Restaurateur takes second bite out of Buffalo festival

by Sebastian Montes | Staff Writer Gazette
Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009

Chalk it up to a rookie misstep. This year, he'll make no mistake. 

Maryland restaurateur Ira Levy and two waitresses were caught unawares last Labor Day Weekend when they faced off against the big boys of Buffalo wings in the mecca, the motherland, the high holy ground for deep-fried chicken appendages. 

As his decade-and-a-half of devotion compressed into two days at the National Buffalo Wing Festival in Buffalo, N.Y., the 40-year-old from Gaithersburg — proprietor of the Buffalo Wings and Beer franchise — couldn't have been more in his element. The swarm of 78,000 fanatics chomping down half a million chicken wings was surely the pinnacle of his profession. 

But most of his 29 competitors came with experience and geography on their side. And he — well, he took too literally the contest's rules, including a four-person team limit. 

"What I was told, what I could do and what I couldn't do was a 180," Levy said last week in his Gaithersburg eatery, the franchise's original, opened in 1995. "Places would have 20, 30 girls, they're selling sauce, they're selling shirts. It was wild, wild west, man." 

Levy's array of sauces, which he prides in creating and manufacturing, are the lifeblood coursing through his nine-store-empire of BWB's. (He owns the Gaithersburg and Cloverly stores, and franchised out the locations in Rockville, Frederick, Baltimore, Eldersburg, Glen Burnie, Hagerstown and Leonardtown.) 

But outmanned and outmaneuvered last year in Buffalo, he came up short of bringing home best-wing bragging rights. 

It was not for lack of effort or fan-base, said festival promoter and wing impresario Drew Cerza — the infectious enthusiasm that helped convince Cerza to make BWB the first Maryland entry was quick to win over last year's crowds. 

"There was just no doubt about it," said Cerza, aka The Buffalo Wing King. "It wasn't a surprise that he came out and worked his butt off. Those were really popular wings; people loved them." 

Lessons learned, Levy plans to pull all the stops when the meat-maddened masses descend on Buffalo this weekend to mark the festival's sixth edition. 

His strategy, simply put, is more. A cadre of friends, supporters and svelte waitresses, stacks of foam fingers, goofball T-shirts and ridiculous "chicken hats" — even a few bottles of his fiery ‘Coffin' sauce to challenge the foolhardiest of festival-goers. 

But true to his tastes come crunch-time, Levy plans to woo the judges with flavor rather than fire. 

Festival organizers furnish wings fried "naked" for the 30 contestants to drown in their delectable dressings. From there, the battle for best buffalo wing breaks into seven categories judged by blind taste test, including "traditional hot," "traditional extra hot" and "traditional BBQ." 

It is on "creative spicy" and "creative BBQ" that Levy has his sights set. 

Little else would make him happier than to hear the judges declare his sweet-and-tangy or Cock-of-the-Walk Cajun victorious Sunday. And if those BWB standards should fall short, he has an ace up his sleeve: "White Fire," a mix of 17 spices that he conjured years ago as a side for quesadillas and such. After a quick adjustment, his secret sauce is wing-ready. 

"People won't forget BWB this year," Levy said. 

The National Buffalo Wing Festival will feature 30 restaurants flaunting some 100 interpretations of that American classic. Ask festival organizer Drew Cerza, and a true buffalo wing has to be deep-fried, "and it has to be deep-fried in a good oil," until a little crispy. Most sauces will start with Frank's Red Hot, combined with "a couple tablespoons of butter" per 10 wings. Apply in a bucket or basket via vigorous shaking. 

"Pretty doesn't count. It's all about the taste of the sauce," he said. 

Ira Levy, who started the Buffalo Wings and Beer franchise nearly 15 years ago in Gaithersburg, is finicky when it comes to the wing. He uses only Perdue chickens — and never, ever breads his birds. Set the deep-frier at 350 degrees for 10 minutes — 14 minutes for a crispier finish. He goes mum, of course, when it comes to his 18 sauces, which he created and manufactures himself. 

As for the buffalo wing's enduring appeal, Cerza breaks it down as follows: 

"The thing about the buffalo wing, it's the environment you're eating in. Usually, it's a happy event; you're with friends, maybe watching football. People aren't munching on wings at the funeral parlor. It's all hands on deck."