Dining Review: Shadyside restaurant still lovely, but showing signs of age
Girasole's executive chef Jennifer Girasole, left, and head chef Chris Corimski sit at the restaurant's entrance and outside dining area in Shadyside.
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Girasole comes by its charming, onomatopoeic name honestly. It means "sunflower" in Italian, but it also happens to be the surname of father and son owners Gino and Jimmy. Even without the translation, the name conjures up images and feelings of warmth, sunshine, family. A few lunches over the past couple of years cemented my impressions of Girasole as a welcoming restaurant with rustic, fairly authentic, delicious Italian food.
Yet, after two recent dinners there, my fond feelings for the restaurant struggled with less memorable experiences; I felt like an adult returning to a place beloved in childhood, only to discover it smaller and more ordinary than remembered.
During quiet lunch services, the long narrow brick room hidden away beneath Mercurio's Mulberry Creamery seemed charming and cozy. But in a packed dining room -- Girasole, it must be noted, is very popular -- it felt cramped, even claustrophobic. Due to an abundance of hard surfaces, it was almost unbelievably loud.
The outdoor seating, even once the sun had set, was about as perfect as outdoor dining can be, especially considering noise is much less of an issue. But this magical atmosphere was accompanied by a noticeable decline in the quality of service: Water glasses went unfilled, entrees arrived at a table still covered in salad plates, silverware was cleared and not replaced. Indoors, service was more polished, which makes sense, because servers literally cannot move without hovering over a table or two.
- Hours: Tuesdays-Thursdays 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays
- 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays 4-9 p.m.
- Basics: Packed, small dining room can feel bustling or claustrophobic; hearty, peasant-style dishes put the restaurant's best food forward.
- Recommended dishes: Insalata Girasole, escarole and beans, Polpette di Agnello, polenta, risotto, chocolate mousse cake.
- Prices: Appetizers, $3.45-$14.95; pasta, $12.95-$18.95; entrees, $20-$26; desserts, $6; wine by the glass starts at $8, by the bottle, $40.
- Summary: Not wheelchair accessible; nonsmoking; park on street or in nearby lots; credit cards accepted; no reservations; corkage, $6 per person.
- Noise level: Inside, extremely loud; outside, medium-loud.
And the food? The menu is superficially promising. It changes seasonally, and although it has the tendency toward heaviness in evidence at too many Italian restaurants, a smattering of unique choices still inspire optimism.
Unfortunately, these items invariably turned out to be fewer than they seemed. Running out of a single dish wouldn't be so bad if diners were informed upon arrival, but at two separate meals, a member of my party placed an order only to be met with sorrowful denials, suggesting that our server had simply hoped no one would order the sweet potato gnocchi (the first visit) or the grilled sea scallops with artichokes and spinach (the second).
Still, pleasant options remained. In fact, both dinners started out fairly strong. A small version of the Girasole salad comes with every entree. Tomatoes add sweetness, red onions bring potency, gorgonzola conveys the sour richness that makes one pause with pleasure. The perfect final touch? Sunflower vinaigrette.
Polpette di Agnello ($9.95), or lamb meatballs, were moist with a wonderful gamey flavor relieved by the small pool of broth tasting of lemon and white wine, as well as a sprinkling of pine nuts. Requested with polenta, these also would have made a fine entree.
Escarole and beans, whether alone ($6.95) or over polenta ($14.95), is consistently superb. The bitter greens, white beans and tomato have stewed long enough that each component is mellowed and balanced, yet still retains its identity.
There is a solid Antipasto plate ($13.95), which includes, among other things, prosciutto, oven-roasted tomatoes, olives and some excellent white bean spread. This dish is perfect for nibbling along with a bottle of Italian red. And although it is not terribly long and starts at $40 a bottle, Girasole's list provides good options, including a 2004 Valle Reale Montepulciano ($55) whose soft tannins and juicy berry flavors paired well with a wide range of entrees.
Girasole is especially well known for its pasta dishes, which certainly dominate the menu -- it is something of a sea of starch. The best pasta I sampled was Casareccia (linked tubes) served with generous amounts of crab meat, which added a noticeable sweetness to tomato sauce effectively lightened by a dose of prosecco. Although the dish was not complex, the flavors were unexpected and pleasant.
Maccherotto (a small, curly, tubular pasta) in an aglio e olio sauce (garlic and olive oil, $18.95) with zucchini and rock shrimp was an excellent idea for a summer pasta. It just needed to be prepared to more exacting standards. The bowl was half-filled with a pale-tasting broth, with the flavorful oil floating on top, rather than delicately coating each piece of pasta. Against all of this mildness, the zucchini and rock shrimp tasted under-seasoned, though the shrimp were pleasantly sweet.
Artichoke and pancetta ravioli ($17.95) sounded enticing. The artichoke is one of those vegetables ideal for restaurant dishes, because the amount of prep work necessary to render these thorny little thistles palatable tends to make them too much trouble to cook at home.
But instead of the envisioned fresh pasta filled with an intense mixture of braised artichoke, I bit into the standard soft pillows of Italian-American ravioli, filled with a mild ricotta cheese mixture barely tinged with the taste of either promised ingredient. The ravioli came in a spicy tomato sauce with scallions that was delicious, but not delicious enough to make this dish anything but ordinary. Spinach and ricotta ravioli in a tomato cream sauce ($15.95), tasted on another visit, was so similar it seemed a waste to have both on the same menu.
Each day the menu of appetizers and pastas is fleshed out with a poultry dish, a fish dish and a meat dish, yet these offerings were rarely more than straightforward preparations of protein, starch and vegetable. The most inventive dish was undone by poor timing. Two chicken breasts had been seared a lovely golden brown, draped with a gentle amount of well-seasoned cream sauce and accompanied by lemon pappardelle and a separate pile of mushrooms, peas and caramelized onions.
The pappardelle was delicate and intensely lemony, inspiring the question of why fresh pasta was absent from the rest of the menu. Unfortunately, it was clear the plate had sat for more than a few minutes before being served, for the sauce was cold, the strangely unadorned pasta had started to stick together, and even the chicken breasts were no more than lukewarm.
Servings at Girasole are, as one might expect, generous; consequently dessert is not on everyone's mind. That's fortunate, for despite a fairly long list, most of these desserts were missing on any given night, and those that were available were disappointing.
Chocolate mousse cake was the best of the bunch, with creamy mousse and fluffy cake. Of course, one could always end the meal with a shot of grappa ($7), a tradition that lends a touch of Italian authenticity,.
The menu may have become more Italian-American than rustic Italian, and a certain amount of sloppiness may have infiltrated the kitchen and front-of-house, but Girasole is still a charming restaurant. At the moment, however, it is over-relying on charm to smooth over rough patches.
Correction/Clarification: (Published May 21, 2008) Goat cheese was misidentified as ricotta in a ravioli dish mentioned in dining critic China Millman's May 8 review of Shadyside restaurant Girasole.
First Published May 8, 2008 12:00 am