Dinette

A new place in growing Eastside offers casual dining, simple fare, a buoyant attitude—and good food!



This page: Fresh mozzarella pizza with brussels sprout greens, lardons, butternut squash and chèvre.

"After seeing the space for the first time, I felt an immediate, intense connection,” says owner/chef Sonja Finn of Dinette, the latest entry into the burgeoning culinary scene in the new Eastside section of East Liberty. There were two grounding inspirations: Pizzeria del Fina, Finn’s favorite spot in San Francisco, and a memorable stay in Italy.

Dinette is a meticulous little café done in shades of warm “panda” white and bright orange; it’s a cozy spot with simple, modern aesthetics, more eccentric than chilly nouveau. Sweeping, multidirectional views of the world (or Eastside, if you will) add a little romance, while a compact menu and a price point as comfortable as the orange-colored air chairs by Jasper Morrison are practical and down-to-earth. I especially like touches such as “Dinette” spelled out in neon cursive and a Marsal oven with wooden knobs that is lined in stone 2 inches thick.

Dinette’s menu changes daily and focuses on Finn’s favorite things—bread, in the form of individual pizzas; gorgeous soups; salads; and a few, not-too-sugary desserts. No two-fisted eating. Skip it if you’re looking for overflowing, take-home portions. “I use simple techniques but strive for perfection,” says Finn, a graduate of Columbia University (sociology) and the Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park), who wrote her college thesis on the urban renewal that led to the decline of East Liberty in the late-1960s/early-1970s. That the area’s current resurgence coincides with Dinette’s opening is not lost on Finn, an East End native.

As an employer, Finn wants happy employees able to afford rent. Everyone receives a living wage, with health insurance for non-tipped personnel. And Finn takes ecological sustainability seriously. She uses energy-efficient equipment and participates in recycling.

Finn is part of a family that loves to cook. At the age of 6, she had perfected her favorite chicken parmesan, and laughs at the thought of waking her parents when she discovered “The Frugal Gourmet.” The summer after her senior year at Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill, she landed a prep position at Toni Pais’ legendary Baum Vivant, where she pureed soups, made the ever-popular olive hummus and the Portuguese sugar cookies served with every check. She returned two summers later, intoxicated with the idea of creating food that delighted customers. By the time her dad dropped her off at Columbia for junior year, he gave his blessing to Sonja’s pursuing what would become her present career. “If you want to be a chef, that’s OK,” Finn says he told her. “He knew. He just knew.”

Finn enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. She took an externship at Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C., known for its spectacular Southern cuisine. Then after graduation she proceeded to California, where vegetables practically grow out of concrete, and female chefs are not uncommon. Finn landed a position at the famed Zuni Café in San Francisco, “a perfect place to work with the best ingredients,” she remembers. Not only did it change the way Finn looked at a completed dish—“perfect technique, using simple ingredients”—she also learned to work fast and hard, her palate forever elevated. “If you look at my [Dinette] menu, you can tell I worked at Zuni. There’s no way to hide it,” she chuckles.
After two years at Zuni and a stint at Neiman Marcus Rotunda Restaurant in San Francisco, Finn realized she was just “more East Coast.” She made her way back to Pittsburgh with ideas for money she had saved for the restaurant bouncing around in her right brain.

On Oct. 9, she opened Dinette, a cozy little room with good eating and a buoyant attitude. If you open the door and encounter a queue, Dinette gives you the option of taking a pager with a range far enough to browse the shelves in Borders. I did. Back inside, instead of the quasi-religious breadbasket, I was presented with a glass of tall breadsticks, a fun but slightly elegant touch. My personal addiction to sparkling water was enhanced when I learned that Dinette filters and carbonates its water on-site.

Every single thing I tried focused on flavor. Soups are bold and fresh: A perfectly smooth, earthy mushroom soup with crème fraîche seems to change and expand in the mouth; cauliflower soup with cumin oil and fried parsley sprinkled on top is rich and distinguished, and I love the intense tomato- fennel soup with parmigiano reggiano and Kung Pao chili oil. You want to pick up the bowl and drain every drop.

Salads are snappy and inventive with interesting textural notes. “I believe a salad can be great,” remarks Finn in a way that makes you a believer before you’ve even picked up a fork. There are beautiful lettuces, herbs—whatever is fresh and makes sense for the season. Salad mimosa uses little gem lettuce with egg mimosa, radishes and champagne vinaigrette; wild-arugula salad features fennel, pomegranate seeds, sheep’s-milk feta and sherry vinaigrette; Bibb lettuce salad offers Maytag blue cheese, radishes, scallions and buttermilk vinaigrette.

If it’s on the menu when you visit, try my favorite appetizer, the fritto misto (radicchio, cauliflower, portobello mushrooms, onions and sage) in an ethereal batter that frames the flavor of each ingredient.

Individual thin-crust pizzas (10 inch), somewhere between Tuscan and Neapolitan style (more chewy, more dough), have crispy crusts made with finely milled flour. Dough is stretched into 10-inch rounds so that you can practically see through the bottom. The house uses the best cheeses (you can almost taste the cow in the mozzarella) and tomatoes, with goodies thoughtfully strewn across the top. Her approach expects that you appreciate each bite and its different possibilities. “It’s all about crust, tomato sauce and cheese. Anything else is like a bonus,” Finn says.

Contemplate pizza: with brussels-sprouts greens, lardons, butternut squash, chèvre and fresh mozzarella; with radicchio, pancetta, sunny-side-up egg, mozzarella and tomato; with oyster mushrooms, shiitakes, truffled pecorino, pine nuts and mozzarella.

Most likely, you won’t have to skip dessert. The selections include a pleasant pot au crème with dark Belgian chocolate and not too much sugar; a spongy plum cake, luscious without being cute; or an excellent baklava made by Finn’s mother, Olivera.

I love the colors, the diminutive service, the casual room without pretensions. But most of all, I really like the food and hope that, as time passes, Finn will add a few more items. Racy pastas, maybe, perhaps some fresh fish.

My husband, Brad, and I stopped briefly on election night for a quick coffee at the shiny metal bar, which, by the way, offers Pennsylvania and Ohio crafted beers and 20 or so wines by the glass or bottle, interesting selections with prices that are eminently reasonable. We played a pen-and-paper game of Hangman with the bartender as white noise exploded from below into a crescendo of celebration. Finn has her dream, an aesthetic urban restaurant in historically rich surrounds that reflects her cutting-edge vision, and the East End has another participant in its nascent new urban culture.

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Two years after Chuck Noll’s death, University of Pittsburgh Press prepares to publish the first definitive biography of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach. Pittsburgh Magazine is proud to share an interview with author Michael MacCambridge and an exclusive excerpt of “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,” scheduled for release in October.
The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

Renovation is under way at nearly all of our area colleges and universities. For students heading back to school this fall — and their parents — we offer this crash course on the highlights of these projects and their projected benefits.
Fall Fashion: In the Black

Fall Fashion: In the Black

The little black dress, and shirt, and pants, never go out of style. Add mystery to your wardrobe with these easy-to-accent autumn staples.
Apteka: A Taste of Home

Apteka: A Taste of Home

Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski bring top-notch vegan, eastern European cuisine to Bloomfield.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Southwest Airlines Planning More Flights from Pittsburgh

Southwest Airlines Planning More Flights from Pittsburgh

The Allegheny County Airport Authority has been lobbying for more direct service from Pittsburgh to the West Coast.
Zing Basket Promises Speedy Grocery Delivery to Your Door

Zing Basket Promises Speedy Grocery Delivery to Your Door

The online grocery delivery service opened this week, promising delivery in 45 minutes or less to selected neighborhoods.
Old Farmer’s Almanac: Winter in Pittsburgh Will Be Warmer, But…

Old Farmer’s Almanac: Winter in Pittsburgh Will Be Warmer, But…

In its 225th year, the reference book on weather suggests we tune up our snow-removal equipment.
Chris Jamison Releases His First EP

Chris Jamison Releases His First EP

The Ross native finished third on NBC's “The Voice” in December of 2014.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Chuck Noll: A Man for All Seasons

Two years after Chuck Noll’s death, University of Pittsburgh Press prepares to publish the first definitive biography of the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach. Pittsburgh Magazine is proud to share an interview with author Michael MacCambridge and an exclusive excerpt of “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,” scheduled for release in October.
The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

The Changing Face of Campus in Pittsburgh

Renovation is under way at nearly all of our area colleges and universities. For students heading back to school this fall — and their parents — we offer this crash course on the highlights of these projects and their projected benefits.
Fall Fashion: In the Black

Fall Fashion: In the Black

The little black dress, and shirt, and pants, never go out of style. Add mystery to your wardrobe with these easy-to-accent autumn staples.
Apteka: A Taste of Home

Apteka: A Taste of Home

Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski bring top-notch vegan, eastern European cuisine to Bloomfield.
Talk of The Tahn: City of Beer

Talk of The Tahn: City of Beer

There are plans afoot for a international museum of beer to be built and staffed right here in Pittsburgh.
Pitt vs Penn State: Resumption of Hostilities

Pitt vs Penn State: Resumption of Hostilities

After an extended hiatus, the storied rivalry between the Pitt Panthers and Penn State Nittany Lions returns in September to Heinz Field.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Southwest Airlines Planning More Flights from Pittsburgh

Southwest Airlines Planning More Flights from Pittsburgh

The Allegheny County Airport Authority has been lobbying for more direct service from Pittsburgh to the West Coast.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Where to Go at the Three Day Blow

Where to Go at the Three Day Blow

Our dining critic (and Three Day Blow organizing committee member) has a roundup of some open to the public events.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The 5 Best Comic Shops in Pittsburgh

The 5 Best Comic Shops in Pittsburgh

These comic book shops offer more than just your casual Batman or Spider-Man choices.

Comments


New Industry Public House Location Up to Par

New Industry Public House Location Up to Par

If you’re in need of a dining option that’s not a national chain while visiting the Robinson area, this is one to keep in mind.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Le'Veon Bell Talks The Talk But Can’t Walk The Walk

Le'Veon Bell Talks The Talk But Can’t Walk The Walk

The Steelers running back emphasized his latest suspension resulted from missed random drug tests, and not a relapse into the marijuana-induced haze that got him jammed up last season. But if you lack the maturity to grasp the consequences of your actions (or, in this case, inactions), does it really matter?

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Custom Made: The Surmesur Suit

Custom Made: The Surmesur Suit

Straight out of Canada, the custom menswear store opens its first U.S. location in Pittsburgh.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
'Hands of Stone' Keeps the Boxing Movie Genre Strong

'Hands of Stone' Keeps the Boxing Movie Genre Strong

Reviews of "Hands of Stone" and "Don't Breathe," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
The Lucky Ones: Katie Doré and John Potter

The Lucky Ones: Katie Doré and John Potter

Want even more Real Pittsburgh Weddings? We'll be bringing them to you throughout the fall, beginning with this lovely and lucky couple.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Put a Lid On It! The Container Store Coming to Pittsburgh

Put a Lid On It! The Container Store Coming to Pittsburgh

The store famous for carrying storage and organizational products is set to open at the revamped Block Northway in Ross Township.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Two Events Planned for Prospective Waynesburg Students

Two Events Planned for Prospective Waynesburg Students

A fall visitation day and a Saturday information session aim to allow interested students a look into life at the university.

Comments