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Best of the indies

Wings have become so hot, they seem to have forgotten where they came from _ and perhaps so have we: Wings were and are bar food.

As most of us know, chicken wings were born in Buffalo, N.Y., specifically at the Anchor Bar and Restaurant, where Teressa Bellissimo turned chicken wings, butter and hot sauce into cheap fried munchies for some late-night patrons.

There was little fear of deep-fat frying back then, and no one minded that wings weren't really skinny, that they had more fatty skin than any other piece.

Besides, eating in _ or at _ a bar was not a trend in 1964. It was as commonplace as old Chaucer's taverns. And the tradition has been most sturdily preserved in working-class bars in upstate New York, where Syracuse snacks on salt potatoes between sips of beer at bars and clambakes, and Binghamton grills its spiedies on electric skillets behind the bar. Call these tidbits American tapas or Yankee nachos.

Somehow in the last 40 years, Buffalo's bar food has flown from the barroom to church suppers, school lunches, funeral trays and restaurant chains around the nation. Along the way, the wickedly greasy wing has been cleaned up, sexed up, breaded, baked, broiled and sauced with seemingly everything from honey barbecue to soy and ginger.

Not for me.

I like my wings deep-fried crisp, a good mix of drumettes and flats, all plump, with a stout-hearted whiff of vinegar in the nose, heat in the mouth and mess on the fingers.

And I like my wing places plain and independent, warm and worn, from mom-and-pop pizza joints to honest-to-Bud bars. The more beer signs the better, and keep the green bottles to a minimum, Rolling Rock and O'Doul's excepted. Knotty-pine paneling is more impressive than cobalt blue lamps. It's the least we can do to honor the legacy of the Bellissimos.

I'll accept that such wing places may sometimes be dark or a bit smokey (when wings and food make up less than 10 percent of the sales generated by alcohol, pool and darts). I don't care about the lack of moist towelettes.

We've still got plenty of such spots hidden around the Tampa Bay area, thanks in some cases to evangelistic missionaries from Buffalo, any of whom fries a meaner wing than the chains.

There's a willing congregation in this area, transplants and homegrown folks. It finds that the shadows of a neighborhood bar offer refuge from the glare of the modern Sun Belt.

For the congregation's members, a basket of wings and blue cheese is a welcome overdose of saturated fat, and celery sticks and carrots contain all the vitamins they care about. If you're trying to cut back, lay off the takeout; wings are always better when spiced with a few salty jokes around the bar.

Try one of these local favorites.

COVE PUB AND GRUB, 1242 S Cove Camp Point, off State Road 44 E, Inverness; (352) 344-5894. No smoking indoors.

After a fire destroyed the original Cove 2{ years ago, the 1980 building was replaced with a big barn of seemingly soulless metal.

Yet the cypress paneling inside is already papered with local clippings, sports posters and endless snapshots of happy campers, and happier barflies. The moss-draped campground setting on the banks of Lake Tsala Apopka hasn't changed; it feels like a fishing lodge or a Legion hall where locals and winter folk feel at home.

Wings are sold by weight, starting with a half-pound. "That'll be about 5 today" the bartender said on my visit, and it was. They were big, very crisp and pungent.

Beyond wings: Mason jar draft beer and monster }-pound burgers.

FERG'S SPORTS BAR AND GRILL, 1320 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 822-4562. No smoking indoors.

This is the little sports bar that started in St. Petersburg in 1992 and got bigger and bigger and bigger. It has seats indoors and out, upstairs and down. But the foundation is familiar: hardwood floors from an old basketball court and wings. Ferg's folks guess they sell about 2 tons a month.

Mine were big and juicy, lightly floured and a little greasy (as if you care). They were plenty crisp, with a mild punch in the nose from the vinegar.

Beyond wings: misters for overheated passers-by, and wing nuts, too.

FIREHOUSE GRILL AND PUB, 8814 N 56th St., Tampa; (813) 980-2147. Smoking permitted.

The decor is the usual pool tables, dartboards and ashtrays, with TVs everywhere and a bar front and center. It has been a beloved haunt for wings and pizza on N 56th Street in Temple Terrace for 13 years, with a kitchen open late and a steady business through its takeout window.

Some of the wings are small, but 10 for $3.70 is the best price around, and the sauce has punch. You can get your wings extra crispy and, if you dare, with extra garlic butter.

Beyond wings: onion straws, thinner and sweeter than anything bloomin'.

NICKEL CITY, 7658 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park; (727) 545-9325. Smoking permitted.

It's the most accurate replica of Buffalo, N.Y., here, down to the Friday night fish fries and old-school chili. Forgive the ceiling fans and fake Tiffany lamps; it has an endless game room and a package store.

It was started by a Buffalo native who brought wings to Pinellas in 1983 and opened Nickel City a few years later. Ownership changed hands three years ago, but the wings are still large and authentic, with a mildly punchy sauce.

Order them extra crispy; the dressing is a smooth crowd-pleasing cream that seems to blend blue cheese and ranch smoothness.

Beyond wings: beef on 'weck, another Buffalo favorite.

SHAMROCK INN, 8343 E Orange Ave., Floral City; (352) 726-6414. No smoking indoors.

Ignore the fluorescent leprechauns painted on the exterior or that it stocks a few German beers. The Shamrock is sparkling clean and bright but still a homey small-town cafe for locals and winter runaways.

Accordingly, it takes wings seriously, dry and wet. And the sauceless dry is the best of the bunch, extremely crisp and still spicy.

Beyond wings: all-you-can-eat breakfasts on weekdays.

ST. ANGELO'S PIZZA, 4051 Madison St. S, Elfers, (727) 847-6446; 6809 Massachusetts Ave., New Port Richey, (727) 847-3038; 10139 State Road 52, Hudson, (727) 856-0908. No smoking permitted.

Started in 1981, this early Buffalo settlement in Pasco County became a tiny chain of three. The buildings may seem makeshift and the dining rooms small, but the homeland connection is as tight as ever. Founder Brian Griffin cooked his first wings and pizza in Buffalo, and he serves both here, plus subs, calzones and burgers.

Wings are plump and crisp, amply vinegary in the sauce, with very blue cheese sauce.

Beyond wings: fresh-baked garlic knots.

SUNSET GRILLE, 2996 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 823-2382. Smoking outdoors only.

The quintessential neighborhood bar for Florida for 50 years, it caters to sports fans, repair crews and office workers. It's mostly picnic tables outside and still manages to be dark and cozy.

Wings are plump and slathered in pungent sauce, yet the crispness survives. Blue cheese dressing costs extra, but it's fresh, full of blue and a sharp cream that tastes like yogurt for gyros.

Beyond wings: homemade apple crisp.