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August 2003

Ivano Toscani - Anchor Bar Star

by Vince EVANS

He has the unique ability to envision things before making them happen. He is two-parts psychologist, one-part entrepreneur, with a pinch of magic for flavor. He is physically imposing, but with a kind, gentle demeanor. The clean scent of his cologne is as unmistakable as his Italian accent. His temper, like his wings, can be hot and spicy - but his compassion is as comforting as blue cheese on celery. He will have you at hello.

If the Anchor Bar were to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, many people would rush to purchase stock in the company, not because of the financial gains possible, but as a way of saying thanks to the man who sustained a business over the last twenty years... and shaped it into a local landmark and a national treasure.

Ivano Toscani. The Anchor Bar. Forever linked to the tidal-wave popularity of a chicken part, with Buffalo New York at its epicenter. And in the minds, hearts and palates of many, he is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the wing.

However, don’t expect Ivano to take credit or hold court. This is not a man given to accepting accolades, seeing his name on a marquee or strutting around the hen house as if he were the last rooster in town. He is one of life’s true givers - passionate about his work, passionate about his workers, true to his customs, truer still to his customers.

That he ended up as the general manager and main anchorman at the Anchor Bar is a tale of persistence, earnest effort and good fortune. But even as the story unfolds again, new details emerge that provide fresh perspectives on his life.

Young Ivano grew up in Milan, Italy, where he studied printing. After completing his studies, he was obligated to fulfill his country’s military duty and was inducted into the Italian Army. But this young man was no ordinary order-taker; he was more of a rebel - preferring to do things his own way - and for that he often found himself without privileges. After discharge from the army, he resumed his ‘good life’, met a young American girl, fell in love, and eventually found his way to America and to the girl’s hometown of Buffalo, New York. His affinity for Western New York grew. But it wasn’t an easy start.

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Ivano's Mother, Grandfather, Grandmother, Uncle Gianni, Uncle Marino and Ivano at age 3. Ivano at age 7 in Italy.

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Ivano and his motorcycle in Italy.

Ivano in the Italian Army.

“I was at the right place at the right time”, Ivano says of his serendipitous route to the restaurant. He recalls how much he liked the area when he first arrived in Western New York in October of 1973...until the snow fell. “I was depressed, working on the West Side, seeing so much snow, knowing little English.” At one point, he even entertained thoughts of returning to Italy, where he had left a good job as a printer. “At least in Italy I had a car, a motorcycle, friends, people who spoke my language, everything.” But then, destiny intervened, and a brief meeting with Frank Bellissimo changed the course of his life.

By night, Ivano took English classes at the International Institute where a friend of Anchor Bar founder Frank Bellissimo worked. Frank had commented to this friend how he was losing his Italian language arts and asked if there was someone at the Institute who could help him maintain his speaking and comprehension skills. The friend arranged a meeting between Frank and 23 year-old Ivano Toscani. They connected. In exchange for helping Frank with his Italian, Ivano was given a chance to learn the restaurant business - not from a book - but by working as a dishwasher, waiter, meat cutter, bartender, garbage disposal person, cook, busboy and any other duty Frank gave him. He became too busy to worry about the Buffalo snow. “Boom, I was here.”

“I worked side by side with Frank, learning as much as I could. We cut wings together, sausages, potatoes, everything was made by hand.” Frank and Teressa Bellissimo encouraged Ivano to study their ways, how they developed menu items, how they interacted with and entertained customers, how they made people feel special. These were lessons that made an enormous impression on him. He studied them - seven days a week - at the restaurant and in the apartment upstairs that served as the Bellissimo home. After Frank’s death in 1980, an emotionally spent Ivano thought he might have to find work elsewhere, but Teressa and son Dominic insisted that he was part of the business and encouraged him to remain at the restaurant. A decision he has not regretted.

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Ivano and his dogs Salsa and Sydney. Always dilligent to the everyday responsibilities of the Anchor Bar.
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Ivano proudly wears Frank Bellisimo's ring in true family tradition.

Ivano’s payback to his friend and taskmaster, Frank Bellissimo, was to work even harder to maintain the rich traditions and customs of the restaurant, including homemade food and old-fashioned customer care. Even after Teressa’s passing in 1984 and Dominic’s in 1991, Ivano, by request of Dominic’s wife Edith, agreed to carry on with the restaurant and bar. He has remained loyal and devoted to Edith Bellissimo, who lives with her daughter in Buffalo. Ivano talks with her daily, keeping her informed of activities around the business, and discussing ideas. “She is a wonderful woman and a person I truly respect. I appreciate the confidence she has in me.” Edith’s trust in Ivano has been an investment that has performed exceptionally well as evidenced by his stewardship of the business and improvements to the building. And it keeps getting better.

Even as Ivano was developing ideas for the remodeling of the restaurant, he envisioned the plans so as to preserve the integrity of the original design and its heritage. He helped build the additional eating area of the restaurant, assuring attention to every fine detail. He expanded the bar space, adding a completely new bar area that mirrors the original bar to such a degree that people cannot distinguish the old side from the new. Beyond the interior, he paved the parking lot, added new lighting, and a sign that boasts ‘Over 246.8 million sold.’ Yet he always defers credit to the Bellissimo family and Teressa for giving birth to the original wing. “What Frank and Teressa started and Dominic kept going, was a good business that I was lucky to be part of. This chicken wing craze was Teressa’s doing, and the Bellissimo family deserves the spotlight for it, not me.”

Keeping the Bellissimo traditions alive is a vow Ivano took, after the death of Frank and again after Dominic died. He wears a constant reminder of his promise - and of these two men - with a diamond ring on his right hand, given him by Dominic just before his death. The ring, originally Frank’s as a gift from Teressa, has been with Ivano now for more than 11 years and it serves as a link to his adopted family. Ivano admits that there have been several occasions when the ring was lost - one time on a beach, a woman found it and gave it back and another when a worker discovered it at the bottom of a fryer. But the 2.5-carat diamond ring will remain in his care “for the rest of my life and hopefully I won’t lose it again.” While he has indicated that the ring would “be inherited by my dogs after I die,” it wouldn’t surprise many if it ended up forever enshrined at the Anchor Bar. For now, and for the long term, the ring can be seen daily at the restaurant along with his dogs, Salsa and Sydney, in the office upstairs from it. Ivano’s love of dogs has been life long - and what many do not know is that all three of his previous dogs are buried in the backyard of his house, each with a marker and a memory. His emotions and sentimentality run close to the surface. “It comes from my heart.”

Ivano’s personal life, though intertwined with his business, is largely spent doting on his two dogs and enjoying quiet time with them or dinner with friends. While he still “goes to the office” seven days a week, he works out most afternoons at the Knights of Columbus on Delaware Avenue, where he is a 3rd Degree Knight and former ‘Knight of the Year’ in 1988. He is proud of what he and other knights accomplished at the building several years ago. They collected more than $7500 and renovated the structure, including fixing walls, painting and installing tile flooring. Ivano recalls spending one Christmas Eve by himself at the building just to complete some work he had begun. “I enjoy working with my hands and wanted to finish, but it was after 10:00 pm and kind of lonely on that Christmas Eve.” He’s made many friends at the K of C, some have become close while others just admire him for his talents, skills and the way he keeps on giving without reward or recognition.

“Maybe I get my energy from my mother.” Piera Toscani, now 81 years old, lives in Italy, travels frequently throughout Europe, visiting the cities and enjoying the sites and cultures. Ivano sees her about every three years when he brings her here for a visit. He also enjoys spending time with his sister and her family. Susie, his younger sister, lives in Milan and works as a secretary for an American company. Her husband Marco, a former tennis professional, is an oil engineer for the same company. They have two children - Mattia, a 13 year-old boy whose interests include tennis, and 20year-old Scsyl, a young woman who wants to be involved in space technology.

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Ivano's mother Piera visiting from Italy Ivano's sister Susie and brother-in-law Marco visiting from Italy.
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Ivano, his sister and his mother in Italy.

Another interest that Ivano has cultivated through the years is magic. He is adept at slight-of-hand illusions, but his forte is card tricks. For years, he entertained patients at Roswell Park Cancer Institute with his disappearing sponge balls, card tricks and other illusions. He will occasionally perform a trick or two at the bar upon request - but the Anchor Bar has its own special brand of magic that would dazzle even Siegfried and Roy.

“Frank taught me to provide personal attention, to make people feel comfortable and amused while they wait for their food to arrive at their table.” This gave rise to the famous ‘walls of testimonials’ that have characterized the Anchor Bar as a unique Western New York attraction. “People can look at the walls and see many famous people, some local, some national celebrities who have been to the Anchor Bar or ordered something from the menu; many have remained customers. Celebrities or their agents still call me and we ship wherever they are.” Additionally, small cartoons that appeared in regional or national newspapers - referencing the Anchor or its house specialty - were placed under the glass tabletops. And if that weren’t enough to satisfy a customer’s brief waiting time, one could read through the tabloid souvenir menu and find a wide variety of foods, a children’s menu, bits of interesting articles and even well-placed puns for those curious to find them. Next time you visit, see if you can find “Sip into something souper”, or “Sub prizes” or “Pitcher this” on the menu. On weekend evenings the Anchor is home to the smooth sounds of live jazz and has been hosting jazz on weekends -continuously - for the last 65 years - a national record.

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Great Anchor Bar acknowledgements from noted guests. Expanding Dominic's license plate collection.
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Continuing to remodel and upgrade the Anchor Bar. The Anchor Bar has served more than 246.8 million wings.

“What many people forget is that this restaurant prepares some very delicious homemade Italian food; it started out that way and we have tried hard to maintain that, even with the changing generations.” The Anchor Bar still boasts some of the finest handmade lasagne, manicotti and homemade sauces around, but gone are several old-tradition items like tripe “because that generation of people has grown smaller and more people today want finger foods and salads - more healthy choices.”

The Anchor has earned many awards for its food and hospitality over the years, and two in particular stand in testament to Ivano, the staff, and the family customs they preserved. This year, the Anchor earned the “James Beard Foundation America’s Classic Restaurant Award.” This award is given to an ‘ American Restaurant that has timeless appeal, beloved for quality food that reflects the history and character of its community.’ The restaurant was also recognized earlier this year with the 2003 Quality Institute International ‘Best of the Best’ Award, in a national contest of more than 1000 hot wing sauces. The Anchor Bar sauces took home the prestigious Gold Medal awarded by judges from the American Culinary and Tasting Institute. High praise indeed. But it doesn’t stop for Ivano. National prominence begets even more attention and Ivano leveraged it successfully with spots showcasing the Anchor featured on national television, including the Travel Channel and the Food Network. He continues to promote the Anchor and its rich traditions by making personal appearances at food shows around the country - such is the demand for the Anchor Bar and its unique history and menu.

Ivano oversees a staff of 90 employees at the restaurant - this is not your average Mel’s Diner. In his office, there are two concessions to modern technology - a pair of video monitors and one computer screen. One of the monitors shows the doorway leading from the stairs to the office and the other is focused on the restaurant so that he can assess the activity and determine when he should be down there to help out. The computer screen provides him the information he needs about the previous day’s sales and related data to plan his ordering and inventory control. A typical day finds him ordering a thousand pounds of wings, taking orders by phone or fax and shipping wings countrywide and sauces worldwide. His desk is strewn with papers of every dimension still, he is in full control, knowing exactly what orders are to be shipped around the world at any given point in time. “I find myself doing perfectionist things, just like Dominic used to do; I like to do things my own way because I’m usually right.” Who can argue the success?

The restaurant has employed a number of interesting personalities and yes, even characters, over the years the business has operated at the corner of Main and North Streets in the city. “There are some very good people who work here; Marcie has been a server here for 25 years and I rely on her customer service skills when I’m out; Roy (the weekend greeter and table reservist) has a great sense of humor that the customers love; he was the strongest man I ever knew, back in his day.” But true to his roots and the family atmosphere fostered by the founders, Ivano looks after his employees in ways not often found in business today. “They are all hard working people and I try to take care of them; I pay them well but they earn it. Even when some leave, many return not just for the ability to earn more, but to return to a good business environment. That’s what Frank wanted to have.”

He emulates his mentor, even granting advances or small loans to employees. “Frank used to do it; some of these people don’t have any family, so they come to me.” Several employees have confided that Ivano, while demanding the best from them, has done more to help them than any other person and their loyalty speaks for itself.

In the bar area can be found numerous license plates - some with Buffalo or wing references, some vanity plates and plates from around the country. How did this start? “One day Dominic found a license plate in the parking lot and hung it up on the wall. That was the beginning of our ever- expanding collection.” Whenever Ivano receives a license plate, he finds a place for it on a wall, photographs it, and sends the photograph to the person who sent the plate with a hand written note. He certainly knows something about word-of-mouth advertising and connecting his customers to the business!

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Promoting Buffalo's National Wing Festival with Mac Bledsoe and Drew Cerza.

So how does arguably the best wingman in the business feel about the local proliferation of wing eateries and other restaurants? “I love the competition. There are many fine restaurants in the Buffalo area, and I go to quite a few of them. They are good, but the Anchor Bar is a landmark restaurant, loved and recognized all over the world!”

He feels the same way about the National Wing Festival, to be held for the second year at Dunn Tire Park from August 29th to the 31st. “It’s good for Buffalo in a positive way, and it’s good for business, the Anchor and other restaurants. People should come out to the festival this year and sample some wings, have a good time and be part of something that is giving a good name to Buffalo.”

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At Ivano's surprise 50th birthday party. Marcie, Ivano, Tony and Maria. Ivano proudly displays the James Beard and Quality Institute Gold Medals for Anchor Bar's excellence.

To be sure, the Anchor Bar has given, and continues to give, a good name to Buffalo. On menus around the world, Buffalo precedes the word 'wings' - putting Buffalo in the mouths, and smiles on the faces, of people everywhere. Ivano Toscani, maitre d’ of a landmark and a legend, shepherds the traditions he inherited, giving due credit to the family Bellissimo while guiding the business into new worlds. Expanding the kitchen, bar and restaurant, adding sauces and shipping worldwide, creating new menus, making frozen Anchor wings available in supermarkets and flying famous Anchor Bar wings to anyone in any state - these are only a few of the things Ivano envisioned and made happen. But to this list he can add one more. A book idea he had - ‘The Story of Frank and Teressa’s Anchor Bar” - has been written and copies made available that will answer all the questions people have asked about the Bellissimos and the business.

After all, this is a man who envisions things before making them happen. As for his own future, you can be certain of one thing - he won’t, dare we say, wing it.

Vince Evans is a freelance writer.

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