Highland Park's E² offers comforting Italian fare all week long
January 13, 2011 5:00 AM
Chef Kate Romane holds a dish of farfalle with prosciutto cream and peas in the kitchen of E² in Highland Park.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
E² in Highland Park opened last year as a brunch spot and private party space -- the Highland Park offshoot of the Enrico Biscotti Co. bakery and cafe in the Strip District. The charming space, with its petite upstairs dining room, mismatched vintage chairs and walls adorned with framed family photos, quickly filled up on weekend mornings, hungry people irresistibly drawn to the bags of sourdough ginger sugar doughnuts, the poached eggs with focaccia, the grilled sausages over polenta drizzled with maple syrup.
There's often a wait for a seat at this Highland Park outpost of Enrico Biscotti that attracts Italian food lovers near and far with its frequently changing menu of casual dishes, with an emphasis on vegetable antipasti, pastas and braised meats.
: Caramelized onions, roasted garlic spread, mushroom arancini, grilled prosciutto, parmesan polenta, rigatoni with braised beef, ginger cake, pear tart.
OMG's (antipasti), $3; small plates, $6-$15; desserts, $6.
Wheelchair-accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations for parties of six or more; private party space available for groups of 10 to 100 downstairs; BYOB, corkage, $6.
Loud to extremely loud
Slowly, the cafe's hours expanded until E² became a full-fledged restaurant, serving lunch Tuesdays through Fridays and dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays along with weekend brunches. The dining room is quite small and evening hours draw a similar crowd, so waits aren't uncommon. If the downstairs space is filled with a private party, a server will take your name and phone number and call when a table is ready.
Once a seat has been secured, start with a selection of antipasti from the chalkboard menu. While nicknaming these items OMGs (short for "oh my gosh I am so hungry!") is annoyingly cute, it's accurate. They'll be on your table in minutes, accompanied by a plate of excellent grilled bread, crisp on the edges but still moist inside, just right for heaping with roasted vegetables or sopping up flavorful oil.
The selection changes frequently, but might include roasted carrots speckled with parsley, onions caramelized to a golden brown, or mozzarella marinated in rosemary and olive oil ($3). Occasionally, portions felt skimpy, like the bowl of a dozen or so olives or a half-dozen marinated anchovies. But the quality of the grilled bread makes up for many sins, and asking for multiple refills doesn't seem to be frowned upon; in fact, servers were endearingly quick to offer more bread, bring extra plates and replace tall bottles of tap water on each table.
The restaurant's casual aesthetic occasionally feels a touch lazy. The menu lists dishes with minimal regard to the structure of the meal, skipping from risotto to salads to braised oxtail to spaghetti. Servers instituted a little more order than the menu, as salads at least tended to precede pastas and braised meats, but diners might benefit by requesting more explicit coursing.
The menu also emphasizes sharing to an unusual extent for an Italian restaurant with relatively traditional portions, relying on the much-abused term "small plates" to transform moderate portions of salads and pastas into dishes designed for a group. Obey or ignore the menu directive as you like; I'd recommend following it for just a bit longer.
Continue the antipasti portion of the meal with an order of grilled prosciutto stuffed with fresh mozzarella and basil ($8) or mushroom arancini, both perfect for sharing. Thick-cut prosciutto held up well to the heat of the grill, while the sweet mozzarella and whole leaves of basil nicely balanced the salty richness of the wrapper. Mushroom arancini were another inspired finger food ($8), the risotto dumplings filled with chunks of mushroom along with the usual mozzarella and fried until incredibly crispy and crunchy.
Salads were consistently good, all variations on fresh greens with intensely flavored garnishes such as frisee with pomegranate seeds or watercress with pale green olives and grapefruit segments ($9). These were best ordered individually, as there's something terribly unsatisfying about nibbling on just a few forkfuls of greens.
Pastas divide better, and it can be fun to taste different shapes and sauces, but it's also lovely to sit over a solo bowl, like the rigatoni rich with chunks of braised beef in a loose red wine sauce, or a flavorful spaghetti tangled with grilled tomatoes and marinated artichoke hearts, crushed red pepper lending an occasional flash of heat ($14). Bright green peas and chunks of salty prosciutto added just the right amount of salt and sweetness to a soothing bowl of farfalle in a blanket of cream sauce ($14).
Victor Ravioli didn't achieve quite the same balance. Plump ravioli filled with mascarpone-enriched pumpkin somehow faded right into a rosemary cream sauce ($10).
Other comfort food staples included a luscious parmesan polenta, loose and sweet, topped with a savory sauce of moist chicken, crushed tomatoes and olives ($15). Three plump meatballs in a pool of fire-engine-red tomato sauce were light and mild, just begging to be served alongside spaghetti ($6).
Braised meats rarely found on Pittsburgh restaurant menus lent considerable interest to this one. Two large segments of oxtail braised in red wine were beautifully browned and caramelized along the edges, coated in sweet tomato sauce and covered in a heap of stewed carrots ($14). Braised leg of lamb was just a touch stringy (as if it had been simmered just a bit too long), but its rich flavor was reason enough to shrug off the minor flaw ($15). These came in more substantial portions, but without a starch, so order accordingly.
Prices at E² can seem a bit random. Some dishes seem a bit expensive -- $3 for a minuscule bowl of olives, $9 for a green salad -- but others seem more than fair -- $6 for three large meatballs, $8 for an ample portion of greens and beans.
This kind of casual restaurant often falls a bit flat at dessert, and no one would have blamed E² for relying on the Strip District bakery for wonderful sfogliatelle, macaroons and biscotti. While macaroons, warm from the oven, were available one evening, the dessert list is far more elaborate.
Goat's milk and cheese popped up frequently on recent menus, to generally good effect. A goat cheesecake was a bit too dry, but a juicy pear tart with a puff pastry crust and a scoop of maple goat ice cream was wonderful, the subtle sweetness of the pears enhanced by the mild richness of the ice cream. A spicy ginger cake was spread with caramel goat cheese icing reminiscent of cajeta, a traditional Mexican sweet.
A lovely (goat-free) blackberry cobbler was a distant glimpse of summer, the gently cooked fruit softening into a loose sauce for the sweet biscuit top, crowned with a pool of gently whipped cream (all $6).
E²'s lovely food and pleasant service doesn't come entirely without a price. If you're eating on the later side, the kitchen may have run out of a few items. During winter months, the dining room can feel chilly and a bit cramped, as space heaters in the corners don't entirely combat the drafts and there's little room to store voluminous outdoor gear. The small room can also get incredibly loud, especially if there's a large group present, and if there happens to be a private party downstairs, dishes can take a bit longer to come out of the kitchen.
But for the kind of casual spot where you can pop in for a nice salad and a bowl of pasta, where there's always something new to try, these are annoyances worth shrugging off. E² is the kind of restaurant everyone wishes would open on their corner. The quality of ingredients was high, the preparations authentically Italian in feel, the servers friendly and competent. The dining room may be drafty, but the welcome feels genuine and warm.