Love at First Bite

Top-notch dining complete with fresh, local ingredients and creative preparations has made its way to Pittsburgh.

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Overwhelmingly, the chefs included on our "25 Best Restaurants" list are making ingredients in-house - from condiments (strawberry consommé and mulberry jelly) to charcuterie (country pâté and seafood sausage) to classics (ricotta cheese and pizza dough). The house-made trend extends to desserts such as Bananas Foster Napoleon, Meyer lemon tiramisu and chocolate-truffle cake. So as you make dinner reservations this year, don't hold back - you're sure to fall in love with the local food scene and all it has to offer.

In this year's annual "25 Best Restaurants" issue, we are delighted to celebrate the best places to dine in Pittsburgh. The 2009 list reflects just how diverse the region's options for eats have become: From perfect Neopolitan pizza to delicious dim sum, from Latin-style seviche to Southern shrimp-and-grits, most any craving can be satisfied in style.

Small, upscale-casual, chef-owned restaurants are now as numerous as special-occasion restaurants, and this trend is clearly reflected by the winners of this year's "Special Awards."

Our "Chef of the Year" award goes to Trevett Hooper, who has continued to cross ambitious culinary bridges at his tiny restaurant, Legume - while never leaving us behind. It's with pleasure that we recognize Toast! Kitchen & Wine Bar as our "Best New Restaurant." Co-owned by two Pittsburgh-area natives who sharpened their skills in other cities and returned recently to share their talents, it has wowed us with its vibrant, fun, classy approach to food and drink. No wonder that Toast's chef, Chet Garland, is our "Rising Star Chef" honoree. Finally, our "Delicious Design" award goes to East Liberty's Dinette, a bright, environmentally sustainable space outfitted to serve chef Sonja Finn's simple gourmet creations.

With all the exciting innovations afoot, we hope our guide to the region's top restaurants as selected by PITTSBURGH MAGAZINE's Restaurant Review Panel will be more inspiring and helpful than ever.


Executive Chef Jessica Gibson
711 Washington Road, Mount Lebanon
Contemporary American food fills the menu at this lovely neighborhood bistro owned by B DeFrancis and Richard Fuchs. You'll find center-cut filet mignon with Dijon bread-crumbs, roasted-garlic and chive-compound butter, horseradish-encrusted sea bass and crab cakes. The fun list of martinis makes a cocktail a must. Many desserts are house-made, including a Bananas Foster Napolean, which layers flaky puff pastry with vanilla cream, fresh bananas, whipped cream and whiskey-caramel sauce. The interior beckons with soothing hues of taupe and cream, warm lighting and dark wood.
Chef's Favorite Dish to Make: Cedar-plank-roasted Bay of Fundy salmon encrusted with sun-dried tomato pesto and topped with parmesan herb butter, served with basmati rice and roasted vegetables.


Executive Chef and Owner Douglass Dick
908 Main St., Sharpsburg
$$$, BYOB
This restaurant's inimitable chef/owner - three-time winner of our "Chef of the Year" award - continues to justify his fine reputation and to prove why Gourmet magazine named Bona Terra one of the nation's best farm-to-table restaurants in 2007. Inspiration for the fresh, unfussy and memorable menu (it changes every day) comes from local growers and purveyors: Jewel-like spring strawberries are likely to inspire a pristine salad, a beautiful clear consommé or a main course - anything but what's predictable. Call at least a month in advance for a weekend table.
Chef's favorite Dish to Make: Fresh cheese plate with seasonal ingredients, fruits and meats.


Executive Chef Curtis Gamble
7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze
This beautiful, sunny bistro on the grounds of the Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze only serves lunch - but what a lunch it is. Most dishes on the menu incorporate sublimely fresh vegetables and herbs tended by Grow Pittsburgh in a Victorian-style greenhouse (visible from the café). Try the asparagus and feta salad and the mushroom lasagne, both of which showcase the excellent house-made ricotta. Every meal ends with a sweet surprise: a tiny lemon sugar cookie encrusted with raw sugar and made fresh daily by pastry chef Nadine Gindlesperger. (Seasonal dinners are served around the holidays; see Web site for details.)
Chef's Favorite Dish to Make: House-made goat's-milk ricotta with local pea tendril ravioli and crème fraîche.


Chef Alan Peet
229 S. Highland Ave., Shadyside
Happy hour on Casbah's spacious, tented front patio has become a tradition for those who live and work in the East End. And with sensuous starters such as Oregon black truffles served fondue-style alongside melted cheese, it's no wonder they stay for dinner and dessert - sipping wines from the well-chosen list along the way. Freshness translates to big flavor in entrees such as hanger steak with cipollini onions, fingerling potatoes and rosemary or double-cut pork chops served with spring pea and prosciutto risotto, braised kale and garlic cream. Desserts, such as tiramisù made with Meyer lemon mousse, lemon lady fingers and white-chocolate curls, aren't to be missed.
Chef's Favorite Dish to Make: Alaskan halibut, morel mushrooms, English peas, sun-dried tomatoes and pea purée.


Chef and Owner Sonja Finn
5996 Penn Circle South, East Liberty
East End native Sonja Finn opened her vibrant, California/ Mediterranean-inspired restaurant this past October, and already her addictive thin-crust gourmet pizzas have a dedicated following. The menu, which changes daily, always includes a colorful selection of single-serving 12-inch pizzas with simple, inventive ingredients - a recent example was topped with grilled asparagus, pancetta, mozzarella and a sunny-side-up egg. The thin, crisp breadsticks, served with every meal in lieu of a breadbasket, are a crowd-pleaser. The menu also includes house-made seasonal soups and salads, and a short list of desserts such as Arborio rice pudding or cherry cake.
Chef's Favorite Dish to Make: Beef carpaccio with shaved radicchio, hazelnuts, pecorino Ginepro and sherry-shallot vinaigrette.


Chef Michele Savoia
128 S. 17th St., South Side
At Dish, you'll feel as if you've stumbled upon a hip spot in New York City's Little Italy that only the locals know about - lucky you. Tucked in among the South Side's row houses, this restaurant is charming and intimate with its handsome bar, hardwood floors and original pressed-tin ceiling. But the real draw is such inventive cocktails as the Rossini, combining puréed fresh berries with Prosecco; the flavorful appetizers; and stand-out pasta dishes such as Linguini al Frutti di Mare. Finish your meal with La Dolce Vita, a dessert cocktail made with Godiva liqueur, Stolichnaya Vanil, Nocello, a splash of cream and a dusting of cocoa.
Chef's Favorite Dish to Make: Braised lamb shank prepared with saffron risotto, green peas and fresh vegetables.


Executive Chef Derek Stevens
1150 Smallman St., Strip District
This sophisticated restaurant and bar in the Strip District celebrates its fifth anniversary this June. (For more info on special anniversary events, see "Bits + Bites," page 83.) In chef Derek Stevens' signature American-bistro cooking style, fresh, local ingredients are showcased in dishes such as halibut with Dungeness crab risotto, forest mushrooms and leeks. If you're looking to impress, make reservations for the Chef's Table, a prix-fixe tasting menu for up to six guests that's served in the restaurant's open kitchen. Satisfy sweets cravings you didn't know you had with desserts like the chocolate-pretzel candy bar, which features milk-chocolate-pretzel ice cream and peanut brittle served with a chocolate pretzel cookie.
Chef's Favorite Dish to Make: A simple salad of mesclun greens, raw porcini mushrooms and artichoke with lemon, Spanish olive oil and chive blossoms.


Chef and Owner Jeff Iovino
300A Beverly Road, Mount Lebanon
$$-$$$, BYOB
Every neighborhood deserves a spot like this one, where you can feast on creative comfort food in bright, charming surroundings, secure in knowing the chef/owner is at the wheel. The menu, printed often to reflect what's fresh, focuses on seafood and includes some mainstay dishes that regulars can't live without such as the marinated, grilled flank steak. Chef Iovino's knack for working with Asian and Italian ingredients and techniques shows in dishes such as black-pepper-crusted tuna with sesame-miso gnocchi and sweet soy glaze or the flavorful Mediterranean-style grilled fish.
Chef's Favorite Dish to Make: Seared golden tilefish and shrimp quinoa with sautéd snow peas, caramelized shallots and a crab-caper rémoulade.


Executive Chef Danielle Cain
2000 Smallman St., Strip District
Most of us can't afford a trip to the Caribbean to sample the local cuisine - but Kaya, with its colorful decor, festive lighting and tiki-style bar stools, serves up food and drinks inspired by the tropics right in the Strip District. Start things off with a mango mai tai and an appetizer of avocado tempura with spicy aioli, chili soy sauce and pepper relish. Bright entrees such as the crispy fish tacos with cabbage slaw, avocado, spicy crème fraîche and cilantro or the mole-rubbed chicken breast offer inventive twists on traditional Caribbean dishes. The Mexican chocolate torte garnished with spiced pecans and chipotle ice cream makes for a kicky finish.
Chef's Favorite Dish to Make: Honey-glazed pork belly on sour-apple and iceberg slaw.


Chef de Cuisine Dave Racicot
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, Wharton Township, near Farmington, Fayette County
You can drive the 70 miles from Pittsburgh to Nemacolin Woodlands Resort for the beautiful countryside - but food lovers do it for this highly acclaimed Mobil Five Star and AAA Five Diamond restaurant. Modern, American fare created by chef de cuisine Dave Racicot is showcased, and all the extras of luxurious fine dining are here, from the award-winning wine list to the custom champagne carte. A grand dining room swathed in rich crimson and golden fabrics provides the backdrop for enjoying the prix-fixe menus, which run from $98 (five courses and dessert; wine pairings are not included) to $135 (12-course Grand Tasting).
Chef's Favorite Dish to Make: Braised beef short ribs with blue-cheese gratin, grain mustard, celery and cassis purée.

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