At 8 p.m. on a recent Friday, a line snakes out the door of Girasole in Shadyside as people wait for the restaurant patriarch to add their names to the wait list.
Dressed in a black track suit, Jimmy Gerasole (yes, his last name is spelled differently from that of the restaurant) shuffles between tables and the crowd at the door.
In the 48-seat dining room, families fill four-tops. A father encourages his son to eat more pasta. Young women in jeans and fleeces work through their salads at a table near the front window, surrounded by waiting customers.
1 1/2 stars = Satisfactory+
733 Coopeland St.
11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 4-9 p.m. Sun.
Girasole is a family-run neighborhood staple serving large portions of rustic, seasonal Italian dishes in a tight dining room.
- Recommended Dishes:
Specials; polpette di vitello (meatballs); insalata Girasole; spinach and ricotta ravioli; potato gnocchi.
Prices: First course: $4-$14; second course: $19-$30.
First course: $4-$14; second course: $19-$30.
Summary: Street parking; credit cards accepted; no reservations; patio seating.
- Noise level:
Medium to loud.
"Stretch your arms out like you're yawning," said one, encouraging her friend at the end to grab some space.
Girasole joins Dish on the South Side and Piccolo Forno in Lawrenceville as among the more challenging restaurants in Pittsburgh to secure a seat. Folks in the Steel City, it seems, will wait for Italian food.
This is notable for such established restaurants as the Pittsburgh dining scene gains momentum. Piccolo Forno has served Lawrenceville for seven years; Dish and Girasole have been neighborhood staples since 2000.
It takes tenacity and attention to detail for restaurants to remain relevant in an era of stiff competition, especially when value, style and an artisan aesthetic are starting to dominate the landscape.
Girasole's relevance illuminates what appeals to many Pittsburgh diners.
The restaurant was born before cooking was elevated from a trade to an art, when bone marrow and pig ears were items for the dog, not the epicurean. Even with its fresh ingredients and seasonal menu, the restaurant, the name of which translates to "sunflower" in Italian, blossomed before farm-to-table became cliche.
A matronly dining room and gargantuan portions keep it old-school. So does the soul of the place, maintained by the Gerasoles. Many diners cite fond memories that include Mr. Gerasole, with his memorable expressions and sartorial sensibilities. He's joined by his wife, Patti, who steers marketing; his son Gino, the general manager; and his other son Vito, in charge of wine and service.
Then there's Jennifer, Mr. Gerasole's daughter-in-law, the wife of Gino and the executive chef who has shaped the menu since opening day.
"Everyone knows everyone in Pittsburgh and that's heightened in a restaurant like ours," she said.
Girasole also lures a crowd because of its location along one of Pittsburgh's shopping streets; it's a catch-all for students, families and couples.
Among the restaurant's strengths is the service. "The success is there is always a family member present," Jennifer Gerasole said. "It ensures things run smoothly and allows for us to control costs."
She noted many staff members in the front and back of the house have worked at the restaurant for years.
An oenophile should consult the terrific wine list, an all-Italian compilation that's ambitious yet accessible. "I wanted to gather wines with as much expression, with as much taste as Italian wines have to offer," said Vito Gerasole, sommelier. "I want to provide something that pleases everyone."
He does not include big, bold Super Tuscans among his selections. "There are so many others to try," he said.
Gems lie among the dinner specials. "Diners know a lot more about food now than when we first opened," Jennifer Gerasole said. "I can use more exciting ingredients or in some cases, customers often ask for them."
For an appetizer, Pernod and mussels ($12.99) is a show-stopper. Plump, fresh shellfish align a fragrant broth of anise-scented liquor laced with onions and roasted red peppers.
Also giving pause is anything with fresh truffles, such as the truffle ravioli ($17.99), a lusty garnish that pairs with a light cream sauce and prosciutto.
From the daily menu, skip the pasta fagioli ($3.99), which has a flabby broth overpopulated with celery.
Chalky beans pair with bitter greens ($7.99) layered with citrus and garlic, one of several vegetarian-friendly offerings that include tomato and ricotta bruschetta ($7.99) or the delightful Girasole salad ($7.99) of tomatoes, red onions, garbanzo beans and gorgonzola over arugula dressed in sunflower vinaigrette.
Among the main courses, the seafood of the day, scallops ($23.99) are underwhelming. Four hearty scallops with little caramelization flock a mound of cauliflower puree, which, after a few bites, comes to resemble paste.
On occasion, pasta can be starchy. The bruco ($17.99), which translates to "little caterpillars" served with pomodoro, truffles, rosemary and mascarpone, sounds delicious, but disappointed.
The spinach and ricotta ravioli ($15.99) usually are spot-on. Among the restaurant's best-sellers, so many packets line a bowl it resembles a pile of delicious mail.
Some entrees are whoppers, though that may be the point, whether it's the carnivore's favorite meat of the day (market), or the risotto ($19.99) with rosemary, parsnips and Marcona almonds. Don't feel compelled to finish a plate. Take home the leftovers, which are a rarity in many restaurants lately.
Although Jennifer Gerasole not always is in the kitchen, she does make pastries every morning. These include an off-menu dessert that diners must request: the amaretto bread pudding, which sells out when it's available. Six dollars is the cost of all desserts, which include lemon cake, coconut cream cake and panna cotta with brandied cherries.
With some incremental changes over the years, there are few surprises at Girasole. And for the throngs willing to wait, that's just fine.restaurantreviews
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.