Dine: Can the North Side become a dining destination?

Stately row houses, expansive parks and easy access to museums and stadiums make the North Side alluring. Yet it's one of the most insular neighborhoods close to Downtown, especially when it comes to restaurants.

"We have these wonderful neighborhood places that are really very good," said Mark Fatla, executive director of Northside Leadership Conference. But the restaurant clientele is primarily those who live nearby.

Mr. Fatla, a towering figure at 6 feet, 2 inches who's often seen around the North Side wearing a black fedora, cited Nicky's Thai Kitchen and Benjamin's Burger Bar, Carmi and Peppi's -- all on Western Avenue -- among his favorite dining spots. And he's a regular at the Monterey Pub in the Mexican War Streets.

These restaurants are for casual tastes, not as ambitious as Acanthus, the fine dining restaurant in the Inn on the Mexican War Streets that closed in 2007 after less than a year. The demise of fine dining and restaurants with high overhead costs is a trend around the country.

Around the corner on Federal Street, El Burro Comedor, a Mexicali taco and burrito joint, is just building its clientele after opening a year ago, but co-owner Derek Burnell, along with Wes DeRenouard, said he's been pleasantly surprised. "People have come out in droves," he said. "Mostly people from the neighborhood."

Mr. Burnell, who opened Round Corner Cantina in lower Lawrenceville in 2008, said that neighborhood was at a similar stage of mid-gentrification as the North Side is now. In fact, when Round Corner opened, there were fewer places to eat and drink nearby than what's currently on the North Side.

Like many Pittsburgh neighborhoods that have been plagued with blight and crime, public-private partnerships are working to revitalize the North Side. And with restaurants driving some of the development -- as they did in Lawrenceville, Garfield and the Strip District -- the North Side could transform into a neighborhood that offers destination dining within the year, local advocates believe.

Renovation is finally under way on the Federal North development that includes the former Garden Theater and the Masonic building storefronts -- longtime eyesores. The development of Federal North is a joint project between Collaborative Ventures based in Mt. Lebanon and Zukin Realty in Philadelphia. The city's Urban Redevelopment Authority bought the theater for $1.1 million seven years ago.

"The challenge is to build with tenants that will be successful on nonevent days [such as sports events] and that they will attract other tenants," said Herky Pollock, executive vice president of the commercial real estate firm CBRE, who spearheaded leasing among the stadiums, the Smith Brothers' building, PNC Park and the Sports and Exhibition Authority garages.

"The cost to develop in the urban core would preclude most development without public/private partnerships filling those gaps."

Such is the case with El Burro, the space that had been Toula's Hot Dogs, that Mr. DeRenouard and Mr. Burnell renovated with the help of funds from URA's Streetface program.

Other restaurants are slated to open in the stretch, particularly one from a current Pittsburgh restaurateur that will reside as part of the City of Asylum's Alphabet City Literary Center in the former Masonic temple storefronts on North Avenue. A lease has not yet been signed.

"It will be a restaurant that offers lunch and dinner with a full bar, not a cafe," said City of Asylum communications manager Elizabeth Baisley. Nakama Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar on the South Side completed the lease agreement for the space in January 2012, but the deal fell through.

The redevelopment of the North Side unfurls in a parallel to Lawrenceville with Domenic Branduzzi, chef-owner of Piccolo Forno, who will open ARDE in the renovated Garden Theater space. It will have a full bar, unlike his first location in Lawrenceville.

In Italian, "arde" means to glow or blaze; the more figurative meaning is to burn with passion. It's also a nod to the wood-burning oven Mr. Branduzzi is having built. Further, the restaurant's name will be carved out of the name of the former theater, where a large neon GARDEN sign flickered for decades. The building's facade will be preserved and the sign adapted.

Mr. Branduzzi's family opened Piccolo Forno in 2005. As his family liked the original Butler Street location, "I like the [North Side] location and North and Federal," he said, noting that residents don't have many places within walking distance for drinks and dinner in this stretch.

And the number of residents in the neighborhood is growing. The Federal Hill development has brought more than 40 new townhouses to Federal Street since 2008, with the last phase of six townhouses and one single-family home wrapping up. October Development is building six homes on Jacksonia Street.

"Besides that, I'm happy to get in on the ground level to help contribute to the renaissance here," he said.

ARDE will differ from Piccolo Forno in that the menu will offer more variety, though it will stay in the genre of seasonal, local and rustic Italian.

Construction has started on the 6,100-square-foot space that will feature a 2,000-square-foot kitchen, as well as a back patio. He hopes to open next summer.

If there is an influx of restaurants on the North Side, Mr. Fatla does not think it will significantly change the neighborhood's character.

"You can be as casual or as formal as you want to here," he said. "As long as your nose isn't stuck in the air."

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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