Dining at Joseph Tambellini's is a way of taking a trip to restaurants past. The classic Italian menu -- not quite Italian-American, but not far from it, either -- hearkens back to a time before eating was a political act, when diners were thrilled to see out-of-season asparagus or strawberries. Appreciation of this restaurant partially depends upon viewing it through the gentler lens of nostalgia, rather than the more critical eye of a locavore (someone who tries to eat only food that is grown close to home). For some people that may be impossible, but for others it will be a pleasure.
Tambellini's celebrates close connections to Pittsburgh's past. The restaurant has opened in LaForet's Highland Park home, and the elegant interior and exterior have remained relatively unchanged. Chef Joseph Tambellini had his first kitchen job in 1978 at his father's Downtown restaurant, Robert Tambellini's. Chef Tambellini has worked at Bravo Franco and was most recently executive chef at Franco's Trattoria in the South Hills. He's thrilled to have opened his own restaurant and to work with his wife, Melissa.
If you're particularly hungry, order an appetizer or two as soon as you are seated, because you're going to have a lot of decisions to make. The Antipasti Rustico ($12) is a good choice for sharing. On one visit it included bundles of prosciutto, probably domestic, but pleasantly sweet, olives on the pit, sweet-spicy peppers stuffed with mozzarella cheese and ham, a few slices of garlic bread, roasted red pepper, chickpeas and potent slices of marinated garlic.
More unusual offerings include sauteed calamari ($8), which is tender, sweet and faintly briny, a vastly more sophisticated incarnation than its fried kin and much less common on Pittsburgh menus. The grilled sausage and polenta ($7) is another excellent choice. Crisp edges of polenta give way to soft and creamy insides.
- Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 4-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 4-11 p.m.; Sunday 4-9 p.m.
- Basics: A good place to experience un-rushed, pleasantly formal dining. At Tambellini's you're paying for atmosphere, attentive service and generally crowd-pleasing food. Though inferior ingredients may occasionally disappoint, the menu has some delicious successes alongside some more mediocre offerings.
- Recommended dishes: Sauteed Calamari, Grilled Sausage and Polenta, Antipasti Rustico, Juliana Salad, Trenne and Shrimp Arrabbiata, Rib Cut Veal Chop, Lamb Chops, Cannoli, Butterscotch Poundcake.
- Prices: Appetizers $7-$12; salads $6-$11; pasta/risotto $14-$27; entrees (include house-selected salad and pasta course) $18-$36; desserts $5-$7.
- Summary: No wheelchair access; nonsmoking; street parking; credit cards accepted; reservations recommended; call restaurant for corkage policy.
- Noise level: medium to loud.
After the antipasti, decisions get a bit more confusing. Options include Insalate, Pastas and Risottos, and Entrees, which are divided into Manzo (Beef), Vitello/Pollo (veal and chicken) and Pesce (fish). Entrees include a house-selected salad and pasta course. For an additional cost, you can substitute some of the other salads or pastas. The menu lists the additional cost for the salads, but not for the pastas. You may want to consider what others in your party are ordering. The consequence of this structure is that if one person chooses to order a salad and a pasta, and another orders an entree, the meal becomes difficult to pace.
On one visit, the server dealt with this problem by bringing an extra portion of the house pasta course for someone who had ordered pasta, rather than an entree. Though the restaurant certainly erred on the side of generosity, I'm not sure it was the best choice. Few people enjoy two courses of pasta and encouraging the guest to leave no room for dessert is hardly good for the restaurant's bottom line. The reasonable size of the pasta course that accompanies entrees suggests that the restaurant has considered this issue.
On two visits, the house salad was a delicious and creative mix of field greens garnished with a lemony couscous and chickpea salad, and chunks of smooth goat cheese. The Victoria ($8) was a pleasant (and fairly seasonal) mix of field greens, candied pecans, apples and a mild gorgonzola; unfortunately, a sweet, sticky raspberry vinaigrette marred the balance between the salty and sweet elements. The Juliana ($8), a simple but well selected mix of field greens, red onion, plum tomatoes, pine nuts and feta cheese, is dressed with a pleasantly acidic balsamic vinaigrette. But, mealy tomatoes made the salad taste less than fresh.
The pastas I tried were generally pleasant, but not outstanding. The menu proudly advertises that "Noodles are all fresh Handmade," and the "noodles" are satisfying, but not quite as delicate as I expected. Tagliolini with clams ($17) showcased some of the most successful pasta, but the sauce tasted musty, as if canned as well as fresh clams had been used. Missing shrimp from the trenne and shrimp arrabbiata ($23) was the one flaw in otherwise extremely well-executed service. The pasta had been ordered in place of the house-selected pasta, which may have caused the confusion. Encouragingly, the attentive server caught and apologized profusely for the mistake, and the pleasantly spicy arrabbiata sauce was delicious enough that I had forgotten all about the shrimp.
The house-selected pasta on another visit was penne with vodka sauce, ham and peas. The vodka sauce was excellent -- well balanced and creamy, with a pleasant acidity from the tomato. But the shreds of ham were quite hard and chewy and the peas were overcooked.
Generally, I would have liked the pasta to be tossed with the sauce, rather than spooned on top, so that the pasta remained warm all the way through. I also wish they had used a higher quality parmesan cheese. Though freshly grated onto each dish, this cheese lacked the depth of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The entree menu is large, and made more so by the number of specials. On one Saturday visit, the server listed approximately eight. In my opinion, if you are going to offer more than one or two specials, they really need to be printed out and offered with the menu.
The larger cuts of meat were consistently well prepared. A rib cut veal chop ($36) had a fantastic crust, and the moist, juicy inside confirmed that the meat had been properly rested. The sweetness of the demi-glace was tempered by the slight bitterness of sauteed greens. A special of lamb chops ($34) was equally tender, and I will happily admit to relishing the grilled out-of-season asparagus, which had wonderful charcoal taste and was perfectly cooked. The gorgonzola-filled roasted tomato was a lot of fun, but once again a mediocre tomato wound up spoiling the success of this side dish.
Unfortunately, a few entrees were less than appetizing. Chicken Piccata ($19) felt and tasted thick with flour. Perhaps the chicken was damp when it was floured, or it sat in the flour for too long before being cooked. The pale "crust" was soggy rather than crunchy, and the lemon in the sauce coupled with the vinegar in the artichoke hearts and capers really overwhelmed the palate. Similarly, the Lemon Sole ($24) tasted both watery and mushy, and I would guess that the fish had been frozen at some point.
Desserts are good, and even if you're extremely full you might want to split one or two. The pastry chef from LaForet has stayed on, though Chef Tambellini's influence is also apparent. The best dessert was probably the cannoli ($6). I loved the subtle tartness of the ricotta filling and the pleasant crunch of the cannoli wrapper. A rich chocolate cake ($6), fluffy tiramisu ($6) and gooey Butterscotch Poundcake ($7) are good choices as well.
The service was unrushed and pleasant on an extremely busy Saturday night, with many elegant touches that make the meal feel special. Servers brought fresh glasses for soda refills, rather than filling the same glass. I was impressed and pleased when our server encouraged us to take our time with the remains of a bottle of wine before ordering dessert. Coffee ($2.50) was poured from a beautiful silver pot, and sugar and milk were consistently placed on the table before coffee was served.
Right now, the standard of service and the elegant atmosphere are outpacing the overall quality of the food. Considering the high prices, I would expect a higher standard of ingredients. Some poorly prepared entrees also suggest that the kitchen is a bit overburdened by sauteed and grilled dishes that need to be cooked to order. Replacing some of those dishes with braised items would be seasonally appropriate, increase the variety of the menu and take some of the pressure off the line.
The wine list's selection of Italian wines is especially strong, and while the servers don't currently have an extensive amount of wine knowledge, they are honest about their experience. The wine markup is high, generally at least twice the cost of buying it at a state store, but almost all of the selections are Special Liquor Orders or Specialty purchases. I appreciated the fact that seven bottles of white wine and five of red were under $30. The 2005 B.R. Cohn Silver Label Cabernet Sauvignon ($45), surprisingly low in tannins, was food friendly, pairing well with a wide variety of entrees. I also enjoyed a 2004 Col di Sole rosso di Montalcino ($45) though it would have benefited from being decanted.
I was a little disturbed by the drink displays on each table sponsored by Bicardi Limon that listed specialty martinis and wines by the glass. Such commercial displays are out of place in a fine dining restaurant. Wines by the glass and mixed drinks should be listed in the wine list or a separate drinks list. Otherwise, the restaurant space is refined and beautiful. Vases of silver and red ornaments, hanging greenery, and a large poinsettia are festive and elegant.
Tambellini's is already immensely popular, both with previous fans of Chef Tambellini and neighbors who also embraced LaForet. Though not everything was to my taste, I can appreciate their devotion.
Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1198.