Down a flight of steps, through a door, hang a left, navigate the secret passageway, crawl on your belly beneath a canopy of electrified barbed wire: However you get there, and whatever its name, the bar and restaurant stuffed into the basement floor of the Fourth Avenue Law & Finance Building has always excelled at hiding in plain sight. These days, the space known for decades as the Three Lions pub and, later, Scoglio’s Downtown, now goes by “Storms,” a below-ground Italian bistro that first surfaced seven years ago, named for the chef who took over the lease.
That chef, Rob Storms, has floated around the Pittsburgh restaurant scene in the manner that all chefs do, starting at Scoglio’s, then helping to open Jamie’s on the Square and Piccolina’s Restaurant in Upper St. Clair. In 2007, he again moved Downtown and put his own name on the shingle.
Despite its subterranean dimness — or, just as likely, because of it — the space has always been a favorite spot for courthouse employees, attorneys and the occasional city politician. They are still drawn here for lunch, dining amid a decor that might best be described as a “club cellar Italianate” — some stucco, some dark woods, portraits of wine bottles hanging on the walls. You know the look. All that’s missing is the checkered tablecloths and a photo of Pope John XXIII over the bar.
If the decor is traditional, so is the menu, and Chef Storms brings with him many of the mainstays that for 16 years made Jamie’s on the Square such a popular spot. And what made it such a popular spot? Spot, for one — Virginia spots, specifically. “Where else could one find well-prepared Virginia spots served with a tangy lemon beurre blanc and a side dish and preceded by a large mixed green salad for the price of a burger and fries?” asked former PG critic Elizabeth Downer, reviewing Jamie’s Dormont location.
Where indeed? But that value still exists at Storms, where spot fish — an inexplicable Pittsburgh favorite, particularly since no one outside of the region calls them Virginia spots — remain on the menu, with the exact same breaded and lemon beurre blanc preparation, for $11.95. Add a crabcake, as I did, and the bill lifts marginally, to $14.95. I suppose the dish brings back memories of post-war dining and Duquesne Club elegance, and I suppose that’s why so many still crave it.
Pittsburghers of a certain mindset also crave old-school Northern Italian cooking, which can be found in abundance at Storms. At dinner time, you’ll find a substantial and versatile pasta menu from which to choose (three noodles, six sauces, 18 possible permutations by my count), plus your usual chicken and veal dishes. Lunchtime will bring you meatball subs, soup and salad combos, and a lot of the same meat cuts and eggplant dishes that populate the dinner menu.
It is not inventive, but it is reliable, and dishes are prefaced with baskets of crusty sliced bread. You’ll note that at other restaurants — all stripes, not just Italian spots — upscale bread baskets have been making something of a comeback over the last few years, flanked with all variety of gourmet butters and whips and oils and mascarpone. But at places like Storms, bread never went out of style in the first place, something that diners who are looking for lunchtime value always appreciate.
Pittsburgh’s diners are growing ever-more sophisticated, and expect more from their restaurants today than they did when a decade ago when Jamie’s closed, or even seven years ago when Storms opened. Italian choices are abundant Downtown: Il Pizzaiolo, La Cucina Flegrea, Sienna Sulla Piazza, Vallozzi’s and others. Even so, Munch supposes there is, and always will be, room for a red-sauce joint like this one.
Storms Restaurant & Catering, 429 Fourth Ave., Downtown. Information: 412-288-4321 or www.stormsrestaurant.com. Open Monday through Friday, lunch and dinner.