On the Table

At Stagioni, chef Stephen Felder veers from tradition


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When Stagioni moved to the former Le Pommier space on the South Side in 2012, some fans of the Bloomfield restaurant lamented. While having a liquor license and larger dining room are pluses for the restaurant, there are challenges for patrons who have to navigate amid weekend revelers to find parking spaces on East Carson Street.

I'm here to tell you that it's worth the trip -- even on a Saturday night.


Stagioni
2104 E. Carson St.
South Side
412-586-4738
stagionipgh.com

2.5stars

  • Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday brunch.
  • Basics: Stagioni is a spirited neighborhood Italian restaurant showcasing refined technique and seasonal ingredients.
  • Dishes: Made-to-order mozzarella, white anchovies, brandade, giardiniera, bottarga linguini, gnocchi with mushroom-leek ragout, roast chicken, greens and beans.
  • Prices: Antipasti $4-$10; polenta $6-$9; insalate $5-$7; pasta $9 -$20; piatti principali $19-$22; contorni $6-$7.
  • Summary: Street parking, credit cards, corkage $10.
  • Noise level: Moderate yet pleasant.

Stagioni is not the lone stop on the South Side for those who have moved beyond drinking themselves silly. Despite its reputation as party central, the neighborhood is asserting itself as a food-and-drink destination, with Dish Osteria the longtime draw, the patio at Cafe Du Jour a summertime gem and Acacia the go-to place for some of the city's finest cocktails. More casual finds are Piper's Pub and The Pub Chip Shop, as well as Big Dog Coffee and the new Amazing Cafe.

What makes Stagioni a stand-out in the neighborhood and among the many Italian restaurants in Pittsburgh?

Four years after Stagioni opened in Bloomfield and two years since the restaurant has relocated, Stephen Felder remains a passionate chef who experiments with dishes without going off the rails. Cara DelSignore maintains a well-trained staff and curates an unusual selection of beer and wine.

Mr. Felder has always abandoned the traditional menu of antipasti, primi and secondi, and that's a good thing. Most recently, he added a polenta category with eight choices, including the in-season artichoke caponata ($7) and cipollini onion agrodolce ($6).

Within the year, he has also made small dishes smaller and lowered the prices to encourage people to try more of them or to share a family-style meal of small plates followed by pasta, an entree and a side.

Regulars and newcomers are taking to these changes. "We're more confident than we were two years ago," he said. "I'm taking components off to allow ingredients to stand on their own."

The giardiniera ($6) reinforces this simplicity. It's one of a handful of antipasti on a menu that changes twice a week. Fennel, cauliflower, carrots and onions are transformed by a compelling barrel-aged white wine vinegar so distinct it prompted a guest to ask, "What is that?"

Diners talk about the brandade ($6) when they leave the restaurant because it's great.

Brandade is a multiday process that the chef starts with salting, soaking and pressing cod, then poaching it in milk. Then he roasts and rices potatoes, whipping them with salt cod, into which he streams olive oil and serves it with grilled bread and parsley.

White anchovies ($8) are a marriage of winter and spring, with preserved Meyer lemons, red onions and pebble-sized fregula.

Have I mentioned how much I love anchovies? They're no longer an embarrassment, and they're on the menu at a dozen local restaurants. In other cities, the little-fish genre that includes sardines and smelt is even showing up as the star of food stands, such as one in Brooklyn, naturally, called Bon Chovie.

A more conservative choice is the delicious, hand-pulled mozzarella ($10), a creamy, mild, super-fresh tasting cheese that remains a menu staple. Served with roasted peppers, olive oil, prosciutto and balsamic reduction, it's an attractive dish.

The chickpeas with rosemary and orange in a citrus vinaigrette ($5) are a no-brainer as bar food for a Collesi beer tasting, along with dime-sized lupini beans ($5). Stagioni is one of the few places that carries the line of Belgian-style beers from Italy's Tenute Collesi. Order the Ambrata, the naturally fermented amber or the easy-drinking Chiara, a pilsner with notes of fruit and honey (each $14).

These small dishes aren't terribly different in size although they're less green than the contorni selections: sides of rapini, peas and speck, or greens and beans, along with the safe bet of fingerlings or the more stylish spelt dressed up with pistachios and pickled cherries. I love these rustic dishes and take pleasure in assembling them as meals (all sides are $6 to $7).

Mr. Felder is up for a challenge, as he demonstrated for the second year with Le Virtu ($20), the 49-ingredient soup served the first weekend in May (traditionally on May 1). The soup's lore states that winter and spring ingredients are prepared in seven pots by seven virgins. Beans, greens, ham, other pig parts, bacon, pasta and meatballs each simmer for hours, and they're combined at different intervals.

This year's version was heartier, with a ramp-pesto accent. What a joy it is to anticipate this dish.

Regular-appearance dishes can be as memorable. They include the housemade ricotta gnocchi with a mushroom leek ragout ($10 for a half portion, $20 for a full plate) or the more daringly pungent bottarga (dried mullet roe) linguini, dressed with butter and parmesan ($10/$20).

A less fish-focused order might be the roast chicken with grilled asparagus and salsa verde ($19) or a perfectly cooked Jamison lamb steak with arugula ($22).

As much as I enjoy Stagioni, it would benefit with a few adjustments. Starting with the food: I wish the loaf of bread were better. I wish for more consistency in dishes. With such simplicity, it's especially important that they're well-executed and thoroughly seasoned every time.

I wish the restaurant soundtrack weren't having an identity crisis between Muzak and pop. And much as I love the architectural detail, I wish the decor weren't so fusty.

But with so many strengths at Stagioni, these things are easy to overlook. Order a glass of crisp Vermentino or a lively Barbera and share your dishes with good company.

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

 

Correction (posted May 15): An earlier version of this article gave the wrong surname for chef Stephen Felder in the headline.


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