On the Table: Matteo's brings vintage Pittsburgh to trendy Lawrenceville
March 28, 2013 4:00 AM
Lamb Ragu: braised lamb shoulder with rosemary, burgundy wine and house-made pappardelle noodles served by Matteo's in Lawrenceville.
Pam Panchak/ Post-Gazette
Greens and great northern beans with shrimp sauteed in onions, garlic and banana peppers at Matteo's in Lawrenceville.
By Melissa McCart Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Matteo's handsome bar, flush with Italian spirits, is in keeping with Lawrenceville's embrace of stylish booze. Yet a red sauce-meets-steakhouse menu makes Matteo's an unlikely candidate for this rejuvenated neighborhood, where it competes for diners' attention with Round Corner Cantina's hipster tacos, Franktuary's decked-out hot dogs and Piccolo Forno's rustic Italian fare.
An inviting dining room, hospitable service and Italian-American classics are featured at this solid neighborhood restaurant.
Greens and beans, house salad, margherita pizza, ravioli, lamb ragu, Delmonico steak.
Appetizers and salads $9-$13; pizza $13-$16; pastas $16-$26; entrees $22-$32.
Wheelchair accessible, street parking, open-air dining, nonsmoking, credit cards accepted.
Quiet to moderate.
The restaurant displays two themes. One is the gentrification of Lawrenceville, which is seeing a meteoric rise in the price of real estate and an influx of residents from out of state. The other is Pittsburgh of an earlier era, with its down-to-earth natives and southern Italian immigrants who defined the city's traditional dining culture.
For chef-owner Matt Cavanaugh and his wife, Andrea, landing on one of the most desirable stretches of Butler Street had been serendipitous. Most of Mr. Cavanaugh's culinary life has taken place in the suburbs -- at Red Bull Inn in Robinson and as executive chef for a decade at Sarafino's in Crafton.
At Sarafino's, Mr. Cavanaugh developed a following, including developer Lee Gross of A-1 Realty, who has been instrumental in helping to transform Lawrenceville. He started investing in neighborhood properties in 1995.
"The guy can cook," said Mr. Gross, who eventually approached Mr. Cavanaugh about opening his own restaurant. Indeed, Mr. Cavanaugh and his wife had been looking at locations skirting the city. Mr. Gross redirected the couple's focus to a spot on one of Lawrenceville's hottest blocks. Mr. Cavanaugh was smitten.
Before Mr. Cavanaugh left Sarafino's, Mr. Gross helped introduce Lawrenceville heavyweights to his cooking. One new fan is state Sen. Jim Ferlo, whose office sits a few blocks north of Matteo's. The duo helped the Cavanaughs navigate finances and permitting for the restaurant.
Since he opened Matteo's nearly two months ago, business has been steady, Mr. Cavanaugh said.
"We have a lot of transplants [from Crafton] who have followed me down," he said.
Indeed, reports about Matteo's opening on the Post-Gazette's food blog "The Forks" have drawn avid interest; they remain among the most-read blog posts.
"I'll be in there tonight to check out the basketball scores," said Mr. Gross, who acknowledged visiting the place several times a week.
The 50-seat restaurant with exposed brick and hardwood floors is brightly lit. With a soundtrack of LeAnn Rimes or Phil Collins and the flicker of a game in the background, Matteo's feels more like a kitchen and less like a dining room.
A respectable wedding soup ($6) displays dime-sized meatballs that bob among penne. Parsley melds with parmesan. We ripped corners of a Breadworks' braided loaf and dipped pieces in the homemade stock.
Only available during lunch, sandwiches (from $9 to $14) offer value, although a French dip and a crab cake seem out of place among Italian dishes.
Service works out the kinks. During the day, a server was attentive and helpful. A dinner visit to a packed bar was another story, as a bartender discussed topics better left for late night in the privacy of home. Table service during another visit was warm and efficient.
Mr. Cavanaugh is hands-on in the dining room. During each of my four visits, I saw him greeting guests or asking for feedback.
This is true even outside of the restaurant. In the first week, he walked down Butler Street, giving away pizzas with his business card tucked inside boxes: an advertisement of the restaurant's arrival and his generosity.
His pizza is not Neapolitan and it's not doughy Pittsburgh-style, but it's fine. Chewy crust with a bit of crunch wears a thin layer of cheese and a dapple of tomato sauce.
Finer ingredients would elevate his pies, particularly when it comes to the seafood pizza ($16) piled with lackluster shrimp and scallops. For now, stick to the classic margherita.
Among first courses, greens and beans ($15) are laden with ingredients beyond, such as caramelized onions, roasted peppers and a choice of shrimp or sausage. A bit overwrought, this satiating antipasti could serve as a meal.
Portions are giant, such as the palm-sized ravioli ($15) that pockets fresh baby spinach and ricotta served on a bed of wilted greens.
Opt for housemade pastas such as pappardelle or lasagna offered as a special. Lamb ragu ($18) is a best-seller, an earthy bowl fragrant with rosemary, sage and garlic. Starchy linguini, on the other hand, marred the white clam pasta ($16) dish, which arrived without enough broth, clams or seasoning.
A Delmonico 12 ounce-steak ($32) did not disappoint; it was a hulk of a cut cooked medium rare. But this earnest plate offered with a choice of potatoes or pasta and a mixed vegetable side could have arrived from any era.
"This is the kind of place I'd imagine would make for a good restaurant in some place like Greensburg where there aren't as many dining options," said a friend after a Saturday lunch.
But it's not just the suburbs that appreciate authentic fare in a welcoming space. Should Mr. Cavanaugh and the neighborhood take a shine to each other, with a tighter kitchen, Matteo's can become a good restaurant for Lawrenceville.