In 2012, Pittsburgh dining has begun to captivate residents and visitors. Intimate, soulful new restaurants are enriching the landscape, while established restaurants speak to the desires of a city that cares for food: Where it comes from, how it's prepared, who's cooking and what's on the menu.
The result? Pittsburgh is earning praise from big guns. Bon Appetit deemed Justin Severino's Cure in Lawrenceville one of 50 best new restaurants in the United States in September, and chef Kevin Sousa earned a nod from Food & Wine this month for his mini-restaurant empire: Salt of the Earth in Garfield, and Union Pig & Chicken, Harvard & Highland and Station Street Hot Dogs in East Liberty.
Pittsburgh also earned props on Eater National, the industry-focused dining blog with outposts in more than 20 cities, including Philadelphia, Charleston, S.C., and Portland, Ore.
"Pittsburgh was just a revelation," wrote Regina Schrambling, food writer for Epicurious and The New York Times.
In a food-writer poll on the nation's best dining cities, she cited the city's "really lively, smart restaurant scene" and "outstanding farmers markets and food shopping." Her call out came the same week The New York Times' travel section highlighted the transformation of the Garfield stretch of Penn Avenue.
The momentum from out-of-town recognition points to good things for 2013. Here are a few of this year's developments that, with hope, will continue through the new year.
The world of wine
"All I want for Christmas is a modernized PLCB," tweeted Bar Marco in the Strip District last week after a weekly buying trip.
Bar Marco echoes a call that resonates for Pittsburgh oenophiles: a wish for wine and spirits purchasing that allows more choices than Ravenswood Zinfandel and Louis Latour Pinot Noir.
Bar Marco and Spoon in Shadyside are among restaurants educating consumers. Yet it's clear from wine lists that sourcing remains challenging, particularly for small casual restaurants.
Two developments in 2013 may enrich the city's options:
Liquor licenses awarded to existing and soon-to-open restaurants will allow thoughtful restaurateurs to develop food-friendly wine programs, and a pair of soon-to-be-announced wine professionals are moving to Pittsburgh from a formidable restaurant group based in Alexandria, Va. Here's hoping they can navigate the PLCB.
This past year marked the rise of Thai cuisine. Restaurants such as Pusadee's Garden in Lawrenceville were serving satiating dishes without enough heat for some residents, but this fall, sibling restaurant Noodlehead in Shadyside answered the call. If you like it fiery, order Love Boat noodles Thai-hot -- thin rice noodles, simmered beef and pork cracklings in a rich spicy broth -- and prepare to break a sweat.
Diners also showed enthusiasm for Japanese-inspired izakayas such as Highland Park's Teppanyaki Kyoto and Bloomfield's Fukuda, food and drink establishments featuring fare such as okonomiyaki and ramen. Squirrel Hill just scored a Ramen Bar and the Vietnamese eatery Tan Lac Vien opened this week, with another noodle shop on the way.
Now if only the city would develop a taste for Sichuan cooking, which employs those tongue-numbing delicious peppercorns paired with chili pepper in ma la dishes.
Bring on the bread
Pittsburgh is no slouch when it comes to bakeries, with Mancini's in the Strip District setting the standard for rolls and La Gourmandine in Lawrenceville offering traditional boules and baguettes.
Cooks on the line in restaurants are getting in on the artisan bread movement, with Andrew Stump, the former sous-chef at Cure, the new in-house baker at Marty's Market in the Strip. Eleven also is attentive to bread, with its decadent Sunday-brunch bread basket, and other artisan bakers have been scouting out space to set up shop in town.
Crested Duck in Beechview and Cure in Lawrenceville have ensured that Pittsburghers can find coppa and guanciale whenever their hearts desire the cured pork cuts.
Each restaurant offers cured meat that until now was a rare find. A prior option was the terrific Parma Sausage in the Strip -- or clandestine efforts in the cellars of Italian homes.
Marty's Market also offers artisan products from a neighborhood butcher, including beef tallow and duck fat for cooking. And in Bloomfield, former Cafe Sam chef D.J. Smulick has opened D.J.'s Butcher Block on Liberty Avenue.
It seems the city will support shops and restaurants that offer heritage breeds and embrace nose-to-tail cooking, even if efforts translate to higher-priced meat.
Pittsburgh signature dishes
Chipped ham and pierogies may not earn a spot on a fine-dining menu. Yet some chefs and foodie entrepreneurs are paying attention to Pittsburgh nostalgia by elevating local foods from lowbrow status.
Peddling Pierogies has started a cart on Monday and Friday nights at Inn Termission Lounge, South Side, where Jeff Newman and Thomas Guentne sell four varieties made from locally sourced ingredients. Cheese, hot jalapeno, kraut and Swiss with black bean and corn are the fillings stuffed into dumplings made with Clarion River Organics organic spelt flour.
Over at Up Modern Kitchen in Shadyside, chef Eric Wallace offers haluski as well as dippy egg Thursdays, when customers can add an egg to various menu items. Although dippy egg is a regionalism, "put an egg on it" is of the moment.
I'll have another
Cocktail bars are shaking up Pittsburgh's reputation as a-shot-and-a-beer town. Acacia, Spencer Warren's pop-up den on Carson Street, is newest among them and offers some of the most innovative around. Mr. Warren was one of the city's cocktail pioneers, having started the now-defunct Embury in the Strip in 2007.
Mr. Sousa is in on cocktails at Harvard & Highland, where head mixologist Summer Voelker creates classics and imaginative drinks to please every palate.
In the Strip, Bar Marco nurtures a fleet of mixologists, each with a signature style. A downstairs reservation-only cocktail den is in the works and promises to deliver cocktails, 2.0. Also to come: a bar at Cure, which has secured a liquor license. Expect a top-notch barman and a newly built counter to boot.
Melissa McCart: MMcCart@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1198 or on Twitter: @melissamccart.