Dining Review: MT. Lebanon native lives his dream on the street where he was raised

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Jeff Iovino grew up on Beverly Road in Mt. Lebanon. His parents still live in the family home there, and his grown sister resides on the same street. He was a student at Mt. Lebanon High School (class of 1992) when he got his first job as a dishwasher at Bado's Pizzaria at 307 Beverly Road. On April 5 of this year, Iovino's lifelong dream came true when he opened Iovino's Cafe at 300A Beverly Road, directly across the street from his first employer. He had spent 14 years preparing for this moment.

Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Owner and chef Jeff Iovino presents sliced seared tuna with maui onion-ponzu sauce, papaya-mango sushi rice salad and vegetable spring rolls in the dining room Iovino's Cafe in Mt. Lebanon.
Click photo for larger image.

Iovino's Cafe

300A Beverly Road
Mt. Lebanon

Hours: Tuesdays-Saturdays: lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner 5-10 p.m.
Basics: A light and airy storefront in Mt. Lebanon that attracts a local clientele along with food lovers from the region who come for the high-quality cuisine and interesting menu. Friendly service and casual atmosphere fit well with the venue.
Prices: Appetizers, $3-$8; entrees, $5-$9 at lunch, $10-$32, dinner; desserts, $4-$6; BYOB, $2 per stem charge.
Summary: No smoking; accessible; major credit cards accepted. Parking on street with meters until 6 p.m.

Following high school, Iovino left Pittsburgh to attend Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, S.C., where he earned a degree in Culinary Arts. He spent a summer working on a fishing trawler in Alaska and developed a passion for fish. The dream he had of owning a restaurant on Beverly Road eventually brought him back to Pittsburgh.

For the past four years, he had worked for The big Burrito Restaurant Group at Soba on Ellsworth Avenue. On his days off, he was consulting with property managers, searching for a site for his own restaurant in his old neighborhood. The business district there is a lively block with sushi and pizza restaurants, two banks, a hardware store, coffee roasters, an ice cream parlor, a framing gallery, a gift shop and a florist. When a fine accessories store on the block closed last fall, Iovino jumped in and grabbed the space. Now he and his wife, Carol, are living their dream.

The cafe seats 45 guests in a bright, uncluttered space. A giant reproduction of Monet's "Water Lilies" hangs on one wall, a soothing infusion of blues and lavender on the pale background. The bleached hardwood floors and tables covered in white linen decorated with short vases containing a single orange or yellow gerbera daisy follow the same modern, minimalist principles. The room is inviting and cheerful. It is filled mainly with folk from the neighborhood ... Iovino's neighborhood.

The menu changes daily, with a few core selections usually available. The lunch menu features salads and sandwiches in addition to a limited number of appetizers and entrees. This cafe caters to vegetarians with a number of interesting options. Most of the produce used here is both locally grown and organic. Lunchtime appetizers are all suitable for vegetarians. Mushroom "Escargot" ($6) is a bowl of sauteed Pennsylvania mushrooms that bear some resemblance, when cooked, to a cooked snail, hence the "escargot." The chef has given them the traditional escargot seasoning -- chopped parsley, butter and garlic. There is also a Vegetable Spring Roll ($4) filled with crunchy raw veggies and marinated tempeh. Tempeh originated several hundred years ago in Indonesia, and in the past few years it has become a popular ingredient on vegetarian menus. Made from fermented soybeans, it is a complete protein food containing all the amino acids. The flavor is nutty and mushroom-like; the texture, firm and chewy. It was a nice addition to the usual spring roll ingredients. Fresh ginger added to the sweet and sour dipping sauce gave the roll some extra punch. Fried Tofu ($4) was less appealing. The pieces were small though the quantity was large. The overall impression was simply that of eating something fried. It could have been potato bits or anything white and soft. The tofu taste was left behind in the fryer.

If you like soup, you shouldn't pass up an opportunity to try Chef Jeff's Tomato and Basil Soup ($3). The creamy base is laced with chunks of tomato and bursting with basil aroma. I rarely enjoy soups, but when I tasted this one, I was sorry not to have ordered it.

I love the fact that all of the salad offerings are different. This is not a case of mixed greens with a variety of garnishes. The four Iovino salads are distinct: a mixed salad ($4), a classic Caesar ($6), a roasted vegetable ($5) and an Asian slaw topped with fried crab cakes ($8).

Ever heard of a PLT sandwich? Nor had I, and I had to rely on the menu's fine print for an explanation. Turns out the "P" stands for portobello. The mushrooms have been shaved into paper-thin slices and deep fried until they become as crisp as bacon. Combined with lettuce, tomato and red pepper aioli on white or wheat BreadWorks bread, this was a divine discovery. All sandwiches come with a choice of regular fries, sweet potato fries or a side salad. My conscience knew that salad was the right choice, but I couldn't resist the voice whispering "sweet potato" in my ear. These fries are pure ambrosia. The PLT is $6.

Sandwiches range from $5 to $8. The Turkey Confit sandwich is made from whole turkeys baked in-house. It is unlike just about any turkey you have ever tasted. Not just different, but better. I was not crazy about the Spicy Lamb Curry Wrap. There was little spice and even less lamb, and the flatbread was more like a pizza bottom, too thick and too bready to wrap around the lamb. Pan Seared Flounder served with sliced heirloom tomatoes and asparagus tips is also $8.

The appetizer menu at dinner varies little from the lunch menu, but there is frequently the addition of a tempura fried sushi roll, a sashimi fish option served on rice cakes and a seared rare filet mignon with teriyaki glaze and chilled asparagus tips. All are $8. Appetizers come on geometric-shaped plates that emphasize the artistic presentations.

The dinner menu is a work of art. Prices start at $10 for linguini with fresh basil pesto, cherry tomatoes, red and yellow peppers, shaved parmesan and toasted pine nuts or seared mushroom pasta with red and yellow peppers, spinach, tomatoes, fresh herbs and marsala wine over cavatappi pasta. Spicy tempeh ($12) comes wrapped in flaky pastry as Iovino's interpretation of South America's empenada. He serves it with saffron rice, smoked tomato salsa and fried spinach. The latter is something special and unrelated to sauteed spinach. Whole spinach leaves are dunked into a deep fryer just long enough to make them crisp and crunchy and a whole new shade of green.

Seared Sea Scallops ($22), with grilled portobello and red pepper salsa and served over freshly made black pepper linguini tossed in apple butter and porcini cream sauce, is a sublime dish. The sauce is made from slices of Granny Smith apples that are briefly sauteed, coated in porcini mushroom dust and then glazed with brown sugar, which adds a sweet touch. The pan is deglazed with marsala wine, giving the sauce a subtle second layer of sweetness, and then doused with heavy cream. Scallops never tasted better. Crispy Duck Breast ($20) came with duck confit risotto and was a hit with everyone in my party. (Yes, we all taste from each other's plates and vote on the favorite.) Marinated Grilled Flank Steak ($16) is served with grilled zucchini, portobello-pancetta hash and roasted tomato sauce. The glory of a good restaurant is that the sides served with each entree differ widely and are based on what best complements the dish rather than putting the same starch and same vegetable medley on every plate.

The only dessert currently being made in the kitchen is Creme Brulee ($5). A professional Mt. Lebanon pastry chef supplies a delicious Chocolate Mousse Cake ($6) and an Apple Tart ($4). For the present, the cafe is BYOB. Corkage is $2 per stem. The large wine glasses made of quality crystal are well shaped to improve the taste of the wine.

Iovino's Cafe suffers from an illness found in too many restaurants today. When the room is full, the noise factor is such that conversation becomes difficult. Tables are tightly spaced, and most surfaces are hard. The owner is aware of the problem and is working with an engineer to install ceiling panels that will absorb some of the sound. In the meantime, he could turn off the eight speakers spread around the dining room that add a layer of music to the din of happy diners enjoying his fine cuisine.

It is so nice to see Beverly Road's own Jeff Iovino living his dream.

Elizabeth Downer can be reached at edowner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1454.


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