Restaurants come and restaurants go. If you’re like me, you amble through the South Side every so often, see that a new place has opened and have a tough time recalling what occupied that particular storefront just two years ago.
Not so, though, at the Downtown intersection of Seventh Street and Penn Avenue, where it’s still a bit jarring to walk past and not see the pastel-green facade that for six decades housed Tambellini Seventh Street Ristorante, where Perry Como, Liberace, Luciano Pavarotti and, who knows, maybe even Robert Duvall have all sampled the menu’s most popular item: fried zucchini. In fact, eight months after the restaurant’s last call, I swear I sometimes still catch the faint, earthy scent of fried zucchini on the autumn breeze.
Or is that the faint, earthy scent of pizza dough baking in a wood-fired oven? Yes, I believe it is, now that the owners of Proper Brick Oven and Taproom have gutted the old Tambellini dining room, replaced the Tambellini kitchen and, most manifestly, shed the soft green paint job.
So long to Italian wine and osso buco, hello to beer and pizza — which, if you have any familiarity with this column, you’ll recognize as one of Munch’s favorite food-beverage combinations. Ideally, you’d combine these into a single foodstuff, but until the PLCB loosens up and allows me to ship a quarter-keg of Mamma Mia Pizza Beer directly to my front porch, I’ll have to ingest them separately, I guess.
Packing a powerful lunchtime hunger, I wandered into Proper this week. The rehab job is impressive, a handsome, dimly lit mix of masculine wood furnishings, cream-colored seats and lighting fixtures that stop just short of being precious (lamps made out of hanging Mason jars, lamps made out of wine bottles — you get the idea).
The lunch menu was sparse — three salads, four sandwiches, and seven pizzas, plus daily specials — but satisfying. A so-called “harvest pizza” ($16) was on the sweeter side, topped with chunks of roasted pumpkin and a few dashes of ubiquitous autumn spices, but that squashy sweetness was balanced somewhat by the sausage that accompanied it. One pie is enough for two to split, and some of them feature non-traditional toppings (beets, potatoes, clams, and more).
Sandwiches — here called puccias, suggesting they are wood-fired, just like the pizzas — are interesting, if not thoroughly filling. The guts of caprese puccia (tomato, basil pesto, mozzarella; $10) seemed more like a condiment spread than an actual sandwich. Perhaps a smaller bun, or even a flatbread, would allow the toppings to take center stage. Small quibble, I suppose, but when you’re paying a sawbuck for a sandwich, you want a sawbuck worth of sandwich, right? (The side order of house-made potato chips was addicting, though.)
The visual centerpiece of the restaurant is the C-shaped bar that faces the brick-backed draft board, which accounts for each of the 30 beers on tap. Owner Suzanne Hrach, and Jason Lockney, who manages the taps, want the focus to be regional, and this week the taps were drawing East End Brewing Black Strap Stout, an Erie Brewing Co. pumpkin ale, a Lancaster Brewing Co. porter, a Southern Tier 2x, a Penn Brewery rye IPA, and dozens more.
I liked the place, and I’ll return again and again. I suspect some may balk at paying nearly $20 for a pizza that runs on the small side, or $8 for a beer, but a Cultural District location means Cultural District prices (and in any event, Pizza Parma is right down the street if you want cheap and fast). Downtown needed a place like this — think a Fuel & Fuddle for the non-college crowd — and while I can’t predict they’ll occupy this slice of real estate for the next 63 years, I suspect they’ll be serving up beer and pizza here for a long time.
Proper Brick Oven and Taproom, 139 Seventh St., Downtown; 412-281-5700 or properpittsburgh.com.
Bill Toland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625.