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.
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.
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.
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.