Greens, beans and other Italian dishes draw regulars to Legends of the North Shore
Simple dishes and warm service define North Side restaurant
September 26, 2013 8:00 AM
"The restaurant business is really difficult," says Dan Bartow, owner of Legends of the North Shore. "It's a challenge to keep up standards and that's my priority."
Dining area at Legends of the North Shore restaurant on the North Side.
By Melissa McCart Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"It's just so simple," said Dan Bartow, chef at Legends of the North Shore, of his greens and beans. "The Italians can turn peasant food into a delightful dish."
At the table, I fork greens to unleash the heady fragrance of garlic and parmesan. Halfway between a stew and a side, spinach, radicchio and endive join cannellini beans that retain some bite, seasoned with salt and garlic and shredded parmesan.
Greens and beans are ubiquitous on Pittsburgh Italian menus. With a hint of bitter minus meat, the side is often an afterthought.
Greens and beans, mozzarella, hot antipasto, mussels diablo, chicken parmigiano, gnocchi Bolognese.
Handicapped accessible, street parking, credit cards, BYOB.
To make it more alluring, some restaurants assemble busier versions spiked with ground veal, grilled shrimp or chicken. They toss it with roasted red peppers and serve it with grilled bread. To a purist, this is sacrilege.
Swiss chard, escarole, kale and all varieties of hearty greens are becoming more popular, and with that, greens and beans. It can be a sonorous dish, as worthy of affection as meatballs or Sunday sauce. And Legends does it well.
Greens and beans led to this review of a restaurant that has not been evaluated for nearly a decade. When I asked friends and colleagues where to find their favorite version of the side dish, most suggested this place.
Legends is a charming neighborhood restaurant with a static menu of Italian dishes that does not disappoint. Warm service, a quirky dining room and a cast of loyalists make for an authentic dining experience, which is refreshing in this period of dining concepts and themed restaurants.
Located next to Allegheny General Hospital, it isn't going to trot out a lineup of local farmers like a starring roles' list at the bottom of the menu. And it's not going to expand or revamp a 10-year-old dining room beyond some sprucing.
Its exterior beckons with checkered green and yellow panels on a rehabbed old house that Mr. Bartow restored with funding from the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority when he opened. The name seems to overreach its intentions until it's learned that the restaurant is named for the former Legends on the Green in Upper St. Clair, where Mr. Bartow had been part-owner. "It was about golfers," he said. "I wanted fans of that restaurant to know where I relocated."
The interior of the North Shore restaurant now nods to legends of a different sort, with a pastiche of faded Steelers and Pirates photos and the occasional stained-glass wallhanging.
Legends is part Italian diner, part home: Mr. Bartow's home, since he's here all the time. "The restaurant business is really difficult," he said. "It's a challenge to keep up standards and that's my priority."
It's his family's priority, too. As Mr. Bartow cooks, his wife Zoe runs the front of the house with his children, Kristopher and Danyelle.
Before one visit, indecision led me to buy bottles of valpolicella and chablis for two diners, last-minute purchases from a lean corner wine shop. A server lingered at the table before opening the bottles, chatting about baseball and the menu. On her black button-down, she wore a "My name is" tag.
Food arrives promptly, such as a hot antipasto that's a modest display of grilled artichokes and roasted red peppers garnished with gorgonzola, but not too much. The dish is a fine starter, although I wish for another roasted vegetable on the plate during the peak of the growing season.
Mozzarella arrives as super-pedestrian sticks with marinara, yet the cheese is homemade and it's fatty and creamier than I expected.
Sweet Prince Edward Island mussels wear a cloak of marinara the chef calls "Mama's gravy" that's his grandmother's recipe. "Everyone has a family recipe, it seems," said Mr. Bartow. "It gets conversations started. It's kind of funny, in the way that people talk about how different one street is from another five blocks away in the same neighborhood. Sauces are specific to people's memory, even if they're not that different."
That sauce is all over the menu, from the chicken parmigiano with a seasoned flour batter atop al dente spaghetti. A little bit of lemon brightens the dish. The basic rendition makes it one of my favorite versions in the city.
The flavor of Mama's gravy is nearly lost on eggplant al forno, dominated by smoked mozzarella and sweet sausage and weighted by polenta. Although Mr. Bartow is restrained in most dishes, with so many heavy ingredients, this one is a football on a plate.
Other hearty dishes are more pleasing such as gnocchi Bolognese that satiates a craving for slow-cooked meat sauce; or the penne vodka with tomato basil cream and prosciutto.
My table seems to be the only one not filled with regulars, such as the crew of old high school cronies who dine here weekly, or the couples who did not come together, but nevertheless share wine across the aisle.
It's no surprise that this family-run restaurant attracts them, too. A table of eight celebrates a mother's midweek birthday, an animated clan that treated the dining room as their own. After singing and cake, the kids bolted from the table, waiting outside on a warm summer night as their mother paid the bill.