Diners beat the odds at the Meadows' Bistecca Steakhouse


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We've all heard the saying "The house always wins," and I have no doubt that's as true at the Meadows Casino and Racetrack as it is anywhere else. But if you'd like to take in the coin-jingling, bell-ringing atmosphere (or you're just looking for a nice place to have dinner in Washington County), Bistecca Steakhouse is a solid bet.

Bistecca is a member of the Pipa restaurant group, which also owns Cioppino in the Strip District. Greg Alauzen is the corporate executive chef of the Pipa group, and there are certain similarities between the two menus. Day-to-day, the Bistecca kitchen is run by Joe Nolan, previously executive chef at Cafe Allegro, which closed last October after 22 years of business.

The name suggests a steakhouse with an Italian flavor, but the Mediterranean influence is subtle. For the most part, you can expect classic steakhouse dishes, impeccably prepared, such as a bouquet of jumbo shrimp cocktail ($13), the tails curled upwards; or a side dish of bright green creamed spinach ($7) perfumed with nutmeg.


Bistecca

Food:


2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained

Service:


1 1/2 stars = Good+
Ratings explained

Atmosphere:


2 1/2 stars = Average
Ratings explained

Overall:


2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained

Meadown Racetrack & Casino
210 Race Track Road
North Strabane, Washington County
724-503-1510

http://www.bisteccapittsburgh.com

Hours: Monday-Sunday, 4-11 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

Basics: An oasis away from the ringing of slot machines; all the classics from shrimp cocktail to filet oscar. Don't forget to ask for a table with a view of the racetrack.

Recommended dishes: Shrimp cocktail, spinach salad with smoked bacon and goat cheese dressing, grilled salmon with wild mushroom risotto and roasted vegetables, filet Oscar, ribeye with Barolo wine sauce, potatoes au gratin, creamed spinach, broccoli, panna cotta and zabaglione.

Prices: Appetizers, $7-$13; entrees, $21-$32; a la carte steaks, $28-$35; sides, $5-$7; desserts, $4-$6.

Wine and cocktails: Nine "apertivi," including some classics (Negroni, Bellini) and some house specialties; well-executed cocktails are an unexpected bonus. Twenty-five wines by the glass, more than 100 by the bottle, with a focus on offerings from Italy and the United States. White wine by the glass starts at $7.50; by the bottle, $28, with 12 bottles for $40 or less. About two-thirds of the list is devoted to red wine, starting at $8.50 by the glass and $34 by the bottle; 23 bottles for $50 or less. Mark-ups range between 200 and 300 percent, with more expensive wines generally marked up less.

Summary: Wheelchair-accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations encouraged for window-side tables; corkage $15.

Noise level: Low.


Two excellent appetizers are borrowed from sister-restaurant Cioppino. Fried calamari and preserved lemon with parsley garlic mayonnaise ($9) is delicious. Though it's a touch heavy on the breading, the pieces of fried preserved lemon are tantalizing surprises, refreshing and invigorating the palate. Spinach salad with frisee, smoked bacon and a creamy goat cheese dressing ($8) was a lovely combination of smoky, salty and sweet, the slight bitterness of the frisee the perfect balancing note.

The steaks come from Chicago stockyards, and while the meat doesn't have the complex flavors of long, dry-aging, they do benefit from good marbling and proper cooking. A 12-ounce delmonico ($31) was a thing of beauty, proudly unadorned on a plate. Bistecca doesn't go in for the sizzling platter gimmick beloved by so many steakhouses, but still manages to serve its steaks both hot and well-rested. Barolo wine sauce ($3) was a lovely addition to the 18-ounce, bone-in ribeye ($28), which had textbook grill-marks and tender, juicy meat.

For an over-the-top experience, try the filet Oscar ($35), an exquisitely tender steak topped with jumbo lump crab meat, a few spears of asparagus, and a gloriously rich hollandaise sauce.

Though adding on side dishes will quickly increase the price of dinner, it does allow each diner to assemble the perfect plate. A small plate was totally filled with a crown of broccoli, each sweet bite enriched by a bit of melted butter. There's no better starch than the potatoes au gratin ($7), a creamy, elegant dish that Julia Child herself would have been proud to claim.

There are plenty of non-steak options as well, and these dishes generally come as complete meals, vegetable and starch included. Grilled salmon with wild mushroom risotto and roasted vegetables ($24) was as lovely as it was delicious, with its gorgeous array of fall colors, from the dark pink of the salmon to the vibrant red, orange and green of bell pepper, carrot and zucchini. The grill marks on the salmon filet were a touch dark, but the thick piece of fish had clearly been cooked fast and hot, so while the surface was scorched, the interior was incredibly moist and buttery. The risotto was superb, one of the best versions I've ever been served in a restaurant. Each bite was the perfect balance of al dente grains of rice and the creamy sauce that forms as the rice slowly releases its starch into the broth. Slightly less Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese would have let the flavor of shitake and cremini mushrooms come through a bit more, but the generous showering of black pepper was an exciting flourish.

Seared jumbo prawns with limoncello pan sauce and asparagus risotto ($26) sounds beautifully Italian but was less impressive. The shrimp were gorgeous -- butterflied seared in their shell almost like broiled lobster -- but the risotto was overcooked and the limoncello sauce was far too sweet in this savory dish.

Desserts were more uneven than the entrees. Arborio rice pudding ($6) tasted a bit like oatmeal, the rice cooked to a stodgy mass and overwhelmed by a heavy dusting of cinnamon. The warm chocolate skillet cake looked adorable, but the cake was dry and grainy. The best desserts were the custards -- a frothy zabaglione ($6) tossed with lots of strawberries, blackberries and raspberries; and a smooth, sweet panna cotta ($6) with a hidden layer of raspberry jam.

Service is also a bit disjointed. One server was polished and professional, attentively filling water and checking on our table, even consistent about serving from the right and clearing from the left. During a later visit, when the restaurant was actually busier, it was impossible to ignore the group of servers frequently congregating in the middle of the dining room to chat. Our server that evening practically dropped plates down on the table, and was aggressive about recommending desserts. Early in the meal when I inquired about the temperature (I was not the only guest clutching my coat around me), she said there was nothing they could do about it, it was always too cold -- no apology, no attempt at a solution. I suggested that she should at least pass on the complaint, so that it might eventually be taken care of, and she simply shrugged, unconcerned. Though her attitude was uninviting, the rudiments of service were still observed, and both meals were extremely well-paced.

Other than the temperature issues, the dining room is attractive and comfortable, with well-cushioned chairs, expanses of white linen and lovely black-and-white photos of the Italian countryside. The dropped ceiling of acoustic tiles is highly functional (Bistecca is very quiet) but unsightly. Dimming the lighting might also have a positive effect on the atmosphere.

The view of the racetrack is a surprisingly festive addition, even when the horses are in their stables. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant is much busier during the races, which currently run from 6:20 to about 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday. If you're in the gambling spirit, you can even bet on your favorite horse from your seat. Theoretically, you could win enough to cover your tab; if your losses are substantial, the casino might comp your meal. Whether you win, lose, or stay away from the slots, odds are good you'll walk away from Bistecca happy.


China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow China on Twitter at http://twitter.com/chinamillman .


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