Recalling restaurants that left us

Running a restaurant is more colloquial than painting on canvas or performing a play. Yet like art, a good restaurant can be a compelling work-in-progress.

Restaurants that do well illuminate what diners value in an array of scenarios, from sealing business deals to grabbing a midweek family meal.

Restaurant locations also offer windows on the expectations of residents and the culture of a place. A brassy expense-account steakhouse would not likely open in Lawrenceville, for example, nor would a modernist restaurant open in the 'burbs.

Restaurants are also a time peg for an era, as seen in ingredients plated with tweezer-precision or culinary styles as bold as a long-cut marrow bone.

At no time is a restaurant-as-cultural-barometer more clear than in a retrospective of which restaurants have closed, from the icons that pepper Pittsburghers' memories to joints that introduced them to ethnic cuisine.

Whatever the reasons for a restaurant's closing, here in Pittsburgh, residents are slow to forget the hands that fed them.

Two icons fell in early 2013. Tambellini Seventh Street Ristorante in February (139 Seventh St., Downtown) closed after 63 years in operation. Founded by Mary Tambellini Pellegrini, her sister, Frances Tambellini D'Amico, and her uncle, Frank Tambellini, in 1950, Mary Pellegrini's son, Charles Pellegrini, ran the restaurant for the past 25 years with the help of his wife, Janet.

For decades, the name Tambellini was synonymous with Italian food in Pittsburgh. At peak, eight restaurants with the Tambellini name served the city. The last in-city location is Joseph Tambellini in Highland Park, which opened in 2007 in what had been the French fine dining restaurant, Laforet.

The Tambellinis still own the building on Seventh Avenue that now houses Proper Brick Oven & Tap Room, a pizza restaurant and beer mecca that opened in August after the space was renovated.

Minutello's (226 Shady Ave., Shadyside) also closed. The 5,000-square-foot restaurant began in 1960, when Lou Minutello's father, also named Lou, and uncle Al opened Minutello's Meadow Grill in Larimer. The brothers moved to Shadyside a few years later.

"Lou and his family have become woven into the East End," a regular said at the announcement of its closing. "I think they had the best pizza and they had a sauce I've never tasted anywhere else. Rosa's chicken Romano cannot be duplicated anywhere in the Eastern United States. They had wonderful ladies who cooked and spoke Italian, and if you were a regular, they'd come out and talk to you. It was like going to the family's [home] for Sunday dinner."

"You can't spend 30 years serving people well without having a long line of sad regulars when you decide to stop doing it," said Mr. Minutello.

In May, Common Plea restaurant and The Plea Bar (310 Ross St. Downtown) was shuttered. Common Plea had been a hangout for the legal community since 1971, but it wasn't exclusively that.

"This was the place where you could go any night of the week," said a regular. "There are always people there who would welcome you."

"The focus is seafood and veal," observed a reporter in March 1985 in an article with a headline that sums up its long run: "Formal but friendly, Common Plea is just plain 'nice.' "

Up on Mount Washington, The Georgetowne Inn (1230 Grandview Ave.) closed in July. In its heyday, diners waited in line to eat crab Louis and steak dinners in a dining room framed by wood paneling and stucco stalactites. The restaurant, which opened in 1974, was one of seven restaurants on Mount Washington touted for the view; the others are The Grandview Saloon & The Coal Hill Steakhouse, Isabela on Grandview, Bella Vista Ristorante Italiano, Tin Angel, LeMont and Monterey Bay Fish Grotto.

The space is under renovation to make way for Altius Modern Bistro, the restaurant from Bea DeFrancis and chef Jessica Bauer in Mt. Lebanon projected to open in the spring.

The August closing of Gullifty's (1922 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill), a cross between a diner and a traditional restaurant, marked the departure of a dessert destination.

Open for 31 years, Gullifty's was a portrait of a fading era in Pittsburgh.

"It drew a parade of regulars from college students to families to the elderly," PG reporter Anya Sostek wrote when it closed. "Fred Rogers and his family were frequent customers."

Quiet Storm (5430 Penn Ave., Garfield) announced in September it would close in October after anchoring the neighborhood for 12 years, a sad admission for owner Jill MacDowell.

"We're looking for a fresh start, whether it be in a new home, as a partner to an existing establishment, in a yurt or on wheels," she wrote in her Facebook announcement. "Ideas & investors welcome. New project(s) in the works. Stay tuned."

A pending deal for the second location of Szmidt's Old World Deli in Greenfield fell through and the space was purchased by a developer along with nearby condos. In the meantime, Quiet Storm has yet to find new digs.

Davio Restaurant (2100 Broadway Ave., Beechview) also closed in October. The restaurant opened in 1990 and was remodeled a decade later by owner David Ayn, who had at one time owned Alla Famiglia in Allentown and La Tache in Butler, now closed. Davio featured classics such as oversized stuffed peppers and a gargantuan 21/2-inch-thick veal chop.

But perhaps the most striking closures were two vibrant trailblazers, both from Jamie Wallace.

Abay Ethiopian Cuisine (130 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty) opened in 2004 when neighborhood gentrification had barely begun. Mr. Wallace's heartfelt closure on Facebook announced the decision: "Given how much development there has been in the neighborhood and the fact that beautiful apartments are being completed literally across the street from us, it might seem like the worst time to step down. But, honestly, we're tired," he wrote.

Regent Square sibling Alma Pan Latin Kitchen (7600 Forbes Ave.), which he opened in 2011, announced its closure in November. "So we're going to do something we've wanted to do for a while and satiate that desire by actually relocating from Pittsburgh to another country. The plan is to take a sabbatical of sorts and spend a year in Costa Rica," he wrote.

These weren't so much losses as changes, the natural course of things. After Abay closed this summer, Mr. Wallace hosted a feast with a DJ spinning hip-hop in the emptied space. It was celebratory, not funereal, as staff and regulars threw their hands in the air and danced the last dance.

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


Hot Topic