Conventional wisdom is that Pittsburgh is a "private club" city when it comes to fine dining. This might have been true when the city's steel and coal and oil and banking moguls preferred to dine in the confines of their strongholds, but with the decline of that era came the birth of public places offering fine food.The Common Plea's chef John Brush and owner John Barsotti bring out a special veal dish.(Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette)
The Common Plea is a place which to some degree bridges the two worlds. Walking into the quiet, paneled dining room at lunch time gives one the impression of entering a traditional men's club. The polished brass chandeliers cast low lights on the wood patina and the tables are filled with people in serious business attire who look as though they have serious business to discuss. The subdued colors of the furnishings, the bright white of the starched linens and the European paintings and etchings that hang on the walls add to the clubby atmosphere.
Because of the location of the Common Plea, in the heart of the government and legal neighborhood of Pittsburgh (and just behind the courthouse), many of Pittsburgh's power-players meet here to move and shake.
The Common Plea
308 Ross St.
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Hours: Tuesdays-Saturdays lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, 5-10 p.m.
Basics: Continental cuisine with a heavy Italian influence served in elegant surroundings. Good service and exceptionally low sound level. Interesting wines from $25-$125 per bottle or various prices by the glass. Appetizers, $3.95-$13.95; entrees, $14.95-$32 at dinner, $9.75-$13.50 at lunch. Desserts, all $4.95. All major credit cards except Discover accepted. No wheelchair access. Parking next door after 5:30 p.m., $5. On-street parking available in the evening.
The luncheon menu satisfies all comers. From appetizers, which are almost all small portion meals such as scampi with spinach in a garlic wine sauce ($10.50) to a tempting variety of salads, sandwiches, pastas and fish or veal entrees, the kitchen satisfies its demanding audience. One can return on almost a daily basis and never tire of the offerings.
A favorite salad of mine is the fresh spinach and strawberries. It may sound like a strange combination but the flavors actually marry quite well when tossed with a sweet and sour dressing and served topped with grilled chicken breast ($9.95). The six pasta offerings include both house-made gnocchi or ravioli ($9.95) or dried pastas such as pappardelle with wild mushroom sauce ($10.95).
Sandwiches are served with crispy shoestring potatoes for the carb lovers, but the Common Plea offers an uncommon attraction for the low-fat and low-calorie diner. On the menu is a "Spa Omelet," a three-egg white omelet with mushrooms, onions and tomatoes with a fruit garnish. The menu states that this option has 97 calories and 2 grams of fat! We applaud the chef's effort to win the obesity war while wondering how many of Pittsburgh lawyers and judges have been tempted by this healthy option. The chef also offers to meet the fat and calorie guidelines of Shadyside Hospital's "Dining with Heart" program.
Seven luncheon entrees of veal, chicken and fish round out the menu. I was not overly enthusiastic with my broiled scrod. According to the menu it was topped with seasoned bread crumbs but I think someone forgot the seasoning entirely as it was bland and tasteless and accompanied by a nice stalk of steamed broccoli which also needed some embellishment ($10.50). The same was true of the broiled scallops (12.95).
As much as the Common Plea evokes a private club atmosphere at lunch, in the evening it becomes a refined continental dining room. The room is quiet and inviting. The tables sparkle with linen and crystal and silver while the relatively small space gives a feeling of elegance and intimacy. Conversation is easy and the wait staff, while capable, knows how to allow for the privacy and enjoyment of its diners.
The dinner menu is a variation on the luncheon menu without sandwiches. My personal favorite in the appetizer section is the Tuscan Flat Bread (7.95) and I would love to see it on the sandwich menu at lunch. It should be noted that this appetizer can easily serve four. It is platter-sized flat bread covered with sauteed prosciutto and arugula and fresh chopped tomatoes ... a sort of ultrathin-crust pizza perfection. The stuffed clam maison appetizer ($7.95) unfortunately suffered from some of the same faults as the scrod and scallops at lunch, i.e., a heavy hand with bread crumbs and a lack of seasoning.
Owner Donna Barsotti introduced veal chop Capricciosa ($31) to the menu some years ago after discovering a similar entree in an Italian restaurant. It has become the house specialty and always remains on the menu, which otherwise changes with the seasons. The veal chop has been butterflied and marinated in egg, garlic and sage before being sauteed and topped with a salad of arugula and tomato in lemon dressing. I prefer the more simple broiled veal chop with a sauce of prosciutto and porcini mushrooms ($29.95). At a neighboring table I heard two men exclaiming to their companions that this was by far the most flavorful veal chop they had ever eaten. Although I haven't yet ordered it, the bouillabaisse ($30.95) sounds like a winner. Side dishes such as sauteed wild mushrooms or baby spinach or whipped potatoes are available for $3.95 to $4.95.
I cannot say that the Common Plea desserts are their strong point. The fruit tray that once came with all dinners has sadly disappeared, but the cenci, fingers of fried dough dusted with powdered sugar, remain as a sweet offering to all comers. The more elaborate desserts were a bit conventional. Cheesecake, chocolate mousse, tiramisu, pecan ball ice cream with fudge or caramel sauce (all $4.95) didn't seem worth the calories. Sabayon with fresh strawberries, however, sounded like a perfect light ending to a rather filling meal. The strawberries alone or in a light crme anglaise would have been more to my liking. The sabayon was far weightier than what I expected. Perhaps the best of all would be a glass of interesting port, madeira or sherry that owner John Barsotti has personally selected. He also oversees the wine purchases, which consist primarily of Italian and California wines. The prices range from the mid-twenties to $125 per bottle. A small selection of wines is available by the glass.
John and Donna Barsotti opened the Common Plea 33 years ago on the site of Luca's Bar and Grill and the Ross Dairy Store and it has changed little over the years. It remains a haven of tasteful elegance and fine dining. Pittsburgh is indeed fortunate to have this home-grown establishment.
Elizabeth Downer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org