The House That Lidia Built

Not far from the 16th Street Bridge, a woman with lots of heart and an expansive palate brings her northern Italian cuisine to Pittsburgh’s Strip District.

Interior of Lidia's, designed by New York Architect David Rockwell

Hand-rolled pork, veal and lamb sausages from the Balkans, served with spicy ajvar sauce.

It was Friday evening at Lidia’s, and regulars were shoulder to shoulder at the bar, families around larger tables, laughter and uproarious conversation in abundance. I’m not the sort to be picky about my choice of seating arrangements. Along with my pithy husband, Brad, I agree that “they serve the same food at every seat.” But when it comes to Lidia’s, I gravitate to the oversized picture windows that exotically frame the bold yellow girders and iron intricacies of the 16th Street Bridge.

Why did Lidia Bastianich, who has four successful restaurants in New York and one in Kansas City, choose this Pittsburgh location? When I called to ask, she was cooking for Pope Benedict XVI, but took the time to return my call to say that it was her son Joseph who suggested she bring her brand of authentic northern Italian cuisine to “true America,” a market smaller than that of the big city yet culturally energized and growing. Not to mention chefs at Lidia’s can conveniently skip to and from the Strip District.

In a big way, Lidia’s departs from the prevailing idiom of the red-and-white checkered-tablecloth Italian eatery. The room is open, airy and unexpected, a mammoth space with handsome bones reworked by New York architect David Rockwell, whose aim was to capture the feel of an Italian farmhouse despite the enormous square footage. Rough-hewn pillars topped with stained-glass finials divide the central floor space like a row of vigilant sentries, preserving architectural openness while creating pockets of privacy. Two dazzling blown-glass chandeliers impersonate oversized, multicolored grappa bottles. An antique, upended red sleigh reflects Old World style while displaying Lidia’s cookbooks and a new line of pasta sauces.

Before I even dip into a wire basket with heavy-crusted Tuscan breads and rosemary sticks, complemented with ice-cream-sized scoops of cannellini and garbanzo-bean dips, servers dart around the floor with giant bowls of pasta, attacking my senses and subliminally narrowing my food choices before I even review the menu. There are no complex choices if you order the “bottomless” pasta trifecta. The night I was there, it was a light mushroom ravioli with thyme butter sauce, orecchiette with broccoli rabe and spicy homemade sausage, and long, flat papardelle with mushroom irradiate. All were perfectly straightforward, sauced sparingly, and had us nodding vigorously.
 

“Simple, straightforward, honest Italian food, seasonal and local is best,” says Bastianich, who is Italian, though born in Istria, now part of Croatia, a little border corridor occupied primarily by Yugoslavia after World War II. The mix of cultures and languages provided her with a large palate at a young age, and the influences translate with brines, krauts, tasty sausages and pickled things—even a tasty apple strudel.

“Once upon a time in America, ‘Italian’ meant a landslide of sauce over spaghetti noodles,” says executive chef Eric Wallace, a Pittsburgher from Pitcairn who grew up in his family’s pizzeria. He minds the kitchen with the kind of support that honors Lidia’s nomenclature and ethnic fidelity. Respect for ingredients is second-nature. “Food should be as simple as possible, uncomplicated to exploit flavors, something that feels comfortable,” says Wallace, who took over as executive chef in 2006. “Nobody ever says that the chef is in love with the food.”

Lidia places a high premium on family and the power of food. Her children are involved in the business, and she takes the chefs to Italy “to feel the energy…. Food is kind. Positive. You sit at the table, and there’s a connection. I love the sentiment of a family table…and I would love to use food for diplomacy,” she says wistfully.

A wine list offers dozens of bottles priced at $28 that go well with intriguing, innovative appetizers, including a plucky grilled octopus, “an unpoetic-looking creature” admits Wallace; nonetheless, these cephalopods are exquisitely pliant, set on warm potatoes woven with baby lima beans, red onion, Gyeta olives and pungent capers bathed in a red-wine vinaigrette.

I love the frico, delectable envelopes of montasio, a cow’s-milk cheese cooked on a flat top and stuffed with potatoes, leeks and onions, to which diners add seasonal combinations such as shrimp and asparagus or sausage and Swiss chard. Likewise, the popular fritto misto is light and crispy: The calamari, plump baby shrimp, skinny slices of pickled red onion and asparagus spears are battered oh so lightly, tempura-style, in rice flour with a shot of soda water. The accompanying marinara sauce, made entirely with San Marzano tomatoes broken by hand and seasoned with basil and garlic to delightful effect—like all of Lidia’s sauces—is awesome. It’s an ethereal treat.

 Take a deep breath. Servings are hearty, and it’s easy to fill up on the smattering of goodies that come before the main event. Minding the food pyramid’s equilibrium, a simple salad of red and yellow beets, thinly sliced tart red apples and finger-sized mounds of Goatsbeard Farm goat cheese splashed with red-wine vinegar is a refreshing example of simple ingredients prevailing. A lusty zuppa di pesce is perfectly cooked with more fresh seafood than soupy broth, resulting in nothing to muffle the ocean’s bounty. Onions, leeks and Sardinian couscous add to the mix.

Glossy, 4-by-4-inch house-made ravioli squares are filled with Wagyu beef cheeks—a cut of meat the chef points to as a northern Italian peasant’s approach—that is, making use of an underappreciated but hugely flavorful cut of meat. A rosemary-infused sauce is half of the reason for getting the ravioli, which are spare but heavenly, baked to a splotchy golden brown. Hand-rolled potato gnocchi (literally, “little lumps”) are fluffy, delicate and light in the mouth with slow-simmered duck and grated Grana Padano cheese; they provide a way of honoring meat-and-potatoes’ roots and transcending them at the same time.

And I recommend exploring manicotti with fresh ricotta—yes, fresh ricotta, and Atlantic salmone alla griglia, a medium-rare fillet grilled with braised radishes and accented with a deep, compelling mustard sauce. A domestic lamb shank, Heritage pork and a 20-ounce rib-eye all receive winning remarks, but I’ll save them for a day when the flames are blazing within the floor-to-ceiling slate fireplace.

Can I eat another thing? What could be more delicious than picking a homemade cookie from a tray? It’s not something you find often in a restaurant, but biscotti misti is a delightful touch after a big meal. Pastry chef David Wodzinski picks up the tune with his homemade desserts. Either exert fortitude or succumb to an opulent sweet tooth, in which case I suggest affogato di caffe. This housemade vanilla ice cream “drowned” in espresso with a cantucci (a classic dunking cookie) or the torta gianduja, a luscious chocolate hazelnut torta with chocolate ice cream, turned out to be so amazing we conjured a polite plan to finagle an extra scoop. Then we chickened out. 

1400 Smallman St., Strip District; 412/552-0150; lidias-pittsburgh.com

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Best Restaurants 2017

Best Restaurants 2017

This year Pittsburgh Magazine's independent Restaurant Review Panel recognizes 34 establishments as our regions's top restaurants. Our list includes All Arounders, Killer Casual, Fancy Night Out, Best Budget and Classic Comfort establishments.
Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Bill Fuller’s portfolio includes overseeing five specialty restaurants — Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar, Soba, umi and Kaya — as well as 14 fast-casual Mad Mex restaurants and a full-service catering operation. Even in an increasingly competitive environment, his restaurants remain in-demand and relevant.
Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Apteka, operated by Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, is a vegan eatery that draws on Lasky’s sixth-generation Pittsburgh roots and Skowronski’s Polish heritage.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Getting Started with Startups: A Peek at Alphalab Demo Day

Getting Started with Startups: A Peek at Alphalab Demo Day

Technological innovators present what could be “the next big thing” at the Carnegie Music Hall in Homewood.
Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference Helps Writers Tell Their Stories

Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference Helps Writers Tell Their Stories

The fifth annual Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference brings writers from across the country together to improve their craft.
Watch: Radio-Synced Highlights of Pens 7-0 Win in Game 5

Watch: Radio-Synced Highlights of Pens 7-0 Win in Game 5

Nothing beats listening to Mike Lange describe a Penguins' goal.
Break It Down: Byham Theater

Break It Down: Byham Theater

When you walk into the Sixth Street entryway of the Byham Theater, Downtown, you will see patches of green and black tile on the walls: These are originals from the early 20th century, says John Mumper, facilities manager at the Byham. The grand theater has plenty of history to go with its 100-plus years; let’s break it down.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Best Restaurants 2017

Best Restaurants 2017

This year Pittsburgh Magazine's independent Restaurant Review Panel recognizes 34 establishments as our regions's top restaurants. Our list includes All Arounders, Killer Casual, Fancy Night Out, Best Budget and Classic Comfort establishments.
Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Pittsburgh Chef of the Year: Bill Fuller

Bill Fuller’s portfolio includes overseeing five specialty restaurants — Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen and Wine Bar, Soba, umi and Kaya — as well as 14 fast-casual Mad Mex restaurants and a full-service catering operation. Even in an increasingly competitive environment, his restaurants remain in-demand and relevant.
Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Pittsburgh's Best New Restaurant: Apteka

Apteka, operated by Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, is a vegan eatery that draws on Lasky’s sixth-generation Pittsburgh roots and Skowronski’s Polish heritage.
Can the Restoration of a Church Lead to the Revival of a Town?

Can the Restoration of a Church Lead to the Revival of a Town?

A small group of dedicated residents sees the restoration of their church in Tarentum as a window to the potential rebirth of their once-booming community in suburban Pittsburgh.
Remembering Henry Hillman

Remembering Henry Hillman

Reflecting on the impact of the businessman, civic visionary and philanthropist.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Getting Started with Startups: A Peek at Alphalab Demo Day

Getting Started with Startups: A Peek at Alphalab Demo Day

Technological innovators present what could be “the next big thing” at the Carnegie Music Hall in Homewood.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Station's Hours Expand and Le Lyonnais Opens Downtown

Station's Hours Expand and Le Lyonnais Opens Downtown

Station, the excellent Bloomfield eatery, now offers lunch service. The Big Y Group opens a French bistro in the space previously occupied by Sonoma Grille.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


Vital Happy Hour Alert: Great Cocktails at the Wigle Tasting Room

Vital Happy Hour Alert: Great Cocktails at the Wigle Tasting Room

The third outpost of local distillery Wigle, found in the Omni William Penn Hotel, is an instant destination for cocktail fans.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Frightened about Game 7? You Should Be

Frightened about Game 7? You Should Be

A win will send the Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals for a second year in a row and re-write team history.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Pittsburgh on a Plate

Pittsburgh on a Plate

The way to a beer lover’s heart is mapped out on notNeutral’s plate, which highlights Pittsburgh breweries (and other points of interest) across the city.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The Alien Series Jumps the Shark with Covenant

The Alien Series Jumps the Shark with Covenant

Reviews of "Alien: Covenant" and "Everything, Everything," as well as local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
New York Bridal Designer Shares Her Secrets

New York Bridal Designer Shares Her Secrets

Pennsylvania native Jaclyn Jordan brings her newest collection to the Blanc de Blanc Bridal Boutique in Carrick.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Get to the North Side for Home & Garden Tour, Epic Yard Sale

Get to the North Side for Home & Garden Tour, Epic Yard Sale

Explore lavish homes and gardens with the West Allegheny Historic District’s annual Tour and Tasting, or go on the hunt for hidden treasure during The Great Mexican War Streets Yard Sale.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Explore Your Future with Point Park University

Explore Your Future with Point Park University

The university will host three summer workshops for high school students from July 17-20.

Comments