It was just another Friday night for Samuel Greco, a night out with the boys. When his gang convened at a bar owned by his aunt and uncle, there was no reason to think anything unusual would happen.
Certainly nothing that would change the way people around the world think about his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. – and certainly nothing that would forever change the way sports fans at bars and parties chow down while watching the Super Bowl and other events.
But if you nibble on some Buffalo wings – wings fried crisp, then tossed in the now legendary blend of hot sauce and butter – while watching the New England Patriots play the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, you have Greco’s aunt Teressa Bellissimo to thank. And maybe even Greco, the only survivor of the six guys who were at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo that night in August 1964 for the debut of the now world-famous dish.
“None of us had ever seen anything like it before,” Greco says.
And they couldn’t get enough.
Greco is now 92 and lives in Apex with his daughter Tracy Carbone, creator of Just Like Mom’s Vinaigrette, and her family. Sitting beside her, he recalls that the group, which included Bellissimo’s son, asked Bellissimo to make them something to eat.
“We had to wait until after 12 to have anything but fish,” he says, explaining that they all were observant Catholics. “We really had no idea what she was making.”
Bellissimo didn’t normally run the kitchen at the Anchor Bar, a popular Italian restaurant. The cook failed to show up, so she set about rustling up a hot dish with ingredients not needed for the next day’s menu items.
There were plenty of chicken wings in the cooler, trimmings from whole birds usually saved to make soup. After frying them and coating them with sauce, she arranged them on a platter with celery and carrot sticks and a small bowl of blue cheese dressing – to stretch the dish to feed a bunch of hungry, somewhat tipsy men. Greco’s aunt waved off a request for silverware, telling the guys to eat with their hands.
“They weren’t very hot, the way a lot of people make Buffalo wings today,” Greco said. “Of course, people started asking for them all the time. It just mushroomed from that.”
Wing consumption flies
Spicy, tangy or otherwise, wings are second only to pizza when it comes to Super Bowl snacking. The National Chicken Council proudly clucks in its annual Chicken Wing Report that 1.35 billion chicken wings will be devoured during Super Bowl weekend. That’s a 1.5 percent increase, or 20 million wings, from 2017.
It’s anyone’s guess how many wings will be consumed Sunday in the Triangle. In Durham, Heavenly Buffaloes will have at least 150 40-pound boxes of locally sourced wings at the ready. They also sell boneless chicken wings and vegan soy-protein nuggets.
Mark Dundas, co-owner of the 311-square-foot take-out shop, suggests that fans place their orders now if they hope to score some for the big game.
“We can cook a thousand wings every 15 minutes in old-school beef tallow, and we’ll sell every one of them,” Dundas says.
He and partner Dain Phelan had hoped to be selling wings at a second location on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill by now, but paperwork delays have pushed the opening to February.
Ordering ahead appears to be a rule in the catering playbook for places that sell wings. Standard Foods in Raleigh alerted customers via Instagram that it would stop taking orders Jan. 27, a week and a day before the big game.
Mattie Beason, owner of Mattie B’s Public House in Durham, expects that most wings will be spoken for through reservations well before kickoff.
“There are only so many orders we can make,” he says. “When they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Make wings at home
If you’re looking to dazzle Super Bowl guests with a winning Play of the Day in your kitchen, try making your own wings. It’s easy to find the Anchor Bar recipe online. Most recommend using Frank’s Red Hot Sauce but feel free to substitute something locally made, like Cackalacky of Pittsboro or Jim’s Own Sauce of Cary.
Triangle wing masters agree that it’s not necessary to fry wings to make them irresistibly delicious, nor do you need to stick with traditional Buffalo spice.
At home, Dundas cooks wings on the grill, a preference that traveled to the Triangle with him from his native Australia. His touchdown-worthy tip is to soak the wings for several hours in a brine of salt, sugar and spices.
“People cook raw wings, coat them in sauce at the end and wonder why all the flavor is on the outside,” Dundas says. “Brining puts the flavor inside, where it ought to be.”
As soon as the wings are cooked through and well browned, transfer to a large bowl and toss with your favorite sauce or a generous shake of a dry spice mix. Dundas encourages cooks to make their own spice blend based on ratios easily found online.
“You don’t have to go with typical barbecue flavors,” he says. “Think about the flavors you like and run with it.”
Beason also recommends brining and urges home cooks to forego frying in favor of baking.
“There’s nothing worse than biting into a beautiful fried wing and finding that it’s raw in the middle,” he says. “It’s just a lot easier to control the outcome when you bake them.”
Lest you think baking is cheating, Beason says wings are par-baked at Mattie B’s then finished in the deep fryer for a crisp finish. Focus instead on creating a memorable sauce, like the guava cayenne glazed create by chef John Eisensmith. “The contrast of sweet and spicy is a classic winner,” Beason says.
Sweet, and spicy
Restaurateur Charlie Deal and his wife, Chrissy, have a friendly competition over who makes the best wings at their home in Holly Springs.
Charlie Deal starts by brining wings before cooking them on the grill and tossing them in a tangy, pantry-friendly chili-garlic sauce.
Chrissy Deal offers a riff on her mother’s recipe, which calls for dredging wings in flour, arranging them on a sheet pan and dotting with butter, then baking in a hot oven until crisp. After a toss in a butter and hot sauce mixture that’s kicked up with apple cider vinegar, the wings are returned to the oven for a few more minutes, allowing the sauce the lacquer each zippy bite.
“You mean,” his wife adds with a chuckle, “because they’re more delicious.”
Samuel Greco’s family no longer is connected with the Anchor Bar, but he still enjoys a hearty plate of wings. He indulged in an order when he traveled to Jacksonville, Fla., last month on a bucket-list trip to watch his beloved Bills in a playoff game against the Jaguars.
But just like snow shovels, Greco left the spicy heat of Buffalo wings in Buffalo.
“To be honest,” he says, confessing something he never told his aunt, “I’ve always preferred my wings mild.”
Jill Warren Lucas is a freelance writer from Raleigh. She can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter at @jwlucasnc.
Charlie Deal’s Wings
1 cup salt
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup chili flakes (or less, to taste)
1/2 cup sweet chili sauce
1/4 cup chili garlic sambal
1/4 cup fish sauce
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
To make the brine: Bring 1 quart of water to boil in a large pot. Add ingredients, stirring to dissolve. Remove from heat and mix in 3 quarts of ice water.
When fully cooled, add chicken wings. Several pounds will fit. If needed to keep wings submerged, place a plate inside the pot before covering with lid. Refrigerate 8-12 hours.
Meanwhile, make the sauce by combining all ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside.
Drain wings into a colander. Shake well to release excess liquid. Grill on medium-low heat, turning occasionally, until evenly browned and crispy.
Transfer cooked wings to a large bowl. Pour on about half of the sauce, tossing or stirring to coat thoroughly. Arrange wings on a platter and serve with remaining sauce on the side.