Restaurant review: At Dinette in East Liberty, vegetables often serve as main entree

In restaurants, vegetables are undergoing a transformation from good-for-you sides to center plates. They're less often overcooked or underseasoned. And they're no longer merely an afterthought, doctored by egg or cheese.

Cooks are finding inspiration in books such as Yotam Ottolenghi's "Plenty: Vibrant Vegetarian Recipes From London's Ottolenghi," as well as Deborah Madison's "Vegetable Literacy," which won a James Beard award this year.

Even a generalist has become an apostle. Mark Bittman has progressed from "How to Cook Everything" in 1998 to 16 years later, a veg-focused flexitarian in "VB6: Eat Vegan before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore your Health ... for Good."

5996 Centre Ave.
East Liberty

  • Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
  • Basics: Dinette is a neighborhood crowd-pleaser with a short menu of starters, shared plates and pizzas of seasonal ingredients.
  • Dishes: Shishito peppers with chevre and almonds, fritto misto, chilled vegetable soups, panzanella di farro, fresh ricotta pizza, grilled corn pizza, salt-cured anchovy pizza, strawberry snack cake.
  • Prices: For the table $4-$11; starters $8-$12; pizza $12-$17.
  • Summary: Credit cards, no reservations, parking lot, wheelchair-accessible.

It's this cultural shift that makes Sonja Finn's cooking of the moment, even though Dinette in East Liberty opened six years ago.

The dining room remains a fluid space of industrial design with pops of color and a terrific view of the neighborhood. Cooks assemble pizzas behind the bar as diners look on. The clientele includes singles lured by $1 Yuenglings and fresh fare, as well as families welcomed by Ms. Finn's openness as a pregnant chef on the line. Her son Miles, now 2, occasionally visits the restaurant with her.

Although the menu does include meat, vegetables stand out because Ms. Finn plays up their beauty and flavor.

Her cooking shows the range of her experience, which includes tenures at the esteemed Zuni Cafe in San Francisco and the now-closed Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C.

The menu is influenced by Zuni Cafe in particular, with a display of high and low ingredients. Hard-to-find spices and heirloom vegetables meet sausage, chicken and onions.

Ms. Finn is also influenced by Ms. Madison, as she mentioned in an interview in Food & Wine in 2012.

Vegetables are especially memorable in shared plates and starters. Shishito peppers ($9) circle a plate drizzled in new-crop olive oil that's nearly iridescent. Tangy chevre and fried almonds alternate in between, adding body and fat.

Chilled zucchini soup ($8) wears a latte's tulip, a creme fraiche design in pale green. Infused with onion and thyme and garnished with arugula blossoms, the soup is velvety with cream.

Peppery watercress layers a salty watermelon salad ($9) dressed with ricotta salata, red onions and green goddess dressing, minus the anchovies so it's vegetarian-friendly.

I could eat a plate of fried lemons in the fritto misto ($11) although they usually join squid, chickpeas, scallions, vidalias or scallions. Squash blossoms have also made an appearance in the dish, an ingredient harvested from the rooftop garden.

The garden is her father Seth Finn's baby, a project he started with $600 worth of containers and materials. Today, the tomatoes, cornichons and herbs show up in several dishes, along with figs and arugula.

"The only tomatoes you'll have here are the ones grown on the roof," according to the restaurant's website.

The Dinette-style pizza is a departure from lean Neapolitan margherita or marinara pies.

"I was going after a Northern Italian pizza," she said.

Her dough is very simple. It's comprised of "00" flour, water, yeast and salt. After she mixes the dough, she lets it rest for a little over an hour. The she forms rounds and lets it rest again. The result is a pizza that's more crisp than a Neapolitan-style, with a " somewhat rigid crust," that can hold toppings, she said.

The most unusual pie may include salt-cured anchovies ($14) with jalapeno peppers, capers, fresh mozzarella and tomato. Roasted cauliflower ($16) studs another, with portobello, gorgonzola, bacon, mozzarella and rooftop herbs. My favorite is the Parma sausage pie ($16) with eggplant, fresh mozzarella, tomato and rooftop parsley. I like the interplay of the sweetness and char on the grilled eggplant with savory meat.

The servers are well-versed in each dish, as well as wine pairings. During one visit, a friend asked about the canned wine, the Sofia Blanc de Blancs, which was described by the server as easy-drinking and food-friendly.

It arrived to the table in a slim can like a half-sized Red Bull. Though it wasn't shameful, I prefer a rose such as the Les Vignes de Bila-Haut by Michel Chapoutier.

Kir Royales are new to the menu ,along with Fernet as a digestif.

Ms. Finn also added Natrona sodas and Cheerwine, a tribute to her North Carolina childhood. Ms. Finn moved to Pittsburgh when she was 12.

For dessert, a snack cake ($6) with strawberry cream. Arborio rice pudding ($6) is infused with rhubarb or blueberry. And a chocolate pot de creme ($6) is deep and rich, layered with tannins and notes of violet, big flavors in a small bowl.

"I'm still trying to make this place perfect," Ms. Finn said. "I still don't have it yet, but things are coming together."

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


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