Say 'Happy Valentine's Day' with a home-cooked meal, an unusual dessert or an enticing elixir

Plan a meal at home

Despite its association with hearts and candies, Valentine's Day need not be saccharine. A little thoughtfulness and even a sense of adventure can transform a sugary holiday into a sincere showing of affection for a lover, family member or friend.

No need to worry that today is the 11th hour. When it comes to eating and drinking there's still time to pull something together. Here are a dozen ideas for showing heart by way of the palate.

"We have really nice cuts on special because so many people cook at home for Valentine's Day," said DJ Smulick, owner of DJ's Butcher Block. The butcher shop sells locally raised, grass-fed cuts, which will include T-bone steaks and rib-eye ($9.50/pound), as well as veal shanks for osso buco ($8/pound) and rack of lamb ($15/pound). For cooking suggestions, the chef-turned-butcher said he's always available to help.

DJ's Butcher Block, 4623 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield, 412-621-3100.

Now that the restaurant has a liquor license, Penn Ave. Fish Company, Downtown, is booked solid all weekend, said co-owner Henry Dewey. But the shop in the Strip District will have plenty of provisions on hand. They'll include the most popular Valentine's Day items, live lobsters and lobster tails, as well as salmon fillets. Oysters are also a best-seller for the holiday, perhaps because of their reputation as an aphrodisiac.

Penn Ave. Fish Company, 2208 Penn Ave., Strip District, 412-434-7202, or 308 Forbes Ave., Downtown, 412-562-1710.

For those who don't have time to cook, a stop by the Italian specialty shops can be a good bet.

"We have men come in all the time who want to cook for their wives," said James Luvara of Groceria Italiana in Bloomfield. "And we take care of them."

He suggests "fixings for a salad," with a main course of ravioli ($7.25-$8 per dozen) with tomato sauce ($6.49) as well as lasagna or eggplant parmesan ($14.95), followed by tiramisu ($7.50), all made at the shop.

Grocery Italiana, 237 Cedarville St., Bloomfield, 412-681-1227.

Put together a grazing plate with a vegetable giardiniera, cured meats and cheeses such as the tart goat's milk cheese from Lombardy, Nocetto di Capra ($14.69/pound) or a semi-firm sheep's milk cheese, Pecorino Crotonese ($11.29/pound). For discerning types, there's Caciocavallo Ragusano ($15.19/pound), a cow's milk cheese made in Sicily since the 1500s that becomes spicier with age.

Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., 2010 Penn Ave., Strip District. 412-471-8330.

Explore a tucked-away ethnic restaurant

Tucked on a side street in South Oakland, Korea Garden is a fun place for adventurous dining. Start with banchan, small side dishes such as bean sprouts in sesame oil, garlic eggplant, seaweed greens or mushrooms. These gratis plates offer a parade of flavors to enjoy before dishes arrive or to be used as garnishes.

Follow it up with fried pork dumplings ($8.95), served with ssamjang, a vinegar and soy dipping sauce and the hae mul pa jun -- seafood and vegetable pancakes ($14.95). A round layered with meaty shrimp and squid contrasts with the sharpness of green onion. Coated with a sheen of oil, these pancakes are a guilty pleasure.

Korea Garden, 414 Semple St., Oakland. 412-681-6460.

Though Udipi Cafe is likely to be crowded, efficient service means the wait is never long. Be sure to order the bhatura ($3.99), a flaky, buttery bread that arrives in a puff bigger than a football. The baingan bharta ($8.49), roasted eggplant with onion, chili and mustard oil, is especially satisfying, as is the thali ($12.99), a delicious selection of south Indian dishes that's perfect for sharing.

Udipi Cafe, 4141 Old William Penn Highway, Monroeville, 412-373-5581.

Skip dinner and go for drinks

Until 8 p.m. at the brewery and 6 p.m. at Pittsburgh Public Market, East End Brewing will pour year-round and seasonal beers. They include Chocolate Covered Cherry Stout made with dark chocolate and Michigan sour cherries or the Snow Melt Winter Ale, a malty, lightly spiced brew. While the Public Market location is easier to get to, there's more to learn at the brewery and tap room.

East End Brewing Co., 147 Julius St., East Liberty, 412-537-2337, and 2401 Penn Ave., Strip District.

Acacia, a comely cocktail bar on the South Side, serves some of the finest cocktails in the city. They include the Bacardi Amour, a steely, iridescent purple cocktail made with Bacardi special-release rum, Dolin vermouth and Parfait d'Amour, a spirit with notes of rose petals, almonds and vanilla. Traditionalists may find the Whiskey Martini intriguing, an elixir of Jacob's Ghost white whiskey, the crisp and citrusy Cocchi Americano and Angostura bitters. All cocktails are $10.

Acacia, 2108 E. Carson St., South Side, 412-488-1800.

Dine late-night, no reservations required

With Kevin Sousa having departed for his upcoming restaurant in Braddock, the terrific Chad Townsend has taken the helm at Salt of the Earth, which will continue to serve food until 1 a.m. every day. The late menu includes the popular burger with housemade American cheese as well as hot chicken on white bread with pickles.

For more tailored dishes the full menu is also available with a new addition: a four-course vegetarian menu for $45. For now, it starts with endive, broccolini, pomegranate and radishes followed by a salsify gratin with shallots, roasted trumpet mushrooms and Pecorino Romano. Cauliflower meuniere rounds out the savory dishes with brown butter, capers and golden raisins. For dessert, Mr. Townsend riffs on a Rice Krispies treat with farro dressed in a marshmallow glaze, dark chocolate and peanuts, joined by a scoop of banana ice cream.

For an additional $15, diners can opt for the nonalcoholic drink pairing from bartender Jeremy Bustamante, such as the fennel, grapefruit and vanilla cocktail, as well as other fruit- and vegetable- based concoctions.

Salt of the Earth, 5523 Penn Ave., Garfield, 412-441-7258.

Housemade pierogies with greens may be a Pittsburgher's idea of love at Butterjoint, the casual sibling to Legume in Oakland. The bar is first-come, first-served seating with a late-night happy hour and special menu for the holiday from 10 p.m. to midnight.

Butterjoint, 214 N. Craig St., Oakland, 412-621-2700.

Satisfy a sweet tooth

For single-origin chocolate bars, there's Mon Aimee Chocolat in the Strip, where owner Amy Rosenfield stocks an array of chocolates and gelati. For chocolate aficionados, she recommends Fresco from Washington State, single-origin bars from Peru, Papua New Guinea, Dominican Republic and Madagascar.

"I like the textures as well as different roasts," she said. "You can compare a medium roast against a dark roast."

She also recommends Ritual craft chocolate from Colorado and the San Francisco-based Dandelion chocolate. All bars run between $7.95 and $14.

Mon Aimee Chocolat, 2101 Penn Ave., 412-395-0022.

Stick with a strawberry milkshake or splurge on a tiramisu milkshake ($5.20) at Klavon's Ice Cream parlor in the Strip. For a more decadent dessert suited for sharing, there's the Amaretto sundae ($5.50) with two scoops of Death by Chocolate ice cream topped with Amaretto syrup, whipped cream and cherries.

New owners Desiree and Jacob Hanchar have made Klavon's the only shop in town to sell ice cream from Penn State Creamery, the largest university creamery in the U.S.

Founded in 1865, the creamery offers more than 100 flavors and boasts founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry's among alumni of its ice cream course.

Klavon's Ice Cream Parlor, 2801 Penn Ave., Strip District, 412-434-0451.

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