Lunch Reviews from a recent Pittsburgh Trip – Il Pizzaiolo, Lidia’s, Casbah, Prantl’s.
On a recent three day trip to Western PA I managed three breakfasts, three lunches, three dinners - full reviews with pictures in context can be found in my blog as I write them. I will include links with full text in this Topic.
Amongst the many organizations guiding and teaching the production of Neapolitan style pizza the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association is one of the most famous and well regarded. With less than 50 approved locations nationwide and only one in the Midwest region of Michigan/Ohio/West Virginia/Indiana/Pennsylvania I knew that Il Pizzaiolo was a likely visit on our trip to Pittsburgh – the convenience of lunch hours on a Monday made it an absolute must. Arriving around 1:00pm at the small location and scoring yet another free parking space along the street we made our way into the boisterous restaurant and landed the very last open table – the entirety of the restaurant remained full throughout our visit.
Greeted by our server, a friendly college age girl with an ever-present smile, our waters were filled and menus presented while we were left time to decide – time that would be welcome given the large size of the menu and the fact that I would have liked to try at least thirty items. Discussing amongst ourselves while scouring other tables for evidence of portion size we eventually settled on one appetizer, two pastas, and a pizza…we then began the agonizing process of deciding which option sounded best.
Orders finally placed we were next brought the first of two baskets of warm bread. Baked in house the first basket was had only three options while the second arrived with a fourth. With each bread a great example of its particular type the baskets featured a smoky Rustic Italian, buttery Semolina Vienna, amply sour sesame seed crusted Sourdough, and a buttery moist Foccacia. While I rather wish the pairing would have been a nice olive oil as opposed to butter neither were really necessary with all the sauce that required mopping up.
Beginning the meal as the sounds of eager diners bounced around the wonderfully decorated brick and tile interior was a delightful Arancini with creamy arborio rice providing a slightly toothsome contrast to velvety fried Mozzarella. An ample portion for a mere $6 the dish was only enhanced by resting the crispy balls of cheese in a pool of house-made marinara. Remember the comment about the bread – a whole basket was used to dredge the plate clean of the aromatic and slightly acidic sauce.
Appetizers devoured we waited a short time while waiting for our pastas – a somewhat new addition to the formerly all-pizza menu. Selecting two of the eighteen pastas the pair was delivered simultaneously and looking back I still cannot decide which was better. Beginning first with the Paglia E Fieno, a spinach and egg tagliatelle with peas, prosciutto di parma, parmigiano-reggiano, and cream I was stunned by the bouncy texture of the pasta to tooth yet its undeniable melt-in-the-mouth texture upon mastication…al dente done just right. Complimenting the pasta were sweet and snappy peas, a smooth and salty prosciutto, and a pungent parmigiano-reggiano that added texture and pungency. All balanced by a somewhat sweet cream sauce the entire dish was well thought out, well balanced, and divine.
Not to be outdone, Gnocchi Di Ricotta featuring Ricotta Gnocchi, Butter, Sage, and Parmigiana-Reggiano was a dish that would have the three of us fighting for the last dumpling. Simply prepared, as one expects from a rustic dish like gnocchi, the dumplings were undoubtedly the star of the dish – literally melting puddles of potato and ricotta cheese that provided little resistance to tooth, yet enough body to support and absorb the subtly sweet and aromatic sauce. Topped with a quick grating of cheese and cracked black pepper the gnocchi was one of the best I’ve ever tasted – a skilled hand, perfect cooking conditions, and largely un-fussed-with.
Enjoying all the previous efforts so much the “star” of the afternoon was nearly an afterthought – and one heck of an afterthought given that it is where the restaurant made its name. Opting for the Provola with Smoked Mozzarella di bufala, Cherry Tomatoes, Fresh Basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Baby Arugula, and Extra Virgin Olive Oil we watched as the dough emerged from the temperature controlled room, was rolled by hand, topped and was placed inside the stone oven for a mere 90 seconds. Emerging bubbly and charred the pizza was topped with a heap of fresh arugala, drizzled with olive oil and a quick shredding of Parmigiano-Reggiano before being plated and brought to the table. Squeaky and smoky the cheese was a perfect foil for the cornmeal accented and yeasty dough. Crisp and toasted around the circumference of the 13 inche pie and sopping wet at the center each ingredient was pronounced in flavor with the super sweet tomatoes and basil forming the foundation and the bite of the parmigiano and bitterness of the Arugula providing a nice compliment of flavor.
Happy with every aspect of the meal thus far the option for dessert was gluttonous – we were quite full, but necessary. A limited menu of sorbet, gelato, biscotti, tiramisu, and cannoli we opted to order one Cannoli and one slice of Tiramisu and share. Arriving quickly and in ample portion the house made desserts were both presented simply and unadorned. Beginning first with the Tiramisu – a rather standard example with buttery lady fingers, smooth mascarpone, high quality cocoa, ribbons of chocolate, and a hefty shot of rum – it was good, but like many pre-prepared versions it was largely unbalanced with the rum soaking the bottom layer and cream dominating the top. Significantly more impressive was the Cannoli, a crisp and slightly cinnamon accented shell housing a lightly lemon tinged ricotta cream. One end dipped in crushed pistachio, the other in chocolate chips, and sitting atop a bed of hand whipped cream – light, refreshing, and authentic.
Loud without being overwhelming the restaurant runs that fine line of a place like Otto or Mozza – somewhere between fine dining and higher end casual, and it walks the line perfectly. Great service, everything expertly prepared, and prices that fit the quality of the ingredients I was very happy with every aspect of our meal. Honestly, when the pizza, one of the best I’ve ever had was the “worst” savory…that is saying something. Clearly I need to start paying attention to that Verace Pizza Napoletana Association list when I travel.
229 South Highland Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15206
703 Washington Rd, Pittsburgh, PA 15228
Lunch on the second day of our visit was the one restaurant that gave me pause when booking the reservation – reviews were mixed, the chef was a celebrity, the location was trendy, and it was part of a mini-chain. On the other hand, my previous experiences in the Batali and Bastianich empire of restaurants had been a resounding success and this was the restaurant of Joseph’s mother, Lidia’s…it had also been in operation for nearly a decade, was designed by David Rockwell’s Group, and had recently held onto its three-star review from the Post-Gazette. Always on the lookout for excellent Italian and impressed by the bargain basement lunch menu we decided to give Lidia’s Pittsburgh a try.
Arriving at the midpoint of the lunch hour we were surprised to find the restaurant less than 1/4 full. With the bar empty and only one section being seated be claimed our reservation and were led quickly to a table near the large glass windows – an excellent view of the river would be our companion throughout the meal. Meeting our waiter, a friendly man named Chendo we were given menus and a brief explanation of the daily special pastas for the Pasta Trio. Left to decide what sounded best (honestly, there were far more great options than mediocre options) one of the numerous members of the ancillary staff arrived to fill our water glasses and take drink orders – tea for my sister, coffee for myself, iced tea for mom. With the restaurant quite slow that day I will note we were very well taken care of throughout out meal – the service staff was excellent.
Browsing the high ceilinged room, randomly placed bottles and objects, and abundant brightly colored glass panels plus Chihuily influenced chandeliers I have to say Lidia’s is a very handsome restaurant – it has that “wow” factor of many New York City dining rooms (The Modern or Alto come to mind.) While the white paper over white tablecloth aspect of the table setting struck me as odd, everything else felt “fine dining” without seeming forced. When Chendo returned we placed our orders and were surprisingly told soup or salad would be included with the meal – a nice touch, albeit unadvertised.
Sitting and waiting for our meals to arrive we were first delivered one of the better bread baskets I’ve had in recent memory - Sea Salt Foccacia, Rustic Italian, and Cracked Wheat Sourdough served with two spreads, a Chick Pea Pesto and pureed White Beans with Black Olive, both resting in a pool of slightly sweet extra virgin olive oil. Served warm the breads were tantalizing and given the size of the portions soon to be arriving it was definitely a chore not to overindulge (a chore I failed, miserably.)
Approximately 10 minutes after orders were placed our first course arrived as promised – a competent albeit under seasoned Leek, Potato, and Bread Soup. Served piping hot my first bite was deceiving in that I thought the temperature was responsible for the obscuring the flavor. Unfortunately as the soup began to cool I realized that I was not fooled – the soup just wasn’t well done. Pungent and potato laden, in reality the only seasoning seemed to come from the salt on the bread. Not a good start – even if it was free.
For our main courses my mother opted for a salad and a contorti while Erika and I chose pastas. For myself (unpictured due to a camera malfunction) the choice was quite simple - my favorite pasta and my favorite protein on the same plate, Gnocchi with Duck Guazetto. An Italian Stew not unlike Chicken Cacciatore, but featuring duck in white wine instead of Chicken in Red the thick reduction was hearty, meaty, smoky, and laden with vegetables. Paired with a toothsome yet non-doughy potato gnocchi the dish was not only enormous, but incredibly filling. While I will admit I ate a lot of bread and helped my mother and sister with their plates I can say that this was one dish I couldn’t finish, it was just too large – but it was so good that had our hotel had a microwave I’d have certainly taken some home with me.
For Mother’s selection she opted for the Roasted Beet and Apple Salad with Frisee and Fresh Goat Cheese plus the Pan Seared Golden Polenta Fritters. A competent salad with sweet apples balancing earthy beets and pungent goat cheese the dish was brought together by a splash of balsamic and olive oil, ample in size and flavor, very nicely done. Not fairing quite as well as the Salad were the Fritters – nicely prepared and crispy on the outside with creamy polenta within, they again lacked flavor, much like the soup. Paring the fritters with some of the sauce from my sister’s pasta or the Guazetto certainly helped, but if I were Lidia’s I’d use a more aromatic cheese or pair these squares with a marinara.
Erika’s selection would be the signature Pasta Trio – three pastas plated tableside with unlimited refills. Admittedly the concept sounds somewhat “Olive Garden” but that is before you realize two of the pastas are made in house and one is imported direct from Italy…and all the sauces are made daily in the kitchen, as well. Served up onto a single large platter the daily selections for the 29th of June would be hand torn Tagliatelle and Pork Ragu, Imported Orchiette with Fennel Sausage and Thyme, and house folded Sweet Pea and Corn Ravioli with Cream Sauce. Enormous in portion I cannot really fathom anyone requiring seconds of the trio and at a mere $14 the selections were excellent. Smoky and Sweet the Pork Ragu complimented the al dente Tagliatelle nicely while the aromatic sausage was an equally balanced flavor for the Orchiette (which, in my opinion could have used a little more straining prior to adding the sauce.) The most impressive of the group, the sweet pea and corn ravioli, was sweetened only by the vegetal components while the cream itself had notes of cinnamon and nutmeg. Some may call the trio gimmicky – personally, if a gimmick is good I don’t mind.
Returning food to the kitchen and actually quite full we originally declined Chendo’s suggestion of dessert – but then decided it wouldn’t hurt to look at the menu...well, at least it wouldn’t hurt anything but our waistlines. Browsing the menu from top to bottom and finding not a single unimpressive option we decided to go with two desserts to be shared around. Arriving simultaneously and thankfully smaller than the entrees was Torta di Mandorle e Mirtilli - Blueberry and almond cake, blueberry-lavender ice cream, almond crunch, blueberries. If a little is good a lot is better seemed to be the theme of this dessert and it worked nicely – the fresh blueberries lacing the buttery pound cake, the flowery accent to the blueberry ice cream, and the crunchy sugared almonds paired with even more blueberries – excellent.
The second dessert, larger in size but lighter in texture, would be Panna Cotta alla Fragola - Strawberry and ricotta panna cottas, lemon-strawberry sandwich cookies, fresh strawberries. Served in a 12oz glass better suited for a milkshake the panna cotta was surprisingly springy and well blended with a more gelatin strawberry base topped by an ample creamy layer of whipped cream and ricotta. Unnecessary but welcomed the lemony cookies were much akin to a shortbread in texture and Madeline in flavor.
Settling the modest bill my mother picked up a Jar of Lidia’s Marinara as a souvenir for my aunt and paid up front before we made our way to the street. With a full afternoon of wandering Falling Water and Nemacolin ahead of us I have to admit I slept like a baby in the car while my mother and sister navigated – a nice carb load will do that to you. Thinking back on the meal I have to admit it wasn’t the best Italian food I’ve ever had, but it was nicely done and served at an excellent price point in a fantastic room. Having heard “upscale Olive Garden” comparisons I personally find that assessment far from accurate and would actually go so far as to say that aside from the lack of seasoning (ironic given the fact that most people critique Batali and Bastianich restaurants for over seasoning) the experience was on par with many fine dining Italian establishments in other cities…if the portions were smaller I’d have loved to try more of the menu.
1400 Smallman Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15222
Day 3: Casbah and Prantl's
For our last lunch in Pittsburgh we decided to return to the Big Burrito Group; Eleven was quite good and both Gayot and Pittsburgh Magazine compared the experience at Casbah favorably to that of Big Burrito’s crown jewel. Citing a mix of Mediterranean and Northern African influences with a bargain Piccola Gusto Menu for lunch and the option for indoor or al fresco dining it seemed as if Casbah was a can’t miss option…well, sometimes things don’t turn out quite as you expect – almost everything that transpired from the moment we arrived until the moment we left was a failure.
Taking a step back and trying to be objective - arriving around noon it was evident from the start that Casbah was a “happening” sort of place – power lunches in suits, couples dressed as if they were out for an evening, ladies gossiping and exchanging gifts – the outdoor patio (reminiscent of Spago) was full and the inside just short of packed. With that noted, we had reservations and there were open tables – we were seated promptly by the hostess…and then we waited upward of 7-8 minutes for menus or a staff member to arrive.
When our server, a young woman named Amanda L who would prove quite inept and inefficient from start to finish, finally did arrive our menus were delivered with a brief hello before she wandered away – another server later stopped by to fill our water and drinks were never even offered. When Amanda finally did return she was capable of answering a couple questions about portion size and our orders were placed. With my mom and sister opting for the two-course Gusto lunch and myself choosing two courses a la carte we sat and sipped our water.
Waiting approximately 10 minutes another ancillary server arrived with bread and butter – a light and airy white bread with a hefty crust paired with a sweet and salted cow’s milk butter – decent, but nothing to write home about compared to the myriad bread options at Eleven. After this point we would not see another staff member for 30 minutes…well, we would see them, they just wouldn’t be walking anywhere near our table – instead bussing tables and running around while the hostess flirted with a man at the bar…I’ll note that my water glass remained empty for greater than 15 minutes.
When our first courses did arrive they were not delivered by Amanda but instead by the man who had brought our bread. Left without a description but with a full glass of water we dug in, finally freed from the culinary prison of bread and water. Starting with the soup du jour, ordered by both my mother and sister, Mushroom Soup, ramp pesto, walnuts – earthy and aromatic, some contrast from the walnuts, but actually quite bland and served lukewarm…mom actually considered asking for salt but deferred – I’m not sure if that was because I commented about her blood pressure or because she assumed it would take an hour.
My first selection would prove much better than the soup, but certainly not as nuanced as I’d expected for a dish with so many ingredients. Titled Potato Gnocchi, asparagus, sun-dried tomato, rosemary, greens, braised chicken, Landaff cheese I will first note the dumplings themselves were very nicely done – toothsome but dissolving on the tongue. Tangy and nicely melted the Landaff was a great addition to the plate and served to nicely compliment the gnocchi. Where the dish faltered, unfortunately, was the exact opposite of the soup – the combination of braised chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, and cheese simply overwhelmed the more mild flavors of the other vegetal constituents and spices. A competent dish with great texture and giving me the impetus to look into Landaff the next time I decide to make Macaroni and cheese; it was just too salty.
Finished with our first courses approximately 10 minutes would pass – long enough for me to actively collect each and every plate and stack them at the empty seat of our four-top – before Amanda would finally return to collect the dirty plates…we’d not see her again until 15 minutes later when she filled our water glasses and told us our main courses would be “right out.” While I guess she didn’t define “right out,” what this actually meant was “in 25 minutes.” Starting first with my mother’s combo - Jumbo Lump Crab, pepper bacon, avocado, radish sprouts, on a paesano bun and Orecchiette Pasta with grilled chicken, dried cranberries, Riverview Farms goat cheese, sage cream – all I can note from my single bite of the sandwich was that the bacon was excellent (mom notably liked the sandwich a lot.) While the sandwich may not be memorable, the pasta was actually quite impressive. Using a less salty cheese and mild cream to flavor the al dente little ears of pasta worked wonders while the sweet/savory mélange of craisins and grilled chicken were a nice match.
Vastly less well done than my mother’s plate would be my sister’s option – the Grilled Vegetables, portobello, zucchini, eggplant, arugula, chickpea hummus, on baguette and Maccheretto pasta with wild mushrooms, white beans, sun-dried tomatoes, rapini pesto, fontina, walnuts. Beginning with the sandwich, the bite I had was good in taste but rather mushy in consistency – too many similar vegetable textures and the hummus spread too thickly. Moving on to the pasta – first Erika tasted it. Then I tasted it. Then my mother tasted it. Honestly, to this point I’m still not sure what we were supposed to be tasting – it tasted like watery cheese…no spice, no salt, and certainly nothing resembling pesto or tomatoes. For the first time in the meal Amanda actually opted to check on us approximately 10 minutes into our main courses and when told of the watery pasta she did apologize and offered to replace it with something else – another order of the Orcchiette would prove as good as the first.
For my main course I received a simple side salad – fresh greens, crispy onion strings, and a pleasant vinaigrette. The salad, of course, was served alongside Elysian Fields Lamb “Mac and Cheese”, tubetti pasta, mascarpone, cheddar, Pecorino-Romano, and bread crumbs. Piping hot and browned with crispy bread crumbs the dish was a decent Macaroni and Cheese, but honestly the lamb was so scarce and thinly cut that it added little. Additionally confusing – these “tubetti” pasta…like a macaroni noodle cut in half…personally, I’d have opted for something with more size and body.
Completing our mains approximately 110 minutes after entering Casbah we again waited nearly ten minutes before anyone would stop by to collect dirty plates – a different ancillary server this time. With my mother and sister already deciding enough was enough they stood up to use the restroom before leaving – by the time Amanda would stop by to ask if anyone would care for dessert our two course meal had lasted 2:05 and I skipped on a menu entailing bread pudding, carrot cake, and panna cotta with “just the bill.”
As a man who wears his emotions quite prominently I’ve no doubt I looked pissed at this point – no apology was offered, however. Settling the bill via credit card no tip was left because no tip was deserved – in reality Amanda may have actually be the worst server I've encountered at a fine dining establishment in the last 2 years. I will note that when I wrote to Big Burrito (something I rarely do) I was met by a (seemingly) sincere apology without excuses – the Manager stated things don’t’ normally happen like that and he’d be sure the issue was addressed. He closed with “I hope you will join us again in the future.” I will not.
Driving away from Casbah we set the GPS to the Warhol museum…dessert could be cupcakes at Dozen in the Warhol Café, we figured. Driving though the streets of Pittsburgh up to Walnut Street the GPS alerted us that a programmed destination was close and our plans changed – Prantl’s would be dessert, instead. Ever intrigued by restaurants, shops, bakeries, and cafes that become infamous for a single item (see Haydel’s in NOLA or Patisserie Claude in NYC) I felt it necessary to see if the Burnt Almond Torte lived up to the hype.
Parking at a Premium at this time of day I hopped out while the others circled the block. Entering the small shop and finding no less than 7 people waiting in line I grabbed a number and browsed the selections – 5 full cases ranging from whole cakes to single iced cookies and everything in between. With 5 servers behind the counter the line moved quickly and it would be a matter of minutes before I had to make a decision – opting for three items that spanned a wide range I paid the modest $6 tab and made my way outside.
Opening the string-tied box the smell of cinnamon quickly filled the air announcing to everyone my first selection – a still-slightly-warm Cinnamon roll. Ample, yeasty, and loaded with butter and Cinnamon I quite liked that the pastry was not overly-iced, instead focusing on the more nuanced flavors and natural yeasty flavor of the roll. While my sister contested it would have been better hot (I can’t say I disagree) it was an excellent pasty none the less.
The second selection was ordered more out of tradition than out of necessity – a chocolate cupcake with colorful sugary frosting. Having not yet indulged on a cupcake in our Pittsburgh trip I can’t say this option looked particularly interesting, but tradition is tradition and surprisingly it was actually quite good. Simple white on black cake, moist and sweet – nothing new, but certainly an adequate cupcake for $0.99.
The final choice was obviously the Burnt Almond Torte – a single “Bar” for $3.25. Large and heavy I was expecting to have my mind blown given the reviews all I can say is that the rumors are true. Somewhat Twinkie, somewhat Pound Cake, smooth and complex custard plus whipping cream, and sugar laden almonds cooked to just short of scorched. Crispy, creamy, crispy, creamy - layer upon layer of home style decadence. Sharing the bar around the car (and making a mess) everyone agreed that this was one of the best baked goods we’d ever experienced - and an absolute bargain at that. Really, much like King Cake in NOLA and Pizza in Chicago I can’t imagine going back to Pittsburgh and not getting a slice of Burnt Almond Torte from Prantl’s.
229 South Highland Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15206
wow, what great, specific reviews! Sorry to hear you had a rough time at Casbah. while not everyone is a fan, I really love Casbah...although i live half a block away. I also always get the same thing, the double cut pork chop.
Prantl's does have the most amazing burnt almond torte. Other bakeries try to compare, but they cant. I actually had the burnt almond torte as my wedding cake. Not the most beautiful cake, but the best tasting wedding cake ever!
Bona terra is a fantastic restaurant. Glad you had a chance to experience it!
229 South Highland Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15206