As Market Square continues to evolve into a lively dining scene, Downtown workers and visitors now have a choice of three solid Italian restaurants on the plaza -- each offering something a little different.
Il Pizzaiolo, the sibling to the popular Mt. Lebanon flagship, opened this month in a palatial space next to Starbucks, drawing loyalists toward Neapolitan pizza, salumi and antipasti salads. Across the square, La Cucina Flegrea, which relocated from Squirrel Hill in late 2011, perches in a second story dining room, offering the most traditional fare of the trio.
22 Market St.
Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 4 to 11 p.m.
Sienna offers well-executed Italian fare and ensures expedient, polished service.
- Recommended dishes:
Anchovy crostini, meatballs, chopped salad, carbonara, pappardelle bolognese.
Soup and salad $5-$7; pasta $16-$19; sandwiches $10-$14; flatbreads $11-$14; antipasti $7-$11; secondi $17-$22; contorti $5.
Wheelchair accessible, credit cards, non-smoking.
- Noise level:
Just below La Cucina Flegrea at street level resides Sienna Sulla Piazza, which opened in April 2012 in the former Bella Sera space. This warm dining room and bar features a tight wine list, a short list of classic cocktails and a handful of craft beers. The kitchen is helmed by chef Matthew Porco, formerly of Mio Kitchen and Wine Bar in Aspinwall, the fine dining Italian restaurant that closed in 2011. Dark wainscoting parallels brick and a backlit bar frames wood and tile.
Mr. Porco's reputation draws a crowd to Sienna. Now that heavyweight Il Pizzaiolo has debuted, the question is whether his cooking will hold diners' attention.
A Pittsburgh native, Mr. Porco earned accolades turning out impressive plates at Mio, which secured four stars from the Post-Gazette at its peak in 2009 as he "refined and developed his style."
Prior to his homecoming, Mr. Porco honed his cooking as chef de cuisine at Veritas in New York City, the now-closed restaurant from Scott Bryan, the accomplished chef immortalized by Anthony Bourdain in the book "Kitchen Confidential."
Mr. Porco has had nearly a year since he opened Sienna to hit his stride, as he turns out a menu of antipasti, sandwiches, flatbreads and pastas for lunch, with additional entrees on the menu for dinner.
As his pedigree would suggest, Mr. Porco's homestyle offerings show refined technique. The menu contrasts with Il Pizzaiolo's in that small plates are less brazen than fashionable croquettes, manila clams in brodo and arancini. Flatbreads aren't as seductive as DOC-certified pizzas across the plaza. And yet Sienna's menu is brawnier than La Cucina Flegrea, with more subtle vegetable and seafood-studded dishes.
Small plates slake most cravings. Silvery skin glistens on the anchovy that lies atop crostini ($7). Served in a school of four, each toast is slathered with tangy goat cheese and punctuated by olive relish. The chalky spread of liver mousse ($7) is as sweet as it is savory, spiked with honey and garnished with pistachio.
Soups and salads aren't terribly stylish, but these chestnuts resonate. A hearty fagioli soup is brightened by a hint of tomato and roasted red peppers. A tangle of arugula ($7) is dressed like the '80s, drizzled in balsamic and served with a side of melon and prosciutto.
Sienna employs meatball pushers. For six bucks, put a 'ball on any plate, or have a pair ($11) as a first course. These aren't Nonna's version, with their bread crumbs as a binder for ground veal, pork and beef. Inside a meatball tucks a wedge of mozzarella while chunky marinara coats each plate. They're a wallop to the appetite. "We sell a ton of them," said Mr. Porco.
Sandwiches are indeed hefty. A pounded veal cutlet arrives as saltimbocca ($14), fragrant with leaves of sage, layered with fried prosciutto, garnished with a plate of homemade chips. An open-faced steak sandwich ($12) with portabella, roasted peppers, gorgonzola, arugula and truffle stands out among crab cakes, burgers, tuna melts and grilled cheese.
Whether it's lunch or dinner, service is nearly impeccable: servers replace silverware between courses, refold napkins for diners' return, and refill water and soda glasses without a hitch.
They deliver giant plates of pasta. "Damn, I wanted that!" said a diner who said he had been craving carbonara ($15). This classic is creamy rather than silky, with egg that's been aerated in a blender, dotted with house-cured pancetta, leeks, peas and black pepper. It's a fine rendition, but it does not sing like a bowl of the pappardelle bolognese ($15), its pasta ribbons stacked with slow-cooked ground veal.
An epic course disappoints, though, as each gnocchi ($19)is the size of a child's fist, ensuring it's less pillowy than tradition requests.
Accompanying cinghiale are just dry hunks of boar.
It remains to be seen whether Sienna will be compelling enough to maintain pull among Market Square's Italian restaurants. Still competition can be a good thing, as it raises the bar for Downtown dining, encouraging value, elevated cooking and more polished service.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.