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

Monday, September 23, 2013

Café Raymond: Overlooked by Those Seeking the Overrated

I always shake my head as I pass the line of tourists who are waiting for their turns to scrounge on greasy plates from a certain local breakfast spot in the strip… no doubt taking their recommendations from a re-run of Man vs. Food.   Apparently many out-of-towners are fans of the overrated.  In fact, they are so blinded by plates covered with entire cans of Reddi Whip, that they are missing out on one of the true “best breakfasts” in town just a few blocks up the strip.  If you prefer quality over excessive quantity, it’s time to skip the line and give Café Raymond the attention it deserves. 

Café Raymond is fittingly named after Raymond Mikesell.  He’s a yinzer from the Northside with some serious food credits.  He’s baked for famous peeps like Cal Ripken Jr. and has lived in romantic places like France…he also lived amongst the dirty birdy fans of Baltimore for a decade, but let’s move on.  He could have opened his café anywhere, but we’re lucky enough to have Chef Raymond back in the ‘Burgh. 

As you approach the café, you’ll see some al fresco tables where patrons are often found freely advertising the fresh, local ingredients to be had.  Once inside, you can peruse the chalkboard menu of breakfast and lunch items.  On Saturdays and Sundays they offer up two breakfast specials, most often a specialty omelet and pancakes, in addition to the regular menu.  A few weeks ago I had the most amazing breakfast sandwich.  It was egg, applewood smoked bacon, mixed greens, tomato, and chipotle mayo on perfectly toasted slices of brioche.  I seriously could’ve eaten an entire loaf of that bread… causing all the gluten heads to cover their eyes and hide their children.  I also love their seasonal pancake specials…the Blueberry Ricotta are deceivingly light and fluffy considering they are made using buckwheat.  I’m looking forward to this fall when I can fulfill my pumpkin pancake cravings. 

Brioche Breakfast Sandwich...yes, I had already eaten half when I remembered to snap a pic.
Blueberry Ricotta Pancakes
The hubby is a fan of omelets and Café Raymond serves them up right…wildly fluffy and filled with savory treats like spinach, fresh mozzarella, and pesto or perhaps some smoked salmon and scallions.  And better yet, omelets are served with oven-roasted potatoes.  When he’s in the mood for a meatier brunch, he orders the Pastrami Sandwich.  While this is technically on the lunch menu, Café Raymond will add an egg to this already behemoth of a sammie if you say, “Please.”  You could easily split this bad boy with a friend.  (While I'm usually there to munch on breakfast goodies, I must note that all of the sandwiches I've tried have been yummy, fresh, and filling.  You can choose from a variety of salads or dine on a daily lunch special as well.)

Spinach Omelet and Oven Roasted Potatoes
Pastrami Sandwich with Egg
Once you’re stuffed and feeling like you need to loosen your belt, there’s only one thing left to do…get dessert of course!  As mentioned, Raymond is a first class baker and his pastries are more than delicious.  My old faithful is the Blueberry Custard Croissant.  The dough is flaky and crisp, making the perfect basket for the creamy custard and perfectly sweetened berries sitting inside.  I’d recommend getting there early because they usually sell out. 

Blueberry Custard Croissant
I am always a fan of eating local, but some local eateries are just better than others.  I can honestly say (without any hoopla) that Café Raymond is doing it right, and you’d be wrong to pass up this gem during your next visit to the Strip. 

I give Café Raymond: 5/5 forks
2103 Penn Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Weekday Lunch Specials

Neighborhood: Strip District

Cafe Raymond on Urbanspoon