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Review: Stagioni

Bloomfield’s modest gem blossoms in its new South Side location.




Photos by Laura Petrilla
 

Immediately after opening its doors in 2009, Stagioni (which means “seasons” in Italian) was discovered by passionate foodies who praised its simple, high-quality food. But the restaurant was always hindered by its cramped, noisy interior and too-small kitchen.

Earlier this year, Stagioni relocated to a more fitting space (the former Le Pommier on East Carson Street) and enhanced the dining experience by adding a liquor license. Chef/co-owner Stephen Felder (our 2012 Rising Star Chef) is excited about the new digs: “We have more space and staff members, so we can spread our wings.”

An added cellar allows Felder and company to stash away fresh produce for months when it’d normally be out of season and hard to come by. Additionally, the upstairs dining room provides a nice spot for small gatherings, like birthday outings and anniversaries, accommodating as many as 40 diners.

Felder’s daily menu features rustic Italian food, made with top-notch local and seasonal ingredients. The restaurant aims to post the ever-changing menu online daily — although the lineup always features Stagioni’s signature homemade pastas and gnocchi.

Start your meal with a Stagioni “fan favorite:” made-to-order, homemade Mozzarella ($10), served warm, usually accompanied by prosciutto, roasted red peppers, olives and a balsamic reduction along with Mediterra Bakehouse bread; when available, the Mozzarella is served with heirloom tomatoes as well as basil, olive oil and balsamic.  The cheese itself has a mellow milky flavor and a creamy yet firm texture.

The simple salads are also worthwhile and star the freshest lettuce. On a recent trip, I enjoyed a vibrant green Bibb with pancetta, Gorgonzola, black pepper and homemade buttermilk dressing ($7).

The pastas, which are true highlights, change daily and are tossed with well-chosen ingredients; half- and full-size portions are available and may be served as a first course, side or entrée.  Try the satisfying linguini with prosciutto, savoy cabbage, walnut oil, Parmesan and walnuts ($8, half; $16, full). On one occasion, I ordered the cavatelli ($16) and requested it with only butter and Parmesan so I could focus on the taste of the pasta; it lived up to my expectations, providing a subtle balance of lightness and tooth.

The gnocchi is another strong point, served with different daily complements, such as the spicy sausage and rapini ragout ($8, half; $16, full). “Making light and fluffy gnocchi takes a special touch,” says Felder. “The dough has to have enough structure to hold together without becoming hard or gummy.”

The entrées are also strong.  One of my favorites is the plump sea scallops ($20), served on a bed of chopped asparagus, shallots, oysters, snap peas and mushrooms sautéed in butter — and finished with a vinaigrette.  The hanger steak ($18), served with chunky mashed potatoes and a housemade pesto, is well-seasoned and nicely cooked.  The tender and flavorful grilled rabbit ($23) is seasoned with thyme and rosemary, and served with braised kale and plain polenta.

Excited about having a liquor license, Felder’s been working closely with wine importers to find varietals that are interesting yet reasonable (around $7-$10 per glass). To ensure that the wine program matches the food, he’s aiming for selections that are “honest” and “affordable.”  Starting in the fall, Stagioni will offer monthly wine pairing dinners, wherein dishes and wines are offered from a particular Italian region.

Cara DelSignore, Felder’s sweetheart and business partner, runs the front of the house, and is warm and down-to-earth.  The service is friendly, and the environment is casual — staffers often sport jeans, for example.

My only disappointment with the new Stagioni is the underwhelming simplicity of the décor and presentation.  The restaurant’s interior, though warm and pleasant, lacks individuality; the dark-wood floors, granite tabletops and white walls with dark wainscoting would make a great backdrop for attention-getting finishing touches that aren’t there.  Similarly, the food is presented on white plates with no garnishes or artistry, the way you might plate your dinner at home on a weeknight.

The desserts offered are acceptable, though not remarkable.  Since the culinary team is in the process of revamping its dessert program, I’ll simply say that my favorite is the Nutella mousse ($6), creamy and light with a delightful hazelnut flavor.

I’m pleased that Stagioni has moved into a space that’s more comfortable for diners. It’s certainly a fitting replacement for the much-loved Le Pommier; although the two restaurants offered different kinds of food, both intended to serve fine fare in a relaxed environment without being pretentious. Which is why Stagioni is a nice place to go for a simple, well-prepared meal.

(2104 E. Carson St., South Side; 412/586-4738, stagionipgh.com)


Stephen Felder
Chef/Co-Owner, Stagioni


Why did you decide to open an Italian restaurant? 
Cara [my girlfriend and co-owner] comes from a big Italian family. Plus, I’ve always liked cooking Italian food, and our first location was in Bloomfield — so it just made sense. Now that we’ve moved to South Side, our food appeals to a wider group of people: our old customers from Bloomfield, former Le Pommier customers who are curious about what we’re doing and a lot of new people who have heard about our restaurant.
 
What is the secret to good cooking? 
I like to assemble good ingredients. If you have them, you don’t have to do too much to them — a little olive oil and salt. I really recommend the local farmers’ markets; I go to the one in the East End on Monday and the one in South Side on Tuesday. I also go to the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip District during weekends if I have time.

When you go to farmers markets, how do you know what you should purchase? 
I buy food mostly based on looks and smells. After you go for a while, you start to know which farms bring the best produce; for example, I love Sand Hill Berries — their produce is pretty amazing. At Stagioni, we buy a lot of our produce from the Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance. The public can access their produce through their Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, program. Once you have good produce, find a decent olive oil and salt. I like Zoe olive oil; it’s Spanish and very versatile for cooking and finishing. 

In the summer, what do you typically cook at home? 
Now that the restaurant is larger, I don’t have very much time to cook at home. But when I am there in the summer, I really like grilling — especially meats and vegetables like eggplants, squash, zucchini and onions. I like to grill them and finish them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and basil. I also like to grill whole corn on the cob in the husk. When I’m not grilling, I like to make simple Mexican dishes with ingredients like avocadoes, cilantro and salsa; it’s a nice change from Italian food.

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