FORK ON THE ROAD: Cousin Vinnie’s Family Sports Restaurant

It’s home to more than just lip-smacking wings.

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When most locals hear of Cousin Vinnie’s, they immediately think chicken wings. After all, it does have more than 30 different wing sauces to choose from, and they’re all worth trying.

But this established Leesburg restaurant has more going for it than just delicious drums and flavorful flats. A quick glance at the menu will let you know Cousin Vinnie’s wants to appeal to everyone. From killer burgers and hot dogs to scrumptious sandwiches and subs, there is something to satisfy the entire family.

Still, “Cousin” Vinnie Vittoria’s New York roots make it almost impossible to ignore the award-winning wings. Growing up in North Tonawanda, just outside of Buffalo, Vinnie was naturally a dedicated sports and wing enthusiast. After relocating to Lake County in 2007, he opened a family sports restaurant that would serve authentic Buffalo wings.

The rest, of course, is Leesburg history.

On this day, I was feeling nostalgic about dining at Cousin Vinnie’s. It was the first restaurant I’d eaten in when I began at Lake & Sumter Style two years ago. Naturally, my newfound colleagues then goaded me into ordering wings; this time around I made it a point to broaden my perspective, even if only slightly.

Patrons can expect a distinctive family friendly sports bar atmosphere. Sports paraphernalia, both local and national, along with Budweiser and Harley-Davidson décor adorn the walls. Flat-screen televisions stream ESPN all day, perfect for catching up on the latest happenings in the sports world. And the wooden tables and benches contribute to the eatery’s laid-back environment.

It’s easy to see why Cousin Vinnie’s is also the place to relax and catch up with friends; most nights are themed. For example, if Texas Hold’em is your game of choice, Monday night may be for you. Both amateurs and pros are welcomed. And for pop culture junkies, Wednesday is Team Trivia Night while Thursday night is for those who enjoy belting out a karaoke tune or two.

I chose to make my rendezvous with Cousin Vinnie’s a lunch date, mainly because I wanted no distractions. I met up with general manager Von Fast, who gave me free rein of the restaurant’s vast menu.

To start, I ordered a sampling of a few suggested appetizers: Buffalo chicken and cheese dip, Cousin Vinnie’s secret shrimp and jumbo shrimp scampi.
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Both shrimp dishes feature jumbo Gulf shrimp, which were sweet, tender and juicy. I liked the scampi’s delicious garlic butter and Old Bay sauce, but I enjoyed Cousin Vinnie’s secret shrimp more. The sauce is a unique blend of five wing sauces that explodes with great taste. I detected some vinegary and piquant notes, but overall the sauce was nicely balanced.

Of all the appetizers I tried, my favorite was the Buffalo chicken and cheese dip. A creamy fusion of shredded chicken, colby cheese, pepper Jack cheese, Buffalo wing sauce and cream cheese makes this sinfully delectable dip an instant winner. Served with fresh tortilla chips and ranch or blue cheese dressing, it was hard to not devour it as it satisfied my love for savory flavors. I could see it being popular for game-day snacking because you get all the Buffalo taste without getting your fingers messy, which could come in handy if you like to high-five when your team scores.

For my main dish, Fast did talk me into wings, but I wanted something special. He offered up some train wreck wings — Cousin Vinnie’s No. 1 seller — and a few blackened wings, which weren’t even on the menu yet. Traditionally, I opt for blue cheese when I eat wings, but Fast wanted me to try the ranch. It’s a point of pride, because the restaurant’s sauces are homemade, except for the Italian, Thousand Island and honey mustard dressings.

“Hidden Valley has nothing on us,” Fast boasted.

Of the two flavors, the blackened resonated with me more. The wings were rubbed generously with Cajun-style seasonings that gave them some spice without being intolerable. Surprisingly, these wings went well with Cousin Vinnie’s ranch dressing, which has a smooth, buttermilk richness.
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As for the train wreck wings, the sauce — a kitchen sink concoction of garlic, buffalo and mustard sauces — was zesty and the wings paired best with the blue cheese dressing, which, with its liberal hunks of cheese, was in itself divine.

With just a little room for dessert, Fast served one of Cousin Vinnie’s newest items: a xango. It’s described as a flaky, cheesecake-filled burrito that’s served with either peaches or apples. I picked peaches.

Topped with a sweet peach caramelized glaze and granulated sugar, the dessert is certainly rich and should be shared. The nice, cool cheesecake center, in contrast with the warm peaches and deep-fried tortilla, resulted in interesting flavor profiles that shouldn’t work … but do. The glaze was also a nice touch and wasn’t excessively sugary.

Speaking briefly about Cousin Vinnie’s sustained success, Fast explained people love the restaurant because it is committed to good food and customer service.

“If you come in here more than twice,” he said, “our servers make it a point to know your name.”

In addition, Cousin Vinnie’s does a lot of charity work.

“They really do a lot for people in the community, which is one of the reasons I like to dine here,” said Jackie Harrison, part of a regular group of Plaza Cadillac employees who visit regularly. “Not to mention it’s one of the few places I feel comfortable eating at alone.”

Her lunch companions that day, Mitchell Wolski and James Allen, also spoke highly of Cousin Vinnie’s service.

“We walk in and they already know our drink and food orders, unless we decide to eat something different,” said James. “But we rarely do.”

So while the idea of watching a game on the big screen and knocking back a few ice cold beers with your buddies may bring you through the door at Cousin Vinnie’s, the exceptional food and great wait staff is what will make you stay — and keep you coming back.

Address: 10700 U.S. Highway 441, Suite 101, Leesburg, FL 34788

Phone: 352.253.2442

Hours of Operation: Monday–Sunday, 11a.m.–9p.m.

Popular Dishes:
Ribeye Philly Cheesesteak: $6.99 (regular), $10.99 (large)
Buffalo Chicken and Cheese Dip: $8.49
Cousin Vinnie’s Secret Shrimp: $9.99
Five Wings & Seasoned Fries: $7.99
Deep Fried Ice Cream: $7.49


PHOTO: Matthew Gaulin

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