Mt. Lebanon restaurant's simple, flavorful dishes draw festive, loyal crowd
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Jeff Iovino opened his namesake cafe in his hometown of Mt. Lebanon in 2006. While the restaurant has attracted a steady stream of loyal customers, it doesn't come up in Pittsburgh restaurant chatter as often as it should.
While Mr. Iovino is planning to open a new restaurant on nearby Washington Road sometime next year, he hasn't moved on from his first project. In fact, the restaurant is entering a new phase, as Mr. Iovino acquires a liquor license and plans to "mature" the restaurant in the coming months.
Iovino's has a solid foundation upon which to change and grow. It offers fine dining without pretension or fuss. Framed posters, including one of Monet's water lilies, are inexpensive but attractive decorations. Tables are covered with high-quality linens and charming bud vases filled with a wildflower or two.
Unfortunately, despite the addition of acoustic panels to the ceiling, it is still excruciatingly loud when it's full. The fact that it's often full speaks to its other charms. At its best, the food is simple and flavorful. Seafood and pasta make up the bulk of the menu, flavors drawn from the Mediterranean region, but with a modern American slant.
- Hours: Lunch, Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday-Saturday 5-9 p.m.
- Basics: This petite dining room is usually filled with couples and groups of friends, drawn in by the well-conceived seafood and pasta dishes, and the festive (if very noisy) atmosphere.
- Recommended dishes: House salad, crispy calamari tossed in sweet soy sambal, grilled Mediterranean bronzini with crispy red bliss potatoes, rapini, vodka tomato coulis; flank steak with sweet potato croquettes, pancetta-zucchini and mushroom hash; English pea, leek and mascarpone ravioli; vegetarian Thai red curry; ciao bella gelato.
- Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads, $4-$10; entrees, $18-$32; desserts, $6-$8.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations encouraged; currently BYOB, $4 per person, but liquor license is pending.
- Noise level: Loud to excruciating.
Whole bronzini was filleted, then grilled, with just a hint of charcoal marking the buttery flesh of this firm white fish. Red bliss potatoes, crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside, might have been too heavy a pairing, but they were brightened up by pleasantly bitter rapini and a lively vodka tomato coulis. The coulis could have been poured with a more generous hand, as after you've tried it, a lonely bite of fish tastes unfinished.
Linguine beautifully contrasts flavors of earth and sea, pasta lightly coated in a porcini mushroom cream sauce and ringed by petite sea scallops ($30). An emphasis on sweetness reconciles contrasting elements of the dish -- a hint of marsala wine in the sauce, a brunoise of apples and roasted red pepper garnishing each scallop.
A lovely plate of ravioli (created by Steve Salvi at Fede) also strayed over to the sweet side. Paper-thin sheets of pasta revealed a green flecked mascarpone filling -- leeks and English peas keeping springtime on our minds. The kitchen added a delicate cream sauce sweetened with honey, with balancing acidity from grape tomatoes ($25). The high price is probably a consequence of the double mark-up, paid once by the restaurant and once by the diner. It's unfortunate, but in this case worth it.
Vegan diners (as well as everyone else) should check out Iovino's just for the Thai red curry with seitan ($18). This common meat substitute made from wheat gluten is often firm and too chewy. Here, the tender dumplings are delicate, with a mild flavor, a nice contrast to the chunks of carrot, zucchini, peppers, mushrooms and cherry tomatoes that bob in a pool of red curry. The curry itself is surprisingly fiery; call it a genuine medium-hot, and just as big on flavor.
Meat isn't neglected either, although it's not always where this restaurant shines. Flank steak was marinated in what tasted like balsamic vinegar, grilled to a beautiful medium rare, rested and sliced carefully against the grain to maximize tenderness and juiciness ($28). Roasted tomato butter gently melted into the steak, adding a luxurious touch. Accompaniments kept each bite interesting, including a pancetta-zucchini and mushroom hash, which didn't quite become hash-like, and sweet potato croquettes that somehow concealed the creamiest sweet potato puree imaginable inside an impressively crispy skin.
Duck, on the other hand, was a little dull. The breast had been nicely seared and sliced, but despite the variety of components on the plate -- crepes filled with duck confit, shallots and goat cheese, as well as sauteed spinach and mushrooms -- all these earthy flavors seemed to cancel each other out, the dish adding up to less than the sum of its parts ($28).
The duck was an exception to what was generally an impressive entree list. At Iovino's, appetizers didn't receive the same care or attention to detail.
Some dishes couldn't recover from basic errors of execution, like the sauteed mushrooms with garlic and sherry, which demonstrated how easily burnt garlic can take over an entire dish. Grilled halloumi and cantaloupe with baby spinach, cucumbers and honey merlot vinaigrette ($6) was presented beautifully on a long plate, thin slices of tightly curled cantaloupe alternating with grilled halloumi. Unfortunately, on two occasions the firm Greek cheese had been grilled just long enough to impart grill marks, but not long enough for the cheese to become soft and malleable. The cantaloupe was under-ripe and a bit flavorless.
Fried mozzarella in the house appetizer were either cooked too little or allowed to sit too long, so it simply tasted like breaded cheese.
Simpler dishes, when cooked with care, were well-received. Roasted tomato hummus with cilantro oil and toasted flat bread ($6) isn't exactly revelatory, but the dip was creamy and well seasoned and the contrast between the cool dip and the hot flat bread was delicious.
Of all the fried dishes, the calamari is the keeper. Fried quickly in a light-as-air batter, the calamari was tender with just a hint of crunch, despite being coated in a thin, sweet soy-based sauce ($10).
It is hoped that the appetizer selection will get more attention in the future.
Mr. Iovino's decision to pursue a liquor license was partly motivated by a desire to trade the pressure to turn tables for the possibility of a higher check average. With guests paying more than a modest corkage fee, it will be in the restaurant's best interest to encourage guests to linger.
The dessert list also should improve. At the moment, there's tiramisu and chocolate cake brought in from a major food company (surprisingly tasty, but quite generic), Ciao Bella gelato brought in from New York (delicious, but again, generic), and a house-made creme brulee. Unfortunately, when we tried the creme brulee, the sugar crust was so thick that it hadn't crystallized properly and broke into chunks rather than delicate shards.
Servers may also benefit from a slightly slower pace. At the moment, they sometimes seem overwhelmed, forgetting requests for a soda or a new glass, and more often appearing slightly frenetic. With higher check averages, the restaurant may also be able to add one or two servers, ensuring even better service for guests and perhaps even adding a little of that serenity that Monet's water lilies, hanging on the wall, seem to promise.
First Published July 15, 2010 12:00 am