In today's flexible and creative restaurant market, there's nothing unusual about a high-end chef opening up a more casual concept.
But when David Racicot announced he would be closing notion, his modernist, boundary-pushing restaurant in Oakmont, moving it to East Liberty and filling the Oakmont space with a more neighborhood-friendly Italian-American restaurant, the news was met with a fair amount of skepticism. Many assumed that at least one of the promised restaurants would fail to materialize.
1 1/2 stars = Satisfactory+
2 1/2 stars = Recommended+
2 1/2 stars = Recommended+
2 stars = Recommended
314 Allegheny River Blvd.
Hours: Lunch, Wednesday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, Wednesday to Saturday, 5-9 p.m.; brunch, Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Summary: Casual Italian-American dining with a few chef flourishes.
Recommended dishes: Casual Italian-American dining with a few chef flourishes.
Drink: A short, Italian-focused wine list and a few house cocktails; press-pot coffee.
Prices: Antipasti, $8-$14; family-style salads, $9-$14; pastas, $14-$19; entrees, $20-$45; sides, $5; desserts, $7, floats $6.
Useful information: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; no reservations; Corkage, complimentary.
Noise level: Low.
While plans for the rebirth of notion are moving forward slowly, its Oakmont replacement, 314 Pasta and Prime, opened in late January.
The dining room is mostly similar, with a long banquette against the wall, a few high-backed booths and stand-alone tables. Subtle changes give it a kitchy charm, such as decorative white window frames arranged along the wall, their sills holding brightly colored pitchers and cheerful flowers. Ceramic and metal roosters perch here and there, and a thick curtain blocks the sun through the storefront windows. There's even a large chalkboard at kid height for drawing.
314 Pasta and Prime is undoubtedly a better fit for the space and community. It offers family-style salads and appetizers, large bowls of pasta and thick cuts of steak. It's still an expensive restaurant (pastas start at $14, steak at $40), but the portions are large, and corkage is free. It's a casual, pleasant restaurant, and the food isn't bad, but it's nowhere near what one might hope for from a chef of Mr. Racicot's caliber. As the former chef of Lautrec, the Nemacolin Woodland Resort's flagship restaurant, which earned a coveted five diamonds from AAA in 2007, followed by five stars from Mobil Travel Guide in 2009 -- he's the only chef to achieve this distinction in the region.
"Our intention is to create a place where the people you eat with are the focus, like your nonna's dining room on Sunday. The food and service take a back seat to atmosphere," Mr. Racicot wrote in an email.
That might be true, but it's unclear why diners can't have unpretentious food along with a healthy dose of creativity and attention to detail.
The best dishes are simple, focusing on a few good ingredients. House-made mozzarella was smooth and rich, topped with a flavorful salad of chopped tomatoes, pickled red onions and lots of basil ($11). It was served with grilled bread, essential for mopping up the last of the tomatoes' sweet, bright juices. A side of grilled asparagus was perfectly cooked, generously dressed with olive oil and lemon that pooled onto the plate ($5).
Meatballs are a popular option, both as an appetizer and served with spaghetti. As appetizers, they come three to a plate, in a small pool of bright red tomato sauce ($10). They're substantial, but not too heavy, a nice blend of beef and pork. Shrimp scampi are prettily presented in a red skillet lined with toasted bread, which soaks up the sauce of white wine, chopped tomato, parlsey, garlic and capers ($14). The shrimp had an excellent texture, but they were a little too generously seasoned, the salty, briny sauce overwhelming their sweetness.
The family-style salads are well thought out and enhance the communal feeling of a meal. The spinach salad is a real crowd-pleaser, the spinach complemented by candied almonds, red grapes and a mustardy dressing ($13). Salads are relatively light on the dressing, but if you like more, ask for some on the side.
Main dishes focus on pastas, chicken, a couple of steaks and a piece of salmon. The menu is shorter than some, but covers many of the classics, from white clam sauce to chicken Florentine. Most of the dishes were just fine, typical examples of Italian-American cooking. A bowl of fettuccine alfredo was creamy and rich, with just a hint of garlic ($19). Bucatini with white clam sauce was thick with white clams and scented oregano ($17). Rigatoni bolognese offers a delicious, slow-simmered sauce of beef, pancetta and tomato, clinging to the ridged tubes of pasta ($17).
Chicken piccata featured a nicely cooked chicken breast, lightly handled and not too floury, well-coated in a tart lemon and caper sauce ($21). Chicken dishes come with twice-fried potatoes or spaghetti. The thick-cut fries were just a little dry. A porterhouse for two, served with two pastas, was a comparatively good deal, although the steak was nothing extraordinary ($60).
Restaurants with large portions rarely have impressive dessert lists. The choices here are limited, just tiramisu, a cookie plate and an orange ice cream soda. The tiramasu boasts house-made ladyfingers and a very pretty presentation, but those ladyfingers would have benefited from a longer coffee bath. The cookie plate, which features pizzelles, miniature cannoli and soft, sweet biscotti, didn't offer much variation in texture or flavor. The orange ice cream soda, however, was fizzy, refreshing and pleasantly nostalgic ($7).
Service is straightforward and pleasant, but not particularly quick. Then again, none of the customers seemed to be in a hurry. No matter how far along tables seemed to be when we arrived, they were usually still occupied when we left, as people lingered over that last glass of wine or cup of coffee.
No matter the restaurant's shortcomings, Mr. Racicot seems genuine in his desire to create something that suits the Oakmont community. The restaurant is selling its sauces and salad dressings to take home, and it has introduced a buffet brunch on Sundays. He seems humbler now and more open to change. He plans to continue to adapt the menu and to reach out to his customers.
Restaurateurs should always hear what their customers have to say and consider criticism, but great restaurants aren't crowd-sourced. I have no doubt that as Mr. Racicot fine-tunes its offerings, 314 Pasta and Prime will become a better restaurant, but unless he puts a little more of himself into the menu, I doubt it will ever be a great one.