Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Stagioni: Bringing Class to East Carson Street

Let’s play a word association game.  When I say East Carson Street, what’s the first thing you think of?  Bars? Yeah, sure.  There are so many bars and so little time that many have been known to awaken next to the porcelain throne in a fetal position.  Noise disturbances and fistfights you say? Hmm…perhaps I should just cut to the chase.  Yes, it’s definitely true that East Carson Street has a reputation for excessive libation and poor decisions, but there’s a diamond shining among the rough.  It’s time to ignore the ruckus and treat yourself to the food and atmosphere that Stagioni has waiting for you. 

Stagioni resides in the once Le Pommier, after relocating from their smaller locale in Bloomfield.  I rather adore the residential feel you get when opening the door.  A staircase, with a lovely wooden railing, will greet you before entering the cozy bar area.  You could dine there and enjoy watching the creation of an elegant cocktail, or you may have reserved one of the granite, tabletops in the dining room.   

New Fashioned
Once seated, you’ll anticipate laying your eyes on the ever-changing, seasonal menu.  Some staple items consistently appear, like their delicate ricotta gnocchi.  But I prefer to take the road less traveled.  One dish that stood out recently was the grilled swordfish with salsa verde.  The swordfish was perfectly tender and bathed in the bold flavors of fresh herbs.  Ordering the fingerling potatoes as a side is a must.  Unlike the many boring potato presentations I’ve encountered, this was a medley of flavors and textures.  Crunchy pine nuts, salty olive tapenade, and Parmesan cheese worked together to bring inspiration to what would have been a typical menu item. 

Grilled Swordfish with Salsa Verde
Fingerling Potatoes
While dinner has been nothing but stellar, Stagioni’s Italian take on Sunday brunch has a delicious grip on me.  Cara DelSingnore, co-owner and designated greeter, has seen my mug many a Sunday.  A thoughtful treat of complimentary dried cherry scones and sinfully, delicious coffee cake (made in house of course) are presented shortly after you order your bottomless French press coffee.  These sweet morsels keep your hunger at bay while you peruse the menu. 

Complimentary Sweet Breads with Brunch
While everything I’ve tried is seasonally delicious, the steak and eggs is unbelievable.  I usually regret ordering this item at other eateries because the steak portion is often paltry and overcooked; yet I find myself paying a premium price.  Chef and co-owner Stephen Felder has officially restored my steak-loving faith.  There’s nothing measly or bland about the charred, peppered cut of beef that consumes your plate.  It leaves just enough room for spicy potato hash (a mix of roasted peppers, potatoes, and onions) and two fried eggs.  The only thing better than eating medium rare beef, is eating beef with a side of ricotta pancakes.  These are perhaps the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten.  Forget mountains of whipped cream to hide a less than desirable cake.  No, this cake is nakedly divine with the exception of a drizzle of syrup and dollop of mascarpone.  If you don’t close your eyes and make provocative noises while eating this, I’ll be shocked and disappointed in you.  For less than twenty dollars, you’ll be completely satisfied well into the dinner hour. 

Steak and Eggs
Ricotta Pancake
If you want to try something special, reserve your spot for one of Stagioni’s Sunday Suppers.  In keeping with the homey vibe of their décor, you’ll be served four family style courses.  Feel free to BYOW (bring your own wine) on these event nights free of corkage fees. 

I know some people avoid East Carson Street, especially beyond dusk on the weekends.  The scene can be unsavory at times and parking can be an epic nightmare.  That said…get over it.  Life is too short to let a few annoyances stand between you and a delectable meal.  Instead, give those rowdy frat boys some high-fives, chime in with the “woo!” of the passing bachelorette party, and be grateful when you cross Stagioni’s threshold.   

I give Stagioni: 5/5 forks
2104 E Carson Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15224

Tip: Make a Tuesday-Thursday night/brunch reservation, or claim an earlier Friday-Saturday spot to avoid parking fiascos and ghoulish behavior.   

Stagioni on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sienna Mercato’s Emporio: Meatball Lovers Unite

Disclaimer: I write the word balls in this review…a lot. 

In Italian, the word emporio often refers to a store.  Well, the geniuses behind Sienna Mercato may have developed the concept to one of the greatest “stores” of all time…a meatball lover’s paradise.  If you love savory, meaty balls every which way, it’s time to follow me down to Emporio: A Meatball Joint.

Let’s face it, ‘Burghers…our downtown scene was pretty dismal a few years back.  But lately, I’m finding myself “dahn” here more and more.  Sienna Mercato is one of the newest ventures you’ll find on Penn Ave.  It’s slated to be one of the hottest spots in the city if it lives up to the hype. The top floor, which will be Il Tetto is promising a rooftop beer garden with light munchies.  The middle floor, Mezzo, is sounding more like a sit down eatery, complete with charcuterie, pasta, and wood fired pizza.  While I’m certainly looking forward to experiencing both of these establishments, I’m here to share my current love for the main floor…Emporio. 

The interior of Emporio is trending with the likes of new bars that are popping up in various larger cities…simply modern (a concrete floor and brick walls) with a splash of retro funk (metal chairs and “vintage” bulbs).  With this kind of vibe, there was a great collection of people there both times I’ve visited.  Picture suits n’ ties, hipsters wearing ties, rowdy college kids, and older folks scowling at the lot of ‘em.  Tasty balls of meat are the common denominator uniting us all.

When casually dining out, we often avoid the dining area and Emporio’s expansive bar, complete with 32 rotating taps and an average cocktail menu, is the perfect spot for a Friday night.  The beers are a bit pricey, but considering the locale of this joint, I understand their price points.  That’s all the more reason to hit up happy hour when you can score ½ price pints, $5 glasses of wine, and $2 Happy Balls (sliders).   We sat at the bar on our latest visit and found ourselves chatting with veteran bartenders. I opted to stray from the drink list and order up my booze of choice.  Not many places can execute a Tequila Old Fashioned to my standards, but Emporio did it justice.

Alright, let's get to the part you've been waiting to read about...the meatballs.  So what makes a meatball delicious?  Well, flavor of course is the main factor, but for me, texture is a close second.  Chewy balls?  Dry balls?  No, thank you!  I prefer the moist, tender meatballs that Emporio is serving up.  And better still, this Meatball Joint lets the customers create their dream dish every time. 

It’s time for a lil’ education: here’s how the menu works.  At the top you’ve got your 4 balls (beef, pork, chicken, and vegetarian) and then you have a boatload of sauces to slather them with.  So, you pick your meatball and your gravy, now you get to choose how it’s served to you.  If you want to mix and match, you can order individual sliders.  If you’re a little more decisive, you can have your choice of meatballs served up as a 2-ball Panini or a 3-ball grinder.  Want to skip the house made bread altogether?  Go for the Saucy Balls!  This serving option allows you to keep it simple (just 4 balls n’ sauce) or to boldly pick from various sides, including gluten-free pasta, to set those balls upon.  If you want to throw yet another option into the mix, there is also a daily meatball to entice you. 

After a couple visits, my dining companions and myself tried several combos.  My favorite so far is the 2-ball pork Panini with pork bolognese sauce and smoked Gouda cheese.  The vegetarian meatballs over penne with pesto sauce were also quite flavorful.  The pesto was fresh and bold and it married well with the delicate veggie balls. 

Pork Panini with Pork Bolognese Sauce on the Side
Vegetarian Saucy Pesto Balls with Gluten Free Pasta
In addition to meatballs, they have various “snacky things” like fried pickle chips with bacon-ranch dressing and house cut fries.  The pickle chips were a generous portion to share and dangerously addictive.  I could have easily scarfed down a second batch.  The fries were golden and crisp and the dusting of herbs and Parmesan cheese gave those potato sticks a delicious, salty kick.  (I used the leftover bacon-ranch to dunk my frites.  So good.)  They also serve up soups, salads, and poutine.  And of course, you can add meatballs to all of these items as well.  On a future visit, I’d like to try the Rocket salad (arugula, toasted almonds, tomato, and fresh mozzarella) topped with a chicken meatball or maybe the Chili complimented by a beef ball or two.  To end your meal, I’d recommend the Ricotta Donuts, which come 5 to an order and are served piping hot.  These might just be the sweetest balls I’ve ever tasted. 

Fried Pickle Chips with Bacon-Ranch Dressing
House Cut Fries with Parmesan and Herbs and Malt Vinegar Aioli 
Dessert Balls: Ricotta Donuts
I can’t speak in regards to Sienna Mercato as a complete entity just yet, but I can definitely vouch for Emporio: A Meatball Joint.  The meatballs here are far from general and the atmosphere is just plain fun.  The next time you find yourself complaining about downtown being dead, make your way to Penn Ave.  Sienna Mercato is livening up the ‘Burgh one floor at a time. 

I give Emporio: A Meatball Joint: 4.5/5 forks
942 Penn Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Tips: They don’t take reservations, but the No Wait app will allow you to check in and “get in line” before you arrive.

Emporio: A Meatball Joint on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 20, 2014

Cenacolo Restaurant: It Might Just Be Your Last Supper

The last time we visited our friends in Erie, they took us to a charming Italian restaurant.  As I savored each bite, from appetizer to dessert, I racked my foodie mind to think of a comparable eatery in Pittsburgh.  Sure, we have Italian eats in the ‘Burgh, but I was coming up short in thinking of the kind of spot that makes you ask the wait staff, “ Hey, is the owner’s Nonna the executive chef?”  Since then, I’ve made it my mission to find said place.  That’s right my foodie friends, I’ve suffered through mediocrity and Prego-inspired plates to find the best of the best.  Here is my conclusion, although the city limits of Pittsburgh is still lacking overall, you can treat yourself to an Italian getaway in North Huntingdon (wait…where?) when you visit Cenacolo Restaurant. 

Finding Cenacolo, which refers to the Last Supper, the first time can be a bit challenging (we ended up in the Post Office parking lot more than once).  It’s not your typical restaurant locale and rightfully so. Fede Pasta, which has been making pasta for other restaurants since 2005, made the brilliant decision to open their own eatery this past October.  Rather than moving Cenacolo elsewhere, they built a restaurant and retail shop right within their wholesale distribution warehouse.  The retail shop is located in the center, offering a variety of pre-cooked pastas and house sauces for you to take home.  You can also purchase a seemingly endless variety of artisanal cheeses and cured meats at their “deli” counter.  On either side of the retail space, you’ll find the dining areas…cozy spaces that remind me of tastefully decorated home dining rooms. 

Retail Shop Meat and Cheese Counter
The owners are very accommodating to parties of all sizes; our latest visit was a birthday celebration for eight.  While we did have to wait more than a bit for our reserved table, the staff was attentive while we wandered around the retail shop.  Our waiter even brought us wine glasses so we could imbibe, free of corkage fee, as we mused over the seasonally printed menu. 

Having time to consider the night’s offerings, we were seated ready to order…or so thought.  While providing an overview of the menu, our waiter threw a delicious dilemma into the mix.  We could order individually as planned, or we could choose 3-4 items from the menu and be served larger, family style portions to share.  This was an offer we couldn’t refuse. (Ok…truth…I almost refused…because I’m stingy and I didn’t know if I could share the Ricotta Gnocchi with Short Rib Ragu.) We needed more time to agree on our selections, so we did what any hungry mob of eight would do; we ordered the large charcuterie plate.  While you may opt to select your own affettato (meat) and formaggi (cheese) selections, we let the experts do the picking and ended up with three meats and four cheeses.  My meat of choice was the Speck, a dry-cured smoked Prosciutto.  The salty, smoky flavor paired beautifully with the earthy, aromatic flavors of the Truffle cheese.  Combined with fresh, warm bread and a spread of Hot Pepper Jelly, you have bliss.   Forget about that overpriced Salumi board in Lawrenceville…this is where it’s at folks. 

Meat and Cheese Board
As we finished up our first course, arugula salads topped with generous shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano and cherry tomatoes arrived in rustic pottery bowls.  The salad was dressed in balsamic, which was a bit too sweet, even when paired with the pepperiness of the greens and the saltiness of the cheese.  It was tasty nevertheless, so next time, I will simply request the dressing on the side. 

Arugula Salad
With perfect timing, our family-sized pasta bowls began arriving, as our salad bowls were cleared.  The first pasta I scooped onto my plate was the Ricotta Gnocchi with Short Rib Ragu.  I selected this meal for myself on a previous visit and I had been dreaming of it since.  Unlike the heavy, sometimes gummy, potato gnocchi, Cenacolo has mastered the art of creating a light pillow of ricotta goodness that almost melts in your mouth.  Those yummy morsels are then blanketed in a rich, tomato-based sauce that is loaded with tender shreds of short rib.  Without exaggeration, it is the best gnocchi I’ve ever eaten. 

Ricotta Gnocchi with Short Rib Ragu
Once that bowl was pried from my fingers, I replaced it with the one containing Lamb Tortelloni.  This pasta is similar to tortellini, in that it is stuffed with various fillings, it’s simply bigger.  In this case, a velvety lamb filling was hidden inside.  The pasta was then dressed with a Marsala, mushroom, and thyme sauce that contained additional bite-sized chunks of braised lamb.  The Tortelloni were artfully created and were equally pleasing to the eye and to the mouth. 

Lamb Tortelloni
The third pasta we chose was the Mushroom Carmella.  I was tempted to pass this bowl along because I’m more of a meat sauce kind of gal and this dish was of the cheese sauce variety.  Just watching someone eat an Alfredo-esque sauce gives me stomach bloat, but I decided to trust Chef Josh Toney and took a small scoop.  That portion was doubled by night’s end.  The pasta was filled with flavorful mushrooms and was hand twisted on both ends to resemble a piece of hard candy.  The pasta was then bathed in a, dare I say, light Fontina cream sauce that produced surprise appearances of sage and crispy prosciutto.  I would have never ordered this for myself, but this dish has opened my eyes to how delicious a cheese sauce can be. 

Mushroom Carmella
Our final selection was the Gramigna.  This was a spinach and egg pasta that resembled spaghetti but was hollow in the center, and fittingly means grass.  This pasta featured a ground, sweet pork meat sauce.  It was tasty, but was my least favorite.  When dining out, I like to order things I wouldn’t or couldn’t make for myself at home, and this selection just seemed a bit dull in comparison to our other dishes. 

By the end of the night, our stomachs were beyond full and we ended up with leftovers.  But as my loyal readers know, I always have room for dessert.  Cenacolo does have post-dinner offerings, (we had the pumpkin cheesecake and the Tiramisu on a previous visit), but was gracious enough to allow me to bring a homemade birthday cake to end our evening.  Our wonderful waiter even sliced the cake for us in the kitchen.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, we were treated to shot of Limoncello to officially close the night. 

Tiramisu with Pistachio Gelato
And so, my tiresome search is over.  I declare Cenacolo the best Italian restaurant in the Pittsburgh area, and I may or may not be crafting a noodle shaped trophy in their honor.  Is it a bit of a drive for some of yinz?  Perhaps…but it’s worth every mile.  This isn’t just dinner, this is a culinary event you’d be silly to pass up. 

I give Cenacolo: 5/5 forks
1061 Main Street
North Huntingdon, PA 15642

Be sure to check out the pasta making classes and special dining events on Cenacolo's website as well.

Cenacolo Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Waffallonia: Not Your Average Waffles

I was never a fan of waffles as a kid. Perhaps that’s because I grew up eating frozen waffle discs compliments of the toaster.  It wasn’t until I went to college that waffles became a staple food item.  Choosing to skip on the daily blasé offerings of cafeteria items only a freshman could love, I spent a quality three minutes at the “Create Your Own Waffle” station more often than not.  On adventurous nights, I’d throw a few scoops of ice cream on top and consider myself a culinary genius.  So when Waffallonia opened up in Squirrel Hill a couple years back, I threw on my freshman 15 jeans and headed on over.  I’ve been indulging on these sinfully authentic Belgian waffles ever since.

If you’re a fan of the Americanized, made-from-batter "Belgian" waffles, then your waffle lovin’ mind will be blown when you sink your teeth into a Liège waffle.  These waffles get their namesake from the Belgian province in which they were created.  Liège waffles are unique in that they are made from yeast dough (an adapted form of brioche dough to be precise).  This is the smell that consumes you when opening the door.  Another difference in comparing Liège waffles with our made in America waffles is that they are sweetened with pearl sugar.  This sugar caramelizes the outside of the waffle, leaving a delicious, crunchy exterior while maintaining a soft, chewy texture on the inside.  Some of the pearl sugar remains intact within the waffle too, providing unexpected little bursts of sweetness as you eat.  In other words, once you taste a Liège waffle you will literally find all other waffles subpar. 

Now, if you were in Wallonia, you’d most likely eat a Liège waffle plain or with a little cinnamon, but thankfully here in Pittsburgh I can still get my fill of waffles a la mode.  There are normally six Dave and Andy’s ice cream flavors to choose from ranging from Vanilla Bean to Speculoos (a European spiced shortbread cookie).  I actually prefer the, dare I say, “boring” Vanilla Bean because it’s yummy and it doesn’t overpower the flavor the of the waffle.  If you’re not in the mood for the cold stuff, you can get a spread of Nutella or maybe some fresh fruit and whipped cream instead…heck, maybe all of the above. 

Liège Waffle with Speculoos Ice Cream

Liège Waffle with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Liège Waffle with Chocolate Ice Cream
The only dilemma one might have when visiting Waffallonia is where to eat your delightful creation.  In the summer, it’s perfect because you can take it to go and eat it outside, maybe sitting on the steps of a neighboring business.  Winter months can be a tad more challenging if you go when it’s busy as the seating is quite limited inside (think 6-8 bar stools in the back).  For me, I could care less if it’s a little crowed.  I will gladly stand elbow to elbow to get my waffle on…or you can always dine in your car. 

Waffallonia is making the best waffles in Pittsburgh.  Treat yourself to an amazing dessert or, if you're like me, a nostalgic college dinner.  Just remember, you’ll never be able to look at other waffles the same way again. 

I give Waffallonia: 4.5/5 forks
1707 Murray Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15217

Neighborhood: Squirrel Hill

*This review is of the Squirrel Hill location, but there is also a Waffallonia kiosk located in Schenley Plaza (Oakland).

Waffallonia on Urbanspoon