of wing sauce served with the pizza, plus Mary Ann Wert’s attentive and friendly service, really stood out.
I give Wing Wagon a seven on the Big Hungry scale. To me, the pizza and wings here are rendered from less of an Italian pizzeria perspective and more from an American, mainstream place. This is just really good Friday night food, for when you’ve worked all week and you’re ready to relax and tuck into fun, hearty fare cooked expertly but not necessarily refined or gourmet. Wing Wagon is our hometown pizza and wings joint, and long may it reign.
Big Hungry Shelby — aka Shelby Cohen — wants to hear from you. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @BigHungryShel by and on Facebook: Big Hungry Shelby group or http://wdt.me/shelby.
71 Public Square
Watertown, NY 13601
BHS recommends: medium chicken wings, pizza