At Bado's Cucina, a wood-burning oven sets the Italian-inspired menu apart
November 3, 2011 4:00 AM
Chef Tom Wurst tends to the wood-burning oven, a centerpiece of the kitchen at Bado's Cucina in Peters.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bado's Cucina is a cozy, quiet restaurant in Peters. Italian in spirit, it's not rooted in any particular Italian tradition. Although 5 years old, it still has the feeling of a discovery, in part because of its location. Tucked away in a sprawling commercial district, Bado's Cucina feels like a neighborhood restaurant despite the lack of a neighborhood.
There may be scores of Italian restaurants in the region, but Bado's Cucina distinguishes itself by cooking many of its dishes in a wood-burning oven. The rustic, pretty dining room looks onto the open kitchen, where the oven does double duty as a welcoming hearth. Sam Badolato is the owner and the restaurant's namesake, but recently Tom Wurst, his sous-chef, has been running the kitchen.
The menu was divided into antipasto, primi, secondi, contorni (side dishes), pizza and flatbreads, and dolce (sweets) to finish. These were mostly small plates, with small prices to match. Some were just half a dozen bites, which made it easy to sample multiple courses. Sharing was encouraged, and servers happily defaulted to family style, bringing extra plates and placing dishes in the center of the table.
Basics: Italian-inspired small plates, many of them cooked in a wood-burning oven, make for a fun and varied dinner. The cozy setting, with an extra glow from the fire, is especially enticing during the winter months.
Recommended dishes: Lamb chops with tomato and honey paste, beans with sweet sausage, pork tenderloin with figs and cranberry marsala sauce, Caesar salad, mushroom truffle flatbread, roasted Tuscan Pecorino Romano on cinnamon toast.
Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations required, credit card requested to hold reservations; BYOB, corkage $6.
Noise level: Low.
Antipasti platters were variations on a theme: A few thin sheets of prosciutto, a couple of slices of pecorino or parmigiano, a handful of olives and slices of crusty Italian bread ($11). The olivo selection was heavy on the olives, while rustico emphasized meat and cheese. The most interesting of the bunch was porri dorati, a wood-fired leek with sweet grape salsa. On one visit it was served whole -- a gorgeous presentation, to be sure, but only the outer layers were thoroughly cooked, and a few bits of grit were trapped beneath them. On a later visit, however, the leek had been sliced in half and thoroughly cleaned.
Pizzas and flatbreads, though listed near the end of the menu, made for a great beginning. The pizzas featured a chewy, lightly sweet crust, while the flatbreads were smaller and crispier. The classic pizza margherita was pristinely dressed in a sweet tomato sauce, thin slices of buffalo mozzarella and a scattering of fresh basil ($12). The mushroom flatbread was more impressive, covered with a thick layer of sliced, wild mushrooms, slow-cooked shallot and a drizzle of aromatic truffle oil, a delicious use for an often overrated product ($12).
Pastas varied, but all of them would improve if served in bowls, which would help keep them warm and make them easier to eat. Gnocchi was tender and delicate on one visit, a bit gummy on another ($13). Their rich mushroom sauce, however, was consistently good. Pumpkin tortellini were dry and served in applesauce, which was too weakly flavored and strangely textured for a good sauce ($12). Polenta with braised plum tomatoes, figs and Parmigiano-Reggiano was lovely, the sticky sweet figs blending into the mellower sweetness of the plum tomatoes ($11).
This food was pretty good, but nothing to write home about. Happily, they were just getting warmed up. The best dishes were those that married particularly well with cherry- and applewood smoke.
Caesar salad was an unexpected hit, the smoky yet crisp wedge of romaine a robust foil to the punchy flavors of a garlic- and anchovy-laced dressing ($12). Finished with sliced cherry tomatoes, slivers of prosciutto and crisp croutons, this was a Caesar salad Italians would be proud to claim.
A play on greens and beans was another clever update ($10). Two small, fat Italian sausages, the edges crisp from the flame, were sprinkled with extra fennel seeds and served with a small heap of well-cooked kale and chickpeas.
Pork tenderloin's mild flavor was emboldened by a whisper of smoke and by the strong flavors of sweet figs and a tart cranberry marsala sauce ($13). Three plump lamb chops, cooked until the fat had melted into the flesh, were served with a honey-tomato paste so fruity and sweet we wondered aloud whether it could possibly be made with tomatoes ($14).
Unexpectedly, the most show-stopping component on any plate was also the simplest: The vegetables of the day. Beets one night, cauliflower the next, the kiss of wood smoke elevated these simple roasted vegetables to something incomparably fine and memorable. A few more vegetable dishes, even a vegetable antipasti that could be cooked in advance, would help shift the balance of this menu toward the more impressive dishes.
Seafood did not fare as well. Tilapia filets wrapped in grape leaves were the best choice ($14). The leaves had gone soft in some spots, crispy in others, while the fish stayed moist beneath its protective wrapper. But mussels in tomato sauce tasted unpleasantly saline ($11), while breaded calamari rings, also in a tomato sauce, were soggy and rubbery ($11). We should have listened to a server, who mentioned that this dish had been coming back unfinished.
Service at Bado's was excellent, a mix of friendly banter and quiet efficiency. The only quirk of service was that while desserts were listed on the restaurant's menu, servers chose to recite them instead. At the end of a long meal, I doubt most people want to be faced with a memory test, or the awkward task of deciding what to have for dessert while their server stands over them.
Desserts were slightly more generously portioned, indulgent without being overwhelming. There was tiramisu, both plain and pumpkin ($10), as well as a pumpkin bread pudding ($9). And then there was the master stroke: roasted cinnamon toast topped with slices of Pecorino Romano then drizzled with honey ($9). The bread was soft yet crisp, the cheese slightly gooey from the heat of the fire. It was the kind of dessert that inspires return visits.
Bado's is a restaurant with a distinct identity, one that isn't afraid to set its own rules -- something that I typically admire in a restaurant. But for all the welcome inside its doors, the restaurant can be frustratingly aloof. Reservations are required, and can be made only by calling. They typically don't pick up the phone before the early afternoon and, on several occasions, when I called in the morning, there wasn't even the option of leaving a message. A credit card is required to hold a reservation, an extra (and unusual) hassle.
Bado's was always busy, so there is clearly a sizable group of diners willing to jump through the necessary hoops. For those willing to make the investment, Bado's Cucina has much to offer.