On a balmy evening in Highland Park, diners wearing Sunday attire filled seats around a long farmhouse table downstairs at E². Through the buzz of conversation, a tattooed waiter in heavy specs and a black Bucs ballcap delivered platters that flaunted the season's colors. Purple, green and white filled a plate of farro and lentil salad, with finely chopped radicchio and arugula. Breakfast radishes lent crunch, while asparagus punctuated the theme of spring.
A grilled vegetable antipasto featured crisp baby carrots, still wearing green tops. Red roasted peppers wore a sheen of olive oil. Pages of hard Taleggio paired with translucent slices of prosciutto. On another plate, braided breadsticks served as handles to dip in San Marzano tomato sauce.
These are three of seven dishes served family-style at E²'s "Sunday Sauce" held the third Sunday of each month. The event, started by chef Kate Romane last fall, costs $30 plus tax and gratuity. The 40-seat dinner already is sold-out for June and July.
People like Sunday suppers because they serve up nostalgia, often in the form of comfort foods.
In homes around Pittsburgh, this ritual is alive and well, as many residents grow up and grow old in the region, gathering at the end of the week for the family meal. That explains why the region's restaurants are just beginning to introduce their own variations, where plates are served family-style around a single table of old friends and new ones.
And yet as the city takes on newcomers and the dining landscape diversifies, more restaurants have been opening on Sunday and Sunday supper has gained footing.
Since he opened, Justin Severino, chef-owner of Cure has orchestrated Sunday supper as part of his butchering demonstration once a month.
Stagioni on the South Side offers a 30-seat, four-course dinner for $35 the first Sunday of the month. Chef Stephen Felder introduced the monthly dinner two years ago. "The motivation for Sunday suppers is they allow for another style of service," he said. "It's different to plate a pork chop for a single diner as opposed to a whole loin or a salt-crusted whole fish for a crowd." There are still seats for the June 9 dinner (held a week later this month because of a scheduling conflict).
Girasole in Shadyside hosts its annual "Cooking With Nonna" on June 9. "It's a reminder of how your grandmother used to cook," said owner Jimmy Gerasole. The dinner starts at 1 p.m., costs $45 and is served with wine made by his family.
Over in Regent Square, Root 174 chef Keith Fuller just started what he's christened the "Sunday Funday Family Meal", a six- to eight-course affair for $36 that starts at 6 p.m. The reservation-only dinner sold out in the first round in April. The second is scheduled for June 16.
Sunday suppers can be a celebration of the essence of the season.
Spring and summer were served in two acts at E², beginning with linguini primavera brightened with lemon and garlic, while dressed greens arrived as the farmer's salad. Next came hot sausage and shrimp in a paprika-infused reduction and a hearty spring cacciatore with Taleggio polenta.
The decision to call the event "Sunday Sauce" is, of course, an Italian thing, a reference to the long-simmering tomato sauce as well as a name for the day's meal. Although all sorts of ethnic groups embrace Sunday supper, the tradition is especially dear to Italian Americans.
Owners of Brooklyn's Frankies Spuntino and authors of the cookbook, "The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual" speak in superlatives about Sunday sauce.
"The meal, the menu, the way of life," wrote owners Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo in the chapter on the meal. "Sunday sauce is the source and summation" of their beloved restaurant and James Beard award-winning book.
Pittsburgher Frank Ruta, now a chef at award-winning Palena, a fine-dining Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C., still practices the Sunday ritual he learned growing up in an Italian-American family.
"It's usually a little earlier than the time we normally eat during the week, maybe like 3 or 4 in the afternoon, with some sort of appetizer, or antipasto, then pasta, then meat with salad, perhaps some cheese as well," he wrote in an email.
"The meat is usually braised in the sauce for the pasta, but could be something separate. Dessert and coffee at the end.
"Homemade wine is just a part of the meal as anything else and there are always a few bottles on the table. Although, I must admit to opening a few other non-homemade wines to boot."
The dinner usually takes a few hours to cook and just as long to eat.
Having not lived near my family in decades, I had grown to appreciate Sunday suppers with friends at their home in Washington, D.C. I have yet to find a comparable ritual here and miss it dearly.
Every week, my friends would kick off dinner with a seasonal cocktail. And they would offer several varietals of wine from their vast collection. Homemade pizzas, roasted meats, healthful salads and elaborate desserts marked a meal that allowed us to debrief on the week, celebrate high points and comfort through challenges -- all by the time it wrapped up before 8 p.m.
On occasions when I'd cook, I often referred to Suzanne Goin's cookbook, "Sunday Supper at Lucques."
After breakfast, Ms. Goin wrote, her father put on an apron and began to cook, while she joined him to prep.
"Though my father usually opted for dining at fancy French restaurants, when cooking at home, he suddenly became an Italian peasant."
The book is organized in 32 menus by season. The one that would resonate for this weekend is the fourth in the series. It begins with a fava bean puree with olives, feta and garlic toasts -- a spring hummus made with a seasonal cult favorite.
This course gives way to a crab salad with avocado, beets, creme fraiche and lime, as well as a saffron chicken entree with spring onions and sugar snaps. The meal finishes with coffee and a tarte au fromage, served with lemon cream and blueberry compote.
Printed in 2005, "Sunday Suppers" is part of a genre that illuminates the return of family meals, especially those at or inspired by restaurants.
This year alone produced "Come in, We're Closed: An Invitation to Staff Meals at the World's Best Restaurants," and "Family Table: From Our Restaurant to Your Home." In 2011, Modernist chef wrote the popular "The Family Meal: Home Cooking With Ferran Adria."
These books illuminate family-style dinners of elevated ingredients, shared with kin and friends who might as well be family.
At the end of the meal at E², Ms. Romane came out in her black chef coat and chatted with a small group about life at Churchview Farm in Baldwin Borough, where she lives.
She told elaborate tales of raccoons and fox lurking near her chickens and why she leaves her partner to the task of protecting the food.
In the meantime, Ms. Romane sticks to cooking.
"Thank you so much, Kate," said a diner as he left. She turned to accept his compliment.
"It was really delicious," the diner said. "Tastes like home."dining
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.