Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Mezzo: This “Middle” Floor Eatery Tops My Downtown Restaurant List

My voice is starting to strain from singing the praises of Matthew Porco!  This 2010 Chef of the Year is ensuring that Mezzo, the newly opened second floor eatery of Sienna Mercato, is sending delectable food to your table without the usual new-opening indigestion.  And he’s not just leading his culinary team behind those swinging kitchen doors either.  He’s the bearded fellow who has been manning the wood-fired pizza/prep station since opening day.  If you’re lucky enough to sit at the bar, you can watch him perform the dance of the pizzas while he rotates gourmet pies among the flames, as this seating area has no obstructed viewing. 

Chef Porco
Although my favorite seat in practically any eatery I patron is that of a barstool, I want to give Mezzo’s dining area some much-deserved love, too. The sleek table settings and hardwood floors are softly illuminated with cascading Edison bulbs.  And Sienna’s staple of open-air dining is maintained with retractable garage-style windows that let you take in the views on Penn Avenue when the weather cooperates.  What I’m trying to say here is that Mezzo is stylish…romantic…teetering on sexy even. 

The only thing more appealing than how Mezzo looks, is what you get to put in your mouth while you ogle the place.  Yes, the pizza is downright superb as I alluded to earlier.  Chef Porco has taken the idea of gourmet pizzas to an even higher level.  We have had the pleasure of trying a few pies.  The Picante Salami and Peppers had a hearty, robust tomato sauce that was kicked up a notch with the addition of chili flakes and banana peppers.  The one that I will be comparing all other pies to from now until further notice, however, is the Pistachio and Porchetta.  I literally just stopped writing because I was trying to relive the consumption of that pie in my mind.  In place of tomato sauce, a foundation of pistachio pesto was generously applied and then blanketed with tender slices of porchetta (pork roast) dusted with fennel pollen.  This would be a party in your mouth as it is, but then they top the piping hot mozzarella with fresh arugula dressed in a citrus-based vinaigrette.  There are no words left to say…just go get one.  Okay, enough pizza chitchat…on to other eats.

Enjoying the pizza show.
Pistachio and Porchetta Pizza
So when combining everything we’ve ordered in our visits since Mezzo’s very recent opening, I’ve had the privilege of trying maybe ten different menu items.  (Jeeealous!)  Literally, everything I’ve tried has been pleasing to the eyes and palate.  Starting with drinks, my Manhattans have been expertly crafted.  You may also want to try some vino from their growing wine list.  You really can’t go wrong either way.  While you imbibe, you need to order up some appetizers.  I equally loved the Grilled Octopus and the Greens and Beans.  The medley of al dente white beans and roasted red peppers made the octopus dish light, yet filling enough to appease my growing hunger pangs.  The greens and beans were savory to say the least.  Rich, somewhat briny broth played perfectly with the spiciness of the crumbled sausage that enriched every bite. 

Grilled Octopus
Greens and Beans
Some other pre-entrée items worth ordering are the Little Gems salad and the charcuterie board.  A basic Caesar salad was elevated to gourmet status by using imported anchovies to not only create a flavor-punching vinaigrette but to also adorn the baby romaine hearts.  If you’ve written off anchovies because you recall them being dark, bony, morsels of dankness, give them another go.  These lil’ guys are the real deal and will change your outlook on life…or maybe just your opinion of tiny fish.  The chef selected charcuterie board on the other hand…now we are getting serious.  I have a greedy, American appetite so we ordered the large portion, which came with a dizzying amount of meats, cheeses, and a dollop of the nightly preserves.  I really tried to listen to our server name everything, for real!  But in the end, I really couldn’t tell you with 100% accuracy which cured meats and cheeses we tried, save a few.  The important part is that the flavors were thoughtfully selected.  In a singular bite you could have the saltiness of the meats, the smokiness from select cheeses, and the sweetness of the preserves all working together to create complexity.  You can be daring and throw a pickled grape in your mouth too! 

Half of the Little Gems salad
Now at this point, I probably should have been full but I was just too excited for the next course.  The highly anticipated entrees, just as our other items, had arrived at the perfect pacing.  While we had tried the La Geneovese (braised beef with ziti) and the Pork Risotto previously, our latest visit produced two new contenders for best dish: the Seafood Risotto and the Pork “Cut of the Day.”  Unlike seafood risotto I’ve had at other eateries, the ocean dwellers were bountiful and cooked to perfection.  Everything from the shrimp to the squid added tender succulence to the creamy, tomato based sauce.  I would say that this dish was my favorite if it weren’t for the pan-fried pork loin I savored.  That juicy, thick cut of pig was set on a stage of starchy white bean puree and draped with braised escarole and tomatoes.  The flavors were accented further with a velvety demi-glace.  This dish was rustic, yet beautiful. 

Seafood Risotto
Pork "Cut of the Day"
I was in food euphoria when I learned that I could complete my unofficial “Chef’s Tasting” experience with a sweet treat from Mezzo’s in-house pastry chef.  Everything sounded decadent so I was a little worried when I “hurriedly selected”  (more like hymn and hawed for 10 min) the Pear Tart.  From my front row seat I was able to witness and smell the creation of a crunchy sugar topping thanks to a trusty blowtorch.  My worries were a distant memory after tasting the dreamy combination of delicate pears, vanilla custard, and that crackly candy pane. 

Pear Tart
I never judge a new place too critically when its baby fresh, but I’m officially chastising Mezzo…for not opening sooner.  With the popularity of Il Tetto and Emporio, one had to speculate if Mezzo was going suffer the “middle” child syndrome.   Well, have no fear, this upscale eatery has been thoroughly nurtured and beautifully completes the Sienna Mercato family trio.  I encourage you to check my new favorite restaurant soon…just make sure to save me a seat at the bar. 

I give the Mezzo: 5/5 forks
942 Penn Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Mezzo on Urbanspoon

Tips: Mezzo (like all of Sienna Mercato’s eateries) does not accept reservations.  Use the “No Wait” app to snag a spot in line.  Also, you need to use the stairs, not the elevator, to get on up there.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Pizza Dojo: Pizza Boat vs. Bread and Salt

I love a good competition, especially when it involves food.  Well lucky for me, I got to experience a deliciously epic battle when Pizza Boat went “dough to dough” against Bread and Salt for the bragging rights of best pizza on Friday.  Armed with 100 pies each, who would claim victory at the Pizza Dojo? 

With ideal weather conditions and social media abuzz, there was already a healthy line forming as the wood-burning oven fired up the first pie at 6pm.  Those classy gents at Bar Marco were the gracious hosts and perhaps partial culprits in encouraging the second round of this pizza war.  (Pizza Boat vs. Bread and Salt had resulted in a draw back in March.)  Bar Marco is generally a fun hang but with the opening of their courtyard (aka the cocktail garden…or at least that’s what I’m calling it) it was the ideal locale for this feud to go down. 

When looking over the two menus, each had a clear standout.  For Bread and Salt, it was the Mast’Nicola which consisted of lardo from Cure, pecorino, and basil.  If you’ve got something from Cure, I need to put it in my mouth.  Pizza Boat’s obvious pick was the RickRoll’D, featuring tomato, mozzarella, goat cheese, mustard greens, red onions, and lamb sausage.  Pizza Boat was definitely going with the more is…well, more idea.

As we waited for our pies, I sipped on one of Giuseppe’s creations and pondered over which pizza I would like best. In one corner of the ring was Pizza Boat with Jeff Ryan and Matt Watson.  They’re known to set up their trailer-mounted oven next to Bar Marco on the weekends.  In the opposing corner was Bread and Salt’s Rick Easton who is preparing his new storefront in Bloomfield.  In the meantime, he’s been popping up temporarily as well.  You can see him at The Brew Gentlemen Beer Co. on 8/18 for example.  As each pizza was served to those around us, my anxious appetite was growing. 

At long last our name was called.  The first pie we tried was from Bread and Salt (the one with the lardo).  At first bite I was completely smitten with the crust.  It was delicate, yet chewy and had some awesome charring.  The lardo was nicely crispy and blackened a bit as well.  Unfortunately, I found the pie a tad too salty.  With the natural saltiness of lardo, I was surprised to see that additional course salt had been sprinkled on top.  As we finished up our final slice, Pizza Boat (mmmm…lamb sausage) was given their turn.  The layers of flavor in this pie were off the charts.  The contrasting bitterness of the mustard greens and the sweetness of the tomatoes was an especially thoughtful addition.   When I reached the crust, however, I wishing for more of those delicate pockets of air that Bread and Salt had created.

Bread and Salt's Mast'Nicola (lardo from Cure, pecorino, and basil)
Pizza Boat's RickRoll'd (tomato, mozzarella, goat cheese, mustard greens, red onions, and lamb)
So who wins?  Well, technically, Pizza Boat was the winner…they sold out of pies first.  For me, it was a draw.  I’m actually wishing that these talented guys had spent less time karate chopping each other’s dough balls and would’ve worked on a collaborative menu.  Can you imagine a Bread and Salt crust topped with the creative flavor medleys the dudes from Pizza Boat are thinking up?  A gal can dream can’t she?  Until that pizza pie utopia comes to fruition, I’ll happily patron both of these businesses.   

I give Pizza Boat: 4/5 forks

I give Bread and Salt: 4/5 forks

Bread and Salt (coming soon)
330 Pearl Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15224

Look for them next to Bar Marco in the Strip on the weekends.

Pizza Boat on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Brooklyn Brewery’s “Dinner on the Farm” Mash Event at Blackberry Meadows Farm

I’m a lover of all things local, especially when it comes to our booming brewery scene.  That said, I’ll abuse my liver with delicious craft beer from a variety of respectable breweries.  A prime example of this is Brooklyn Brewery. Incredibly lucky for us, they chose Pittsburgh (just one of 12 cities selected in ‘Merica and Europe) as one of their Mash tour stops.  What is The Mash you ask?  The Brooklyn Brewery Mash is a weeklong event in which Brooklyn collaborates with local bars, chefs, comedians, musicians, and more.  While we attended several stellar events, the highlight of The Mash and the focus of my latest ravings was Dinner on the Farm (a roaming dinner orchestrated by Monica Walch), which was hosted by Blackberry Meadows Farm.

There is something magical about driving out of the hustle ‘n bustle of the city to a farm like Blackberry Meadows for dinner.  Even more so knowing that Brooklyn Brewery Chef Andrew Gerson and his city lovin’ friends Chef Justin Severino of Cure and Chef Mike Poiarkoff of Vinegar Hill House (Brooklyn, NY) were leaving their brick and mortar eateries behind and preparing an outdoor feast for you on an 85-acre organic vegetable farm.

After parking in a field, we unloaded plates, chairs, and a vase of flowers (self arranged, thank you).  “Why are you bringing your own stuff?” you inquire.  Well, unlike other farm dinners I’ve attended, the focus was less about “stuff” and more about the actual farm and the idea of eating a delicious communal meal paired with cold Brooklyn Brews.  As a result, the cost of this event was quite affordable, allowing everyone from young professionals to families of six to attend (children were free).  The trade was needing to bring necessary items/utensils to allow for dining and lounging.  With friends in tow, we chose to divide and conquer, each of us agreeing to bring various items, including our own table.  Others opted to bring blankets and go the picnic route.

Our collaborative effort looked pretty darn beautiful.
With our table set, we filled our Mason jars with either the perennial fav’ Brooklyn Lager or the seasonally perfect Summer Ale.  Since there were no IPAs on tap (no Brooklyn Blast) I went with the lager.  I’m pleased to say, this brew with delightfully refreshing and still offered up some mild bitterness.  It was a great beer to imbibe upon while scarfing down an obscene volume of “small plate” action.  In addition to local delicacies like mushroom pate and an assortment of cheese provided by Wild Purveyors, Chef Serverino brought Cure’s infamous charcuterie spread to the farm.  The amount of cured meats and rabbit terrine (terrine=fancy chilled meat loaf, often featuring game meat…thanks Frenchies) I stuffed in to my endless pit of a stomach was worth the price of admission alone, folks. 
Brent Mangan pouring cold, delicious Brooklyn brews.
Rabbit terrine getting sliced for the charcuterie board.

Charcuterie...I want more.
Thankfully, we were given a food timeout and as we toured the farm.  We wandered from the green house to the barn and encountered a few cows and chickens along the way.  This was a wonderful way to meet the farmers of Blackberry Meadows and learn about their CSA program and farmers market locales.  By the end of the tour, it was evident that Blackberry Meadows is the product of hardworking hands and hearts. 

Inside the greenhouse.
Cutest cow ever?
I was happy to have some additional downtime between the tour and dinner.  It allowed us time to enjoy the sounds of a local band Union Rye, get our next round of Brooklyn brews, and…maybe play some Cards Against Humanity.  (Don’t worry; we were an appropriate distance away from small children.)

Local band Union Rye
After a short time, the main event started arriving on large banquet tables, family-style.  There was a bounty of farm greens including perfectly charred ramps and pepperoncini peppers.  The roasted potatoes and chicken were enriched with flavor thanks to Blackberry Meadows’ wood-fired oven.  Everything was simply prepared, yet expertly executed by three brilliant chefs, allowing the freshness of each ingredient to shine through with each bite.  

Trio of food geniuses: Chef Mike Poiarkoff (left), Chef Andrew Gerson (center), Chef Justin Severino (right)

Pepperoncini topped with freshly grated cheese.
Ramps and other fresh greens.
The other end of the table: the protein and the starch.
The tranquility of the farm encouraged each diner to eat at a leisurely pace while chatting with friends new and old.  There was also plenty of time and food to indulge on a second helping…if you didn’t load your plate to gluttonous proportions like I did on the first trip.  I was completely stuffed to the brim when the last course made its grand entrance.  Spare dessert stomachs really do come in handy!  But really, who could resist a savory cornmeal based olive oil cake, topped with the sweet tartness of strawberry-rhubarb compote, and the herbalicious flavors of sorrel whipped cream?  Not me…in fact, I played my glutton card yet again when I took two pieces of cake and created my own makeshift version of strawberry shortcake. 

Dessert before...
Dessert after I got all Martha Stewart...olive oil cake with strawberry-rhubarb compote and sorrel whipped cream.
Once plates were cleared from blankets and tables alike, most people stayed and enjoyed the gorgeous evening air.  When we finally decided to head out (being the last guests left and all), I decided on two things: 1.) Brooklyn Brewery Mash is maybe one of the best PR events of all time.  Sure, Brooklyn got me there, but when I left I was singing praises for all involved.  2.) Dinner on the Farm was so much fun.  I strongly encourage you to keep your eye out for future dates. 

Thanks to all involved for making such a wonderful event possible, especially Blackberry Meadows Farm for being such welcoming hosts.  See you at the next farmers market. 

I give Brooklyn Brewery's “Dinner of the Farm” (Blackberry Meadows Farm): 5/5 forks
7115 Ridge Rd
Natrona Heights, PA 15065

For CSA information call or email: info@blackberrymeadows.com

Click here for Dinner on the Farm info.

Did you miss The Brooklyn Brewery Mash in PGH?  Here are the remaining tour dates:

LONDON, UK: July 27 - August 2

TWIN CITIES: August 10 - 16

PHILADELPHIA, PA:  September 28 - October 4

BOSTON, MA: October 12 – 18

MIAMI, FL: October 26 - November 1

AUSTIN, TX: November 16 – 22

 Blackberry Meadows Farm on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 12, 2014

Sienna Mercato’s Il Tetto is Open: Let’s Shout It From the Rooftop!

I am infatuated with delicious eats, but I’m a sucker for ambience.  Find me a place that has both, and I will be your number one customer.  I’m excited to say that the visionaries behind Sienna Mercato are now two for two with the recent opening of Il Tetto.  Now you have the mother of all dilemmas.  Will you get your meatball on at Emporio (located on the first floor) before or after you take the elevator ride to Il Tetto’s gorgeous rooftop beer garden? 

As some of you know I’ve been anticipating the opening of Il Tetto for some time.  As the cosmos would have it, their second night in operation just happened to be my birthday.  No lie, I was a tad nervous bringing my band of friends to a locale I had never been before, but the idea of a spacious rooftop bar in downtown was just too darn tempting to pass up.  My imagination had nothing on this place.  Upon exiting the elevator, my jaw dropped a bit.  The rain had stayed at bay, allowing the retractable glass ceiling to reveal a portion of the city’s skyline and a pleasant nighttime breeze.  Seating options varied from cozy nooks to sizable party tables.  The bar, which lined an entire stretch of wall, was inviting as well.  No matter where you sit, be sure to look up and admire the gas lamps and charming strings of lights.  The décor is pleasing to most anyone I’d wager, from sports fans (there were several TVs playing the Buccos game) to those seeking a romantic rendezvous and anyone in between. 

Take a Gander
So, Il Tetto is picturesque, you get it.  But looks will only get you so far (as my grandma loved to remind me when I’d get “gussied up.”)  I needed to get my hands on a birthday libation.  Lucky for me, the draft list is equally as impressive as Emporio’s.  The reason?  Each of the 32 drafts that are downstairs are piped up to Il Tetto’s bar.  You can also imbibe on wine and specialty cocktails if you prefer. 

In regards to food, the menu provides a select list of small plates ranging from munchies like house-made Pork Rinds to heavier dishes like the Duck Confit Steak Fries.  We ordered the latter.  The fries were crisp, yet tender and the duck fat gravy added a velvety richness to the plentiful shreds of duck meat.  The topping of a sunny side-up egg added yet another level of richness and texture.  In other words, it was delicious.  We also gave the Pork Conserve, Roasted Cauliflower, and Artisanal Italian Cheese plate a try out.  The pork dish was particularly guilt inducing.  The combination of grilled bread, lardo, tender pork in olive oil, and cherry based conserve (similar to jam) was complex in flavor and rustically elegant. 

Duck Confit Steak Fries
Roasted Cauliflower
Pork Conserve
If ordering a few small plates, you can easily create a filling meal.  One thing you cannot do, however, is order food from other floors (i.e. Emporio or Mezzo which will be opening soon).  Take my advice and avoid asking to have meatball sliders delivered via the elevator (don’t judge us), because as our patient server politely explained…Il Tetto is its own entity.  It just happens to be housed in the same building.  As a result, we ended our night downstairs, treating our sampling of small plates as appetizers.  Talk about convenient bar hopping. 

Il Tetto is an experience not to be missed.  Reminiscent to some of the trendiest rooftop bars in NYC, I am thrilled to have such a sweet place right here in the ‘Burgh.  The question is…will Sienna Mercato be the culinary trifecta of downtown when Mezzo opens its second floor doors?  Stay tuned.  

I give Il Tetto: 4.5/5 forks
942 Penn Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Il Tetto on Urbanspoon