"Do you have banana peppers on the menu today?" a man said as he and his wife hung up their coats and slid into a booth at Center Plate, a new restaurant in McMurray.
"They were so good the first time I was here that I went home and roasted some myself," he said. He claimed his were not as good. It was his second visit to Center Plate since it opened more than a month ago.
The man was talking about the banana peppers, stuffed with seasoned beef and cheese in fresh tomato marinara sauce. It's a straightforward presentation with plenty of kick, served on thick-cut white toast or as a platter.
1 1/2 stars = Satisfactory+
94 Center Church Road
- Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
- Summary: Center Plate is a modest family restaurant that offers satiating home-cooked meals.
- Recommended dishes: Banana pepper sandwich, pastitsio, avgolemono, spanakopita, desserts of the day.
- Drink: BYOB.
- Prices: Breakfast $6 to $9; burgers $9 to $12.
- Useful information: Parking lot. Credit cards accepted. Handicap accessible.
- Noise level: Low.
Banana peppers are always on the menu at Penny Folino's new restaurant, a combination family restaurant and diner.
"Boy, they're hot," he said. "But they're addictive."
Center Plate offers a sprawling menu of lunch and dinner options as well as breakfast all day. Classic Greek dishes are available for lunch and dinner in particular. The restaurant is currently BYOB, though Ms. Folino hopes to secure a liquor license in the next couple of months.
Named for its location on Center Church Road, Center Plate is not Ms. Folino's first go-round. A veteran of the area's restaurant industry, she and her former husband Tom Folino owned Penny's Diner on Washington Road in McMurray, Tom's Diner in Dormont, and Folino's Ristorante on the South Side, all of which have closed, except for Tom's Diner.
Ms. Folino took a hiatus from the restaurant industry the end of May 2011 as a result of a divorce. "I had to step back and start life over," she said.
Set in a modest house on a hill with a banner announcing, "Steeler Country," visitors are greeted by pumpkins and a scarecrow seated on bales of hay by the door.
Dressed in jeans, a cream sweater and a newsboy cap, Ms. Folino greets guests and leads them to a table.
Inside, a windowless corridor is brightened by soft lamp light and bright walls of turquoise, orange and cream.
"People who know me will see a little bit of Penny's Diner, a little of Tom's and some of Folino's, especially at night when we turn down lights and make it a little more formal," she said.
Soup is among the kitchen's specialties, created by chef Matt Hellon, the former chef at Folino's on the South Side. Each soup is a special of the day, whether it's wedding soup, cream of broccoli or chicken and rice with lemon.
Chicken and rice soup displays Ms. Folino's Greek roots, an avgolemono made with chicken broth, egg and lemon to create a memorable soup that's frothy and bright.
Other items illuminate Ms. Folino's Greek heritage. Pastitsio ($12.99) is the Greek version of lasagna. Tubes of bucatini are laden with ground beef, bechamel, tomato feta and olives, then seasoned with oregano, nutmeg and all-spice. The dish is not complex, but it's a hearty meal that satiates on a rainy fall day.
Moussaka displays sauteed eggplant, ground lamb, tomato, onions and herbs, a family dish served at Greek festivals and Sunday suppers. A wedge of spanikopita offers spinach and feta, egg and onion between flaky layers of filo, that's moist and balanced.
A low-brow favorite a few steps up from SPAM, gyro is on the menu as a sandwich, a platter and other variations.
Created in such places as Kronos Foods in Chicago, gyros grew in popularity in the mid-1970s. A gyro is sliced from meat cones made from lamb trimmings and raw beef that's run through a grinder. Bread crumbs, water and oregano are added in the process, reported The New York Times in "The History of Gyros." Hydraulic pressure presses the meat into cylinders. Then it's placed on a tray and flash frozen.
Though it's traditionally served on flatbread dressed with tzatziki, tomatoes, onions and herbs, gyro is also on display in mac-gyro ($9) served with ground lamb, sauteed onions, nutmeg and oregano, cheese and a layer of toasted bread crumbs. For those who like casserole decadence, this may be the thing, though it's too much cheese and too overwhelming.
Because this is an outpost for comfort food, its menu highlights cheese, with a half dozen variations on mac and cheese, such as pig mac ($10) laden with pot roast; Italian sausage with mushrooms; lobster mac ($12); bacon and egg mac ($9); and buffalo chicken mac ($9). All of these are over the top casseroles that prompt fascination and guilt. How many days' worth of calories is a dish?
Customers who had been fans of Ms. Folino's restaurants are just discovering Center Plate.
"Are you Penny?" asked another customer at a booth when she greeted the table. "My friend used to work for you." The man launched into a story about a former line cook, whom Ms. Folino remembered.
"Tell him to come on in and visit me," she said.
Ms. Folino also takes pride in her offerings of oversized sandwiches like the triple grilled cheese ($8) and Greek burgers ($11) topped with feta, olives, onion and tomato as well as burgers served on pretzel buns ($11).
Breakfast all day lists standard omelets as well as variations such as eggs in a basket ($8) served as eyes in the middle of white toast, with bacon or sausage and cheese. Mom's French toast is Texas-style bread dipped in egg and grilled ($9). These plates aren't fancy, but it's home cooking for those who don't feel like making it at theirs.
Servers push homemade desserts, on display in a case next to Ms. Folino's hostess stand, where cakes tempt with chocolate and cream.
"You really should get a slice of pumpkin cheesecake to take home," said my server, who asked my name when I arrived, as well as every other table she waited on. "I don't think you will have a slice as delicious."
The firm but creamy slice on graham cracker crust tasted of the season. It's sweet but not a wallop, unadorned by nuts or whipped cream.
The restaurant also is branching out with special events. It is hosting a Harvest Wine Dinner, from 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 8, which includes a five-course meal and wine pairings from the California region for each course. Cost is $55 per person.
Center Plate offers something for anyone who misses straightforward home cooking. Consistent quality, warm service and idiosyncratic offerings are the draw. But so is Ms. Folino.
"We like the banana peppers," said the man at the booth. He pointed to Ms. Folino at the host stand. "But she's the one who keeps us coming back."
Correction/Clarification: (Published November 3, 2012) A review of Center Plate Restaurant in McMurray on Thursday incorrectly reported that Tom's Diner is closed. Center Plate proprietor Penny Folino no longer has any affiliation with the Dormont diner.
Melissa McCart: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @melissamccart.