Restaurants reflect how Pittsburgh is changing, with so many openings pointing to a city on the rise. Twenty will debut this season alone. As much as they’re feeding hungry diners, restaurants also show how social media, travel, new residents and returning natives are shaping what’s for dinner.
In that spirit, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s summer dining guide is focused on growth and change. Some picks are familiar restaurants with a revamped menu or a bigger dining room. Others are new places that are shaping a neighborhood or introducing diners to a memorable take on a regional cuisine. They’re standouts that build momentum and excitement, prompting diners to wonder what’s next for Pittsburgh.
Diners enjoy the city skyline at sunset at Altius, located on Grandview Avenue on Mt. Washington. (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette)
1. Fine wine and a view
Altius on Mount Washington
Altius is a destination restaurant that points to a changing neighborhood. Set in what had been Georgetowne Inn, it delivers a magnificent view from a sleek dining room. Proprietor Josephine “B” DeFrancis, who’s also behind Bistro 19 in Mt. Lebanon, plans to add a deck and rooftop dining in the future.
If you don’t want to commit to a sit-down meal at special occasion prices, take the Duquesne Incline up to Mount Washington and walk to Altius right next door. Find a seat at the bar with your company. Order a flight or a glass of wine ($11 to $17) from a wine list that features sustainable, organic or biodynamic wines. And grab a bite from a menu of oysters ($15), pomme frites ($8), a burger ($18), Korean fried chicken ($17), smoked taleggio and white cheddar grilled cheese with tomato jam ($15) or charcuterie ($14).
2. A master chef
Chengdu Gourmet in Squirrel Hill
A dish invented and named by Chengdu Gourmet's owner, Wei Zhu, the emperor pork leg garnished with hand-cut apples. (Annie Ma/Post-Gazette)
Wei Zhu started working in kitchens at age 15, baking tall, elaborate Western-style cakes for visiting dignitaries at a famous bakery in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. As he grew older, he realized he wanted to cook savory dishes, which he could not do until he mastered knife skills, a process that takes a Chinese chef five years.
After that, he spent nearly a decade cooking in his homeland, then immigrated to New York nearly a dozen years ago, where he cooked in Chinese restaurants. He then moved to Pittsburgh working at China Star in McCandless, followed by a brief stint with his former partner at Sichuan Gourmet in Squirrel Hill.
He broke off to open Chengdu Gourmet, his restaurant that debuted on Thanksgiving on Forward Avenue, a bright storefront around the corner from Pittsburgh Allderdice High School.
Here, Mr. Zhu’s cooking is nuanced, with a range of dishes from the Sichuan canon (think mapo tofu) to those inspired by what’s popular right now in Chengdu and Chongqing, a major city in southwest China next to Sichuan province.
Start with the hand cabbage, the Sichuan pickles, or housemade Chinese sausage laced with clove and anise that is utterly addictive. And be sure to try one of my favorite entrees, Chongqing beef stew, that features a homemade spice blend and includes flower-like lotus roots, enoki mushrooms, leeks, tiny florets of cauliflower and fried tofu triangles. Add to it chili, Sichuan peppercorns, sesame oil and broth for a dish so complex and bold it’s my destination dish.
3. Anytime dining
The Commoner in the Kimpton’s Hotel Monaco, Downtown
Smoked beef tartare with black garlic aioli by Dennis Marron. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)
Set in the new Kimpton Hotel Monaco that opened in the winter, the Commoner is a game-changer in Downtown dining. Executive chef Dennis Marron serves up to 600 people a day, offering breakfast, lunch, weekend brunch, and dinner — served until 1 a.m. on weekends. And there’s hardly a time that the dining room isn’t lively.
A back-lit bar is flanked by marble-topped communal tables with seats for walk-ins. Deeper into the dining room, it’s more private, from the round corner tables to the line of seats that overlook an open kitchen. I like this section for the subway tiles and the view of what’s cooking in the wood-fired oven.
An ambitious team of experienced cooks turns out American tavern fare made with top-tier ingredients. Although the tavern concept suggests hearty dishes, there’s actually plenty of variety. What I do like about this menu is that it’s easy to order whatever dish in any order, or a bunch of dishes to share.
Bacalao en Aceite with cauliflower catalan, left, Cynar-cured Laurel Hill Trout with rose pickled rhubarb, artichoke chips and pepper honey by Aaron Hoskins. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)
4. Salumi di mare
Cure in Lawrenceville
With a loyal clientele and national accolades that keep on coming, Justin Severino keeps mixing it up because he can.
First, he announced that he would open Morcilla on Butler Street by the fall, his second Lawrenceville restaurant. The casual Spanish spot will feature small plates and family-style dishes.
Then Mr. Severino recruited Aaron Hoskins, a sous chef from The Rogue Gentlemen restaurant in Richmond, Va. Mr. Severino had been following him on Instagram, liked what he saw and asked him to come cook with him for a collaborative dinner. One thing led to another and Mr. Hoskins joined the team.
Since Morcilla was announced, Mr. Severino also remodeled his kitchen, the third renovation since Cure opened in January 2012, to streamline prep and make room for staff. The changes include a wider center island, the removal of bar seats and an area to prep seafood and raw bar ingredients.
“I want to put things on the menu that I like to eat,” he said to a table that had just started eating a dozen oysters with a rhubarb mignonette ($32).
But the beauty lately has been in the presentation of the seafood charcuterie, a half-dozen selections of salumi di mare: artful arrangements, striking examples or Mr. Severino’s creativity.
My favorite had been the Cynar-cured arctic char ($6) for its herbal notes and clean texture — that is, until the restaurant added the Sockeye salmon nduja, a crostini with pickled peppers and chives ($6) that is among the brightest dishes it offers. Like he does with sausage, Mr. Severino grinds the fish twice and seasons in between. Then he cures it — think gravlax. Finally, he adds an emulsifier and olive oil, so it ends up a being spreadable, like butter. Order it while you can because it is a stunner.
Plates of beignets, zeppole and a frittata at E2 in Highland Park. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)
5. A captivating brunch
E2 in Highland Park
Executive chef Kate Romane has been running a charming neighborhood restaurant while building her catering company for events as small as a cocktail party to 100+ dinners at the Carrie Furnace. My favorite meal in Ms. Romane’s repertoire starts with “tony bag of d’s” ($5), the menu listing for the ginger doughnut holes. Or opt for another variety: chocolate espresso doughnuts, or lemon lavender. For those who prefer a savory opener, try the black pepper and parmesan zeppole with pepperonata sauce.
Not all foods induce an afternoon nap at E2. Well-dressed greens make an appearance, along with a seasonal frittata ($11/$12). The hash ($11/$12/$13) is a hearty dish with red potatoes, red peppers and red onions, topped with two eggs so fresh the yolks glow. In my fantasy life, Ms. Romane would be gearing up to run a brunch all-day spot with this menu.
Arrechera, front, a flank steak served with salad and bread from Mediterra Bread Co. and grilled vegetables with zucchini, portabello, peppers and onions. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)
6. A dining room expansion
Gaucho Parrilla Argentina in the Strip District
The scent of rosemary and the spectacle of grilling meats over an open fire make Gaucho one of the most popular restaurants in the city right now. Gaucho offers satiating food for every price point, from $3 empanadas with $2 grilled corn to bife de Gaucho, a ribeye for $24. You can even buy a dog a bone for a buck.
A recent expansion to the corner building next door doubles the seating to accommodate 50 diners. The expansion has also brought new staff, including Mike Mills as the general manager, who is also a well-known bartender.
Even with more seats, there’s still a line out the door. But that doesn’t make owner Anthony Falcon complacent. He has plans in the works to serve breakfast and mate (Argentinian tea) as well as stretch the dinner hours to 9 p.m.
7. Meticulous sourcing
Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon
Pizza cruda by Ron Molinaro. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)
Ron Molinaro, the owner of Il Pizzaiolo, knows how to find the very best ingredients. That has only become more apparent since he pulled back from the Market Square location to focus on the flagship in Mt. Lebanon. Here, he has pared down the menu to feature mostly pizzas, salads and a couple of pastas: the dishes that sell best, he said. Once in a while the menu or the specials are test dishes for his upcoming casual street food restaurant called Pizzuvio that he will open in East Liberty with partner Bob Wolfinger before the end of the year. They are planning for it to be the first of several locations.
Though his process for making dough leads to a light and ethereal pizza crust, Mr. Molinaro is a sauce man, he said. He uses DOP San Marzano tomatoes he sources from Gustiamo, an Italian importer in the Bronx. And then there’s cheese, which is among the finest pasta filata in the city. He gets his mozzarella di bufala straight from Italy, with pickups every Thursday at Pittsburgh airport cargo terminal. And he stretches his own mozzarella and stracciatella with curd from Caputo Brothers Creamery in York County. The result is quite a memorable margherita pizza.
Crostini with herbed goat cheese and mixed grilled vegetables are served during the Summer Solstice party at Legume. (Robin Rombach/Post-Gazette)
8. Vegetables that steal the spotlight
Legume Bistro in Oakland
A purist’s embrace of local food and a small fleet of dedicated farmers shape the menu at Trevett Hooper’s Legume and its casual sibling, the Butterjoint. The results on the plate can be astonishing, from a simple chilled asparagus soup with buttermilk panna cotta, dill and preserved lemon ($8) to pillowy beignets with pickled turnips on grilled escarole ($10). The menu changes every day.
Mr. Hooper’s plans for his upcoming restaurant, Dasha, are especially exciting. Named for the country home of Russian urbanites, the restaurant will center around a Russian wood-fired oven called a pecht and a menu that will include an array of fermented and preserved foods. Meats at the restaurant will come by way of whole animal butchery.
Chicken taco, smoked beef brisket taco, queso, chorizo taco and fresh tortilla chips. (Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette)
9. Smoked meats and housemade tortillas
Smoke BBQ Taqueria in Lawrenceville
The sandwich meets the taco at Smoke BBQ Taqueria from Jeff Petruso and Nelda Carranco. Originally based in Homestead, the restaurant moved to Lawrenceville in the spring and they’re serving a menu of crowd-pleasers.
Favorite tacos are the brisket with onions, hot pepper and mustard sauce ($7.50) along with the ribs garnished with pickles, onions and barbecue sauce ($6.25). I also have a weakness for breakfast for dinner, so the migas is my go-to, with crispy tortilla strips, a slew of scrambled eggs, beans, peppers and cheese ($4; with meats, add $1.50 to $2). The egg taco ($4) with beans and cheese is an anytime favorite.
For a snack binge, get the chips and queso ($6.75; with meats, add $3), which are the best chips in the land, since the flour tortillas are homemade, thick and fried, served with a Texas-style bowl of cheese with smoked poblanos, onions and fresno peppers.
10. A more rustic menu
Spoon in East Liberty
Grilled avocado with charred tomato vinaigrette, preserved tomato and burrata. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)
Chef Brian Pekarcik and chef de cuisine Dave Anoia wanted to cook food that they enjoy eating out so they simplified the menu, which debuted in April. “We wanted to strip things down,” said Mr. Pekarcik, citing inspiration from dining out during his recent travels to Southern cities.
In addition to simplifying the plating and paring down ingredients, they added a “bites” section of the menu and the “small/large” section, a collection of pasta and risotto dishes as well as a hearty salad.
As a result of the menu changes, Spoon is seeing a more diverse clientele, including diners who swing by for just a bite and a cocktail. This is especially the case on Thursdays, an off-menu gin club of sorts when general manager and sommelier John Wabeck slings gin drinks, mixing classic and newfangled cocktails, starting with a base of one of 45-plus varieties of gin.
11. From-scratch sandwiches
Szmidt's Old World Deli, Downtown
The Greg is made with grilled roast beef, sauteed sweet onions, Szmidt's peppers and portobello mushrooms with provolone cheese, lettuce and tomato, and finished with horseradish mayo on white bread. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)
Owner Darren Smith has Primanti Bros.-sized aspirations. He wants to build Szmidt’s name based on his from-scratch sandwiches.
You can see his ambition in his kitchen, where he has a patent application filed for his bread proofer-turned-smoker. Inside the box, you’ll find brisket that he has brined before it smokes for hours. The result is his brisket-based sandwiches that are so popular he’s making 600 pounds a week.
He’s also cooking his own pierogies that start with dough that rests overnight. Then he cranks it through a pasta sheet thinner three or four times. He cuts the dough using a round about the width of a medium can, then adds the filling, pressing them closed, and lets them dry a bit before he freezes them, a necessary step so they don’t fall apart. Once they’re thawed for service, he warms them in a pot that has reached a rolling boil, then finishes them in a cast-iron pan.
“Know why so few people are doing this stuff from scratch?” he asks. “Because it’s a lot of work.”
The carnitas — braised pork, guacamole, salsa verde, white onion, cilantro and chicharrones. (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette)
12. A best-of Pittsburgh staff
Tako is my favorite restaurant from Tolga Sevdik and chef Rick DeShantz. The dining room is dark and gothic, yet lighthearted, with chandeliers fashioned from bike chains, a wall of faux grass and a chalkboard with magnets of neon letters, the kind kids play with on the refrigerator.
The food speaks to the no-frills diner as well as the sophisticate, with a make-your-own guac menu and a collection of dishes — predominantly tacos — stuffed with ingredients inspired by Japan, Mexico and the Middle East.
The restaurant’s early success is in part because of a great team. In the open kitchen, see Mr. DeShantz work alongside David Racicot, a James Beard semi-finalist in 2011. He is quite the technician.
Spencer Warren is the beverage director, the cocktail savant who started with (now closed) Embury in the Strip District. He maintains a reputation for shaking and stirring some of the city’s most elegant drinks.
Maggie Meskey joins him, former bar manager at Salt of the Earth and later, Butcher and the Rye, the Tako sibling next door. She is responsible for putting together an engaging high/low cocktail menu. And kudos to the rest of the very capable staff, including bartender Caito Nagelson and server Justen Burrell. Experienced, well-trained staff make Tako a seamless experience, even when it is crowded.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart