Pizzutti's restaurant is fewer than two blocks from Walnut Street in Shadyside, but those two blocks make a considerable difference. Diners tend to be regulars, or at least to have planned their visits, rather than exhausted shoppers and bar-hoppers ravenously descending. On warmer days you can sit at tables on the sidewalk, enjoying the neighborhood without the crowds or noise of the busier street.
Though neither the chef nor servers are related to owner Susan Pizzutti, the restaurant has a family feel. Servers seem to enjoy their jobs and care about the restaurant. "The food here is excellent," promised one, with genuine enthusiasm in his voice.
Pizzutti's menu consists of a variety of salads, antipasti and bruschetta, more than a dozen house-made pastas, and about a half dozen more traditional entrees. The appetizer course was the strongest overall. A house salad ($6) of mixed greens might have been overwhelmed by the sharp flavors of red onions, kalamata olives and lemon vinaigrette, but small portions of the garnishes kept the salad pleasantly bright. Fried mozzarella ($9) may not be the most elegant of starters, but freshly made mozzarella makes this version worth ordering. The roughly chopped tomatoes in the house tomato sauce were a little too rustic for my taste, but the sauce was well balanced, bringing out the sweetness of the tomatoes.
Bruschetta is a decent choice as well ($10-12). The bread is a standard Italian loaf, but it's grilled perfectly crisp, but not so dry that it's reduced to crumbs with every bite. A roasted vegetable topping of eggplant, red peppers, zucchini and onions gained a little crunch and nuttiness from sesame seeds, while the natural sweetness of the vegetables was enhanced by balsamic vinaigrette.
1 star = Good
2 stars = Very good
1 1/2 stars = Good+
1 1/2 stars = Good+
- Hours: Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m., Friday, 5-10 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-close; Sunday supper, 1-6 p.m.
- Basics: Italian bistro focused on housemade pasta and sauces; intimate dining room with attentive service.
- Recommended dishes: Bruschetta, warm roasted seasonal vegetables, homemade fried mozzarella, pappardelle with spicy Italian sausage, mussels, cannoli.
- Prices: Appetizers, $6-14; entrees, $15.95-26; desserts, $5-8
- Wine: BYOB
- Summary: Wheelchair access; park on street or in nearby public lot; cash only (atm on premises); reservations encouraged on weekends; corkage, $5 per bottle.
- Noise level: Quiet
Some of the other dishes that had potential to stand out were hindered by sloppy execution. A caramelized onion, potato and prosciutto soup ($6) sounded delicious when described by the server, but turned out to be a small bowl of broth filled with large, ungainly chunks of onion and potato with little flavor of prosciutto or anything else.
The restaurant places a huge emphasis on its fresh-made pastas. Unfortunately, these pastas were consistently thick and chewy rather than tender or delicate. The chef's favorite, the papardelle with spicy Italian sausage ($15.95), was one of the better dishes, in that the hefty sausage and onion based sauce stood up to the relatively thick papardelle. But the sausage itself didn't have much spiciness or the lovely fennel flavor that distinguishes Italian sausage. It's strange that at a restaurant that prides itself on making so many things from scratch, the most distinctive ingredient in the chef's favorite dish was bought from their main supplier. I'm not sure how much credit can be given to an Italian restaurant for making its sauces from scratch, and given the quality, the restaurant would be better off buying its pastas and devoting its energy to improving other aspects of the menu.
I liked the way the nuttiness of whole wheat pasta (not made in house) contrasted with creamy goat cheese, hints of spicy red pepper and rich pesto, but the dish was literally dripping with olive oil.
One of the most expensive pasta dishes, linguine with littleneck clams with white wine and lemon ($20) was the worst of the clunkers. The too-thick pasta and sauce were steaming hot, but the clams were cold and rubbery, as if they had been cooked far in advance and then simply tossed with the pasta. The white wine and lemon sauce was too watery to contribute any flavor to the pasta.
Servers don't push the entrees, which are hidden near the end of the menu, and they are probably doing everyone a favor. A grouper special ($26) was distinctly fishy, suggesting either that it was past its prime or that it had been previously frozen.
Despite some bad dishes, I'd still go back to Pizzutti's for the things they do well. The cream sauce in a very American carbonara ($15.95) was absolutely delicious. During Lent, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the restaurant offers a special of all-you-can-eat mussels ($15.95), either in a sauce of white wine and chopped tomatoes, or one made from their house tomato sauce with carrot, celery, onions and red pepper flakes. I preferred the first choice, but both sauces were tasty, and the plump, sweet mussels were cleaned and cooked well. This special is an excellent deal as long as you eat more than one plate of mussels.
I'd also like to try the spaghetti with baseball-sized meatballs ($15.95), probably the restaurant's most popular dish. The spaghetti was the tastiest of the pasta shapes and an adorable toddler seated to my left one evening expressed his strong approval for the dish.
Some of the desserts are house made and some, such as the gelatos, are imported from Italy. The cannoli were filled with sweetened mascar pone cheese, rather than the more traditional ricotta, which added a pleasant hint of sourness ($8). In general, however, I'd probably skip dessert and just stuff myself with mussels.
The outdoor seating is very attractive, but when those tables are full or rain threatens, the intimate dining room is equally charming. Black beams contrast with walls painted a distinctly Italian orange-rust color and framed drawings lend additional Italianate charm. It's cozy without feeling cramped, and carpeting and acoustic panels suggest that the room wouldn't get too loud, even if totally full.
It would be nice to eat off of more elegant plates and drink out of finer wine glasses. These elements aren't as obvious, but they influence the overall atmosphere.
The restaurant does certain things very well, and it clearly understands the art of hospitality. Now would be the perfect time to re-evaluate the restaurant and make changes to strengthen the menu and ultimately make the restaurant more profitable.
The restaurant is introducing Sunday suppers starting April 5, where they'll offer a limited menu and a family-style feature of spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna or other crowd-pleasers. These more focused meals may offer the kitchen an opportunity to shine.
Pizzutti's has so much going for it -- a great location, an invested owner, a passionate staff -- but right now the restaurant's standards need to be realigned not only with a more knowledgeable dining public but also with a stronger, more sophisticated restaurant scene.