Little Bites: Duck Donuts opens in Upper St. Clair, Free Primanti’s, Ballpark night at Eleven
Pittsburgh dining is coming into its own. Never have there been so many compelling choices, from the elegant special-occasion restaurant to the ultra-casual noodle house.
The city’s restaurant renaissance points to the city’s vibrancy, from sports teams to galleries to universities and start-ups. Restaurants are a sign of and a push for Pittsburgh’s growth.
This is the first Post-Gazette dining guide that will become a twice a year feature. For fall, I’ve focused on eating out for every budget, for new American to red-sauce to ethnic cuisine.
Many of the restaurants here aren’t new. But they’re attracting diners with warm service, delicious food and charismatic spaces. These restaurants are of-the-moment without pandering to trends.
I visited every restaurant two or more times since the summer. Star ratings for previously reviewed restaurants have been updated for this guide.
Now grab a seat, pour yourself a drink and read on.
The destination restaurant run by Jonathan Vlasic since 2005, Alla Famiglia supersizes the glory of Italian-American food.
Past a terrific selection of first courses such as the giant signature meatball, each entree comes with pasta alla vodka and a gorgonzola salad that precedes mains. The veal chop can be ordered one of three ways. The Milanese is served on the bone with a garnish of pine nuts, green onions, jumbo lump crab meat and shaved parmesan. The pizzaiola is dressed with San Marzanos, peppers, sausage, onions and provolone, and the griglia comes stuffed with ham, provolone and sage, grilled and finished with mushrooms and a demi-glace reduction. The sleeper dish is the cotoletta del Monzu, a less brawny serving of veal, pounded thin, pan-fried and served with fresh mozzarella, pine nuts, lemon butter and arugula.
Save room for wine as the place has one of the best Italian wine collections in the city.
Cure remains one of the most challenging restaurants to score a table because it’s a great restaurant. The charcuterie board and terrific cocktails are one thing. The Cure’ated dinner series on Sunday nights is another. When chefs from some of the best restaurants in the country come to cook for the evening, you can’t help but wonder what the place will do next.
Turns out, they’re opening a second place: A bigger, more-casual Lawrenceville tapas spot called Morcilla, scheduled to open next summer.
In the meantime, book a table well in advance for special cold-weather dishes. After the first snow, Mr. Severino will start serving cassoulet. “It features meat from five or six animals in 12 ways,” he says. Also expect dishes such as pig trotter and roasted octopus over pappardelle, with smoked ricotta salada and fried chili oil. These are two unusual dishes that stick to the ribs.
Chef Sonja Finn’s menu maintains a focus on the harmony of ingredients rather than the architecture of a plate. This confidence points to her experience at the esteemed Zuni Cafe in San Francisco and the now-closed Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C., as well as a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Although the menu does include meat, vegetables are often the stand-outs. I can’t resist the fritto misto, a menu staple that changes with the seasons, whether it’s fried lemons and squash blossoms in the summer or radicchio, squash and mushrooms in the fall.
The Dinette-style pizza is a departure from Neapolitan pies. It’s about the combination of ingredients more than the crust. The most unusual pizza may include salt-cured anchovies with jalapeno peppers, capers, fresh mozzarella and tomato. Roasted cauliflower studs another, with portobello, gorgonzola, bacon, mozzarella and herbs.
Drinks please everyone, with Cheerwine soda, $1 Yuengling and an interesting wine list; Ms. Finn has a passion for wine and it shows.
Michele Savoia and his family keep the place lively with warm hospitality and stories of growing up in Italy.
Sit at the bar for the terrific lighting, a glass of amaro and a plate of antipasto Siciliano or the crostini alla scamorza, the smoked cow’s milk cheese of Southern Italy. Or book a table in the dining room for Mr. Savoia’s memorable fare. The sea scallops in the capesante are expertly caramelized for a pan-finished crust on sweet shellfish, paired with roasted beets, fennel and arugula.
Seafood dishes such as this one remind Mr. Savoia of his youth. “Growing up on the Sicilian coast, one of my favorite pastimes was going to the fishmonger just to look,” he says. “By the fishmonger, people were yelling and singing. I love to see this and I thought, you know what? This is the soul of the place.”
Meticulous sourcing, skillful cooking and elegant presentation maintain Eleven’s position as one of the city’s best restaurants.
Executive chef since 2006, Derek Stevens steers a fleet of specialists from the pastry chef, the baker and the pierogi maker: a rarity in an era of the pared-down restaurant. He has shaped the careers of many of the cooks within the restaurant group as well as those who have gone their own ways.
I also like that just about anyone can visit the place. The ever-changing happy-hour menu, offered every day from 4 to 6 p.m., includes a short list of $6 items, such as the house-made pretzels, a half-dozen oysters or roasted marrow bone served with a radish and carrot salad. Sunday brunch also is a decadent deal for juice or a cocktail, an appetizer and an entree for $29. Imagine a Bloody Mary paired with a grilled cinnamon-swirl brioche with bacon and butterscotch followed by the boldness of smoked pork huevos rancheros. After a meal like this, a nap is in order.
The dinner hour is more refined, whether you’re ordering from the tavern or the dining room. These are generous portions and skillful presentations of steak tartare, lamb saffron pappardelle, or a seafood tasting with salmon, crab cake and scallops paired with squash, mizuna and smoked peppers. No matter when you visit, it’s a pampered experience. And you won’t leave hungry.
Everyday Noodles was inspired by owner Mike Chen’s trip to Toronto three years ago, when a dining experience motivated him to bring authentic Chinese cuisine to Pittsburgh. Since then, he has worked with the Taiwanese government to bring cooks here to train his employees. Several trips to Taipei led him to cherry-pick the trio he will host for the next six months, after which they will return home to be replaced by three new visitors with different skills.
“We want cooks to teach us something new that allows us to offer something Pittsburgh doesn’t have,” he said.
Since he opened, the crowd-pleasers have been soup dumplings, also known as xiao long bao, which have been difficult to find in these parts before the shop opened. “Soup dumplings are my selling point,” he says.
The selection of soup is great, too. Clear consommes taste like a deep elixir of meat, whether it’s lamb, pork, beef, chicken or shrimp. Blanched bok choy, paper-thin radishes and a confetti of scallions are tucked into each version. As you twirl them around your chopsticks, the tangle of noodles grows, absorbing the savory broth. You may crave chili sauce, scallions and other condiments to add flavor and texture. Be sure to ask for them.
Mr. Falcon knows how to hook diners. He’s skipped the Texas barbecue trend to embrace a different south of the border phenomenon: the Argentinian parrilla.
Here’s how it works. Take flank, skirt, New York strip, ribeye or filet mignon, chicken or chorizo. Lace it with the scent of rosemary and a wood-burning fire. And watch as the line snakes out the door. He transforms these customers into loyalists by adding a nice side salad and charred veggies. Or he may do it with a simple hit of lime, particularly when it comes to my favorite dish, asado di tira, grilled short ribs with lime, chives and caramelized onion.
By early spring, the popular restaurant will nearly double the size of its dining room to include more countertop seating as well as tables and chairs in the front room. And the restaurant will build a lounge in the back of the building once it secures a liquor license.
Since 2008, chef owner Yong Kwon has been cooking the food she grew up on in South Korea, decidedly savory dishes that display what she describes as an older style. It’s different from sugar-laden dishes that have crept into Korean restaurants, such as Korean fried chicken with its sweet heat. Having been raised during a depression when she admits she had been close to starving, she makes food that reflects her values. Her priority is to serve fresh, affordable fare.
A plate of mandu is a must. Stuffed with kimchi, beef or vegetables, the thin-skinned, pan-fried dumplings beckon with a sheen of oil. They’re also a highlight in a soup. Kimchi pancakes are another a fine start, a sour note between crisped batter. You can find diversity in the banchan, with Ms. Kwon’s terrific kimchi -- a balance of spice, sour and garlic, alongside hot slaw and pickled vegetables.One of the hottest dishes you can order is the bul dak, sesame-laced chicken with carrots in a fiery marinade, the result of chili peppers, soy sauce and red pepper paste, among other ingredients. Regulars swear by the oh jing uh bokum, spicy squid that some are wary of at first, but the delicate texture and tangy spice will win you over.
Editor's note: Kohinoor has closed since this article was first published.
Chef Tamil Selvan can cook like few others in Pittsburgh, creating memorable dishes that will wow you.
They include the ubiquitous tandoori chicken that sings in Mr. Selvan’s version, layered with garlic, saffron, coriander and cumin, turmeric and chili, ginger, yogurt and lime. Served on a sizzling cast-iron plate, the chicken has char yet the rub still is wet, like a jerk sauce rather than bone-dry as tandoori can be. Beyond the sauce, the meat is juicy, delicious and very hot. Each bite is a progression that starts at the tip of the tongue, kicks up the salivary glands and wafts through sinuses with a top-of-the-head finish.
There are plenty of dishes for the vegetarian. Baingan bartha is spicy-hot with fresh garlic and ginger. Cubes of eggplant are pliant, having given way to intense tandoori heat. They meld with tomatoes and onions rendered sweet. Mr. Selvan’s garam masala, coriander and cumin, round out the dish.
Whatever may bring you to Kohinoor, expect to wait and go with an open mind. Kohinoor rewards patience with an authentic experience.
When you go to chef Trevett Hooper’s Oakland restaurant, you’ll have to decide between a more leisurely dinner in the dining room or a more casual visit to the bar at Butterjoint. Both offer terrific menus with overlapping dishes with flavor that are at times so striking you may find yourself engrossed.
Though the menu changes daily, among starters, there may be a pickled beef tongue salad with puntarelle, a salad of young chicory. It wears a glossy egg yolk that coats greens like a second dressing. Pillowy beignets and pickled turnips rest like buoys across grilled escarole. Smoked bluefish pate pays homage to a South Florida staple, served in a mound seasoned with lemon, parsley and onion.
From the Legume menu, a diner can steer toward Tunisian lentils with roasted vegetables, sautéed greens, sunchoke purée and fermented cherry bomb peppers with a fried egg or something comforting such as chicken from Burns Heritage farm browned in rendered lard for paprikash with hand-cut noodles, sauteed greens and creme fraiche.
At Butterjoint, you’ll get the city’s best French fries. And a fine burger arrives with bacon, bleu cheese, Gruyere, caramelized onion or smoked rhubarb ketchup. You may also appreciate humble yet delicious Pittsburgh fare, such as pierogies and housemade kielbasa elevated by farmers cheese, sauerkraut and sauteed greens.
Creativity is also a feature of the bar, where manager Will Groves makes elegant cocktails like his perfect Aviation, a low-octane cocktail like a Shim, or the stiff drink of choice.
The most tailored of the three restaurants in the Sienna Mercato building, Mezzo has the most ambition. Yet it’s accessible, with a wood-fired oven, chalkboard art accents, and a cozy bar and dining room.
You can’t go wrong with the house-cured meats as a starter. The ciccioli is especially decadent. For a wildly flavorful plate of greens, try the escarole Calabrese, for which salumi is used as a condiment. And if you’re going to get a pizza, ask for extra pickled tomatoes on the smoked mozzarella and tomato pie.
But really, you should come here for the pasta. Chef owner Matt Porco shows off his best with a spicy shrimp diablo with orecchiette, the spaghetti alla vongole or the terrific goat sugo.
Groups of six or more can call 24 hours in advance to reserve a large table for a family-style feast for $40 per person. Otherwise, the restaurant is first come, first served.
Review to come Nov. 20. • See a slideshow from Mezzo
Chef owner Keith Fuller has a great sense of humor that shows up on the plate. It may come by way of pork belly with barbecue Pop Rocks candy or confit chicken wings dusted with coffee spice, served with bourbon creme and dried bananas. These may not be the dishes you’ve been craving, but they are often delicious surprises that allow you to have fun along with him.
When he’s plating, he said he sometimes imagines an outer-space landscape. With a tattoo of Darth Vader and a dog named after Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars, Mr. Fuller shows that his imagination parallels his interests. For an olive-cured mahi-mahi, for example, he stacks a filet off-center on a white plate, then drizzles it sparingly with green and red cabbage gel. On one side, he spoons couscous and on the other he stacks baby carrots like Jenga blocks, held in place by a swipe of harissa, a spicy Tunisian condiment.
His events also embody his humor. My favorite this past year was the Star Wars Day dinner on May 4, when Mr. Fuller teamed up with Derek Stevens of Eleven for eight courses inspired by the movie series. A variation of the course called the “Braised Endorian Ewok Neck,” a lamb neck with morels, fingerlings, asparagus and herbs, remains on the menu with different seasonal components, such as pesto, jasmine rice, black cardamom, pickled mustard seeds and date butter. It is unctuous, with meat falling off the bone.
Even if your evening does not end with a light-saber show and the Darth Vader theme song, you’ll see the one-of-a-kind Mr. Fuller cooking with an unbridled enthusiasm.
I like this place because of Brian Pekarcik, the passionate chef with tons of experience and a relentless attention to detail. He grew up in Monroeville and returned to the area in 2008 after a decade in California, where he had cooked at Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe and at Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco. He opened Spoon in 2010 with Richard Stern, now his partner for S + P Restaurant Group which includes BRGR in East Liberty and Cranberry and Grit & Grace, Downtown. He’s also added a BRGR food truck and a PNC Park location.
A night begins with attention from John Wabeck, general manager and sommelier, who may offer an unusual cocktail with housemade gin, or a glass of flinty Alsatian white wine. He has shaped his staff into one of the finest-trained in the city.
Dinner continues with a first course of rabbit pappardelle, a daring dish paired with roasted squash, mushrooms, asparagus and onion ragout and the added wow factors of Gruyere and sherry. A truffle tagliatelle is inspired by chef de cuisine Dave Anoia’s trip to Italy, with basil, parsley, cracked pepper and olive oil that plays well with truffles from the Piedmont region. A relatively simple grilled octopus with potato salad is complemented by sweet celery and crisp, salty bacon and finished with Castelvetrano olives and a red-pepper vinaigrette.
From start to finish, inspired dishes pair with elegant service to reinforce that you’re in good hands.
Chef owner Stephen Felder always has abandoned the traditional menu of antipasti, primi and secondi, and that can be a good thing. Most recently, he added a polenta category with eight choices, including artichoke caponata and cipollini onion agrodolce. Within the year, he also has 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.
“We’re more confident than we used to be,” he says. “I’m taking components off to allow ingredients to stand on their own.”
The giardiniera 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?”
Featured on the cover, you’ll find chestnut agnolotti with mascarpone, brown butter, sage and apples, a roasted chicken breast with sweet potatoes, pancetta and pecans and a brussel sprout salad with hazelnuts and dates in brown butter.
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. New this season, Stagioni is serving weekday lunch.
Chef owner Sam DiBattista cooks with the ease of a seasoned chef who is still in love with his craft. He doesn’t try too hard, and his dishes are better for it.
A first-course frittata celebrates mushrooms of the season. Freighted with chanterelles and chicken of the woods, the egg dish is garnished with cherry tomato and basil that are nice although not necessary because it’s delicious on its own.
For an entree, Mr. DiBattista dips a whole chicken that was roasted earlier in the afternoon into crackling-hot oil when a diner places an order. The two-step process leads to an incredibly juicy chicken with completely crispy skin. Topped with a confetti of fried garlic, it’s his take on chicken with 40 garlic cloves.
When it opened in 2000, Vivo drew diners to Bellevue, then to Sewickley in 2011. As restaurants have begun to shape discussion of the region’s revival, Mr. DiBattista has reconsidered how diners want to eat. These days, he relies on subtlety to carry what can be a lovely meal. “I try to cook with as few ingredients as possible,” he said.