Dining Review: South Side restaurant sets itself apart with intoxicating Sicilian cuisine, atmosphere

A delicious dish

When Dish opened in 2001, it quickly won the hearts of Pittsburgh diners and critics alike. Almost seven years later, Dish still holds its own with authentic Sicilian cuisine in a sleek, sexy atmosphere.

Dish devotes almost as much space to the bar as to the dining room, and deservedly so. Dish's list of cocktails is one of the strongest I've seen in the city, sticking primarily to classic, well-balanced drinks, rather than the too-sweet concoctions mislabeled as "martinis." Try its Sazerac ($8), or if you're a fan of traditional martinis, note that it stocks Blue Coat Gin.

I was especially pleased by the reasonable size of the martini glasses, matched by reasonable prices -- most bars seem to use such gigantic glasses that one drink is more like two or three. This practice is not only unhealthy, it also makes it difficult to really enjoy more than one cocktail in an evening.

The concise menu includes a substantial list of appetizers, many of which are the perfect accompaniment to a cocktail or a few glasses of Italian red, such as a plate of assorted cheeses and cured meats ($8 for one, $15 for two), a trio of Bruschette ($8) or even a simple bowl of marinated olives ($4).

Though lucky South Siders can make Dish their neighborhood bar, those who must travel will want to eat a more substantial meal.

Dish Osteria and Bar

(Ratings explained)
128 S. 17th St. South Side 412-390-2012 www.dishosteria.com
  • Hours: Monday-Saturday 5 p.m.-midnight, bar open until 2 a.m.
  • Basics: The sleek, simple dining room is the perfect backdrop for authentic, ingredient-driven Sicilian cuisine.
  • Recommended dishes: Melanzane grigliate, Formaggi e Salumi, Calamari alla Griglia, Carpaccio di Manzo, Insalata Siciliana, Bresaola, Fettuccine ai Funghi e Spinaci, Grigliata Mista di Pesce, Spaghetti alla Bottarga, Ossobuco di Maiale, Limoncello Cheese Cake, Tiramisu, Chocolate and Ricotta Tart.
  • Prices: Appetizers and salads, $4-$10; entrees $15-$31; desserts, $4-$6; wine, by the glass starts at $6, bottles start at $27.
  • Summary: Wheelchair accessible; bar, smoking; dining room nonsmoking; parking on street or in lots can be difficult; credit cards accepted; reservations encouraged; corkage $15.
  • Noise level: low to medium-loud.

The menu is so well chosen and the dishes so well prepared, you can almost do no wrong. One after another, appetizers are colorful yet balanced, decadent yet restrained.

Bresaola ($9), air-dried beef that commonly appears on the specials list, is salty and meaty with a lovely chewy yet delicate texture.

Just as good is the beef carpaccio ($10), which benefits from being cut just a bit thicker than normal. It still practically dissolves in the mouth but has greater intensity of flavor.

Vegetable dishes are plentiful and wonderful. I adored the grilled eggplant with buffalo mozzarella (melanzane grigliate) -- the eggplant was soft and velvety, the grill imparting a hint of sweetness embellished by the swirl of aged balsamic. The creamy, rich buffalo mozz-arella is marvelously fresh. This cheese starts to sour quickly and it is commonly served past its peak -- not so here at Dish.

I am generally suspicious of the traditional Sicilian salad of fennel, oranges, red onions and black olives. Far too often one taste predominates, whether it's the sharp taste of red onion or the piquancy of the olives. But here the salad was perfectly balanced, refreshing and vibrant ($8).

Only one dish fell short of our expectations -- slightly tough grilled octopus. Fortunately, it was removed from the list after my first visit.

Some may be surprised by the small selection of pastas on the menu. But the pastas are so unique and so exceptionally good, more than a few are unnecessary.

The Spaghetti alla Bottarga ($19) made superb use of this too rare ingredient. Bottarga is made by compressing, drying and curing a portion of tuna or swordfish belly that contains the roe (fish eggs). The exotic oily slabs almost resemble some kind of cured meat, and taste of the ocean. The sweetness of lightly cooked cherry tomatoes combines with the rich salinity of the bottarga, resulting in a sort of Italian umami. Toasted bread crumbs and generous swaths of olive oil create a nice textural contrast against the backdrop of perfectly al dente spaghetti.

Simpler, but supremely well-executed is a dish of grilled wild striped bass fillet, served with a warm Mediterranean farro salad and sauteed spinach ($24). The farro is fluffy and warm, brightened by chunks of cherry tomato, bell pepper, capers and a few tart olives. The thick fillet of bass is incredibly moist, almost creamy, with a rich, full taste.

Spinach, which appeared on a variety of plates, was always perfectly sauteed just past the point of collapse, so that the leaves were still distinct. Delicately flavored with garlic and olive oil, the taste of the spinach prevailed. It made an unusual partner for grilled calamari, adding a green note to the subtle smokiness of the squid.

The vegetarian entree on both my visits was an earthy fettuccine with mushrooms and spinach ($15), just the right amount of sauce clinging to each strand of pasta.

Though the menu is dominated by seafood, there are several excellent cuts of meat available as well. The mild favor of filet ($31) is intensified by a rich mushroom demi-glace. Though I was impressed by the contrast between the thick crust and the medium-rare doneness of the steak, a slight taste of charcoal diminished my enjoyment of the dish.

One of the most delicious choices is also a great bargain -- a special of pork ossobuco with risotto Milanese and broccolini ($18). Tender and rich, but less fatty than usual, the sweetness of the meat was intensified by the chopped tomato in the braising liquid that coated the pork shank. The dish was so delightful it seemed only fitting that owner Michele Savoia sang out its arrival as he placed it at our table.

The food is intensely flavorful, so Dish's reasonable portions will leave you totally satisfied. You are unlikely to go home with leftovers, but the prices are fair given the quality of the ingredients and the consistency of execution.

The food is wonderful and the service is charming. But the thing that really sets Dish apart? An atmosphere so gorgeously Italian it feels straight out of Fellini.

Low lights, stark white walls, and a profusion of mirrors seem to reflect the room in black and white. Everyone looks more beautiful, and life seems to be more fun.

I found myself breaking my usual habits -- drinking a cocktail with dinner, somehow unable to care about the small whiff of smoke from the cigarettes still allowed in the bar area. I was so transported by the ambiance, I realized that our plates had been cleared and coffee accoutrements set before us without my even noticing. I did notice that the espresso was thick and rich, with a long finish of chocolate.

As for dessert, it is a very good idea. My favorite was a tart contrasting a layer of gently sweet, creamy ricotta with lusciously dark, bittersweet chocolate. But the limoncello cheesecake, the tiramisu and the chocolate bread pudding also are exquisite.

Dish is a dream, an escape, a party, one that never seems to alter.

In fact, eating at Dish is such a timeless experience that much of the menu remains the same as when the restaurant opened. This constancy may help explain why so many people speak so fondly of the restaurant, though they haven't eaten there in quite some time. Though Dish is consistently crowded, restaurant patrons are notoriously fickle. A crowded dining room today is no guarantee of a restaurant's popularity next week.

I would encourage the kitchen to let loose a bit with the menu. If Dish doesn't continue to challenge its sophisticated and choosy patrons, there is a danger they will outgrow it, despite all of its many, powerful charms.

Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at cmillman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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