Under the Tuscan Sun
Celebrated local chef Matthew Porco is back on the scene, serving Italian fare in a “chill” open-air setting at Sienna Sulla Piazza.
Photos by Laura Petrilla
Sienna Sulla Piazza (translated as “Sienna on the Square”) offers refined Italian cuisine in a hip, casual environment. The restaurant occupies the space of the former Bella Sera Urban Trattoria (next to the historic Nicholas Coffee Co.) in Market Square; remarkably, the restaurant’s entire façade is on a hydraulic lift that opens, transforming Sienna into an open-air café from early spring through late fall.
This transformative feature — combined with a terrific interior featuring exposed red-brick walls, funky rust- and cream-colored enamel-topped tables, lanterns, and mirrors — makes Sienna tops for its cool vibe. Indeed, executive chef Matthew Porco, former owner of Mio Kitchen & Wine Bar and Mio Pizza (both in Aspinwall), describes the restaurant as having a “chill vibe” — a place where you can listen to bands play in Market Square while eating unpretentious Italian food.
“I’m not trying to be super authentic; I just focus on quality ingredients prepared with a technique-driven approach,” says Porco. “The plates are smaller at a lower price point, so people can share them. I want people to eat here more than once a week. I want people to come to Sienna to relax.”
To hear Porco’s description of Sienna, you might expect the food to be simple peasant food — but his light touch and fine-dining background render sophisticated food with lighter portions and some truly elegant
For example, the greens and beans ($6) is roughly a cup of escarole accented with cannellini beans, a sprinkling of homemade sausage and subtle garlic and tomato flavor. Similarly, the octopus antipasta ($8) stars bite-sized slices of grilled octopus, layered with roasted red peppers and toasted garlic, and served on grilled focaccia. Very refined, indeed.
Porco’s not afraid of flavors: The Quatro Formaggio flatbread ($10) is salty and savory, with roasted garlic, fresh Mozzarella, provolone, Parmesan, ricotta and a touch of basil — all on a light, thin crust. In addition to the flatbread crust, Porco makes many items in-house, such as gnocchi, sausage, pancetta (cured in-house) and desserts.
A superb appetizer is the Prince Edward Island mussels ($9), served with a tomato and roasted-fennel broth worthy of the soup spoon and hunk of bread (provided by North Side favorite Breadworks). My least favorite appetizer is the Mozzarella-stuffed veal meatballs ($10); the meatballs were a bit tough and not nearly as remarkable as I had expected.
Sandwiches, soups and salads are available for the busy lunch crowd. I enjoyed the arugula salad ($6), a mound of fresh arugula with shaved fennel, roasted peppers and generous shavings of Parmesan, lightly dressed with a honey-orange vinaigrette.
Of the entrées I tried, I have three favorites. The rigatoni and shrimp ($16) features perfectly cooked ingredients with a not-too-rich basil pesto cream sauce alongside tomatoes and Parmesan.
Another excellent choice is the extremely tender chargrilled pork loin ($19) — which, unlike the other dishes, is large enough for two. It’s served with balsamic barbecue pulled pork, lima beans and grilled romaine slaw.
The chianti braised beef short-rib dish ($22) is rich with flavor and is unbelievably tender, a masterpiece of slow braising.
In a few cases, I found the portions to be too small. The sweet corn & lobster risotto ($22) is a tasty summer dish, but a mere 2 ounces (give or take) of lobster sat atop the risotto. Similarly, the side of broccoli rabe crema ($4) is delicious, but it’s about half as much as I would’ve liked.
The desserts are a letdown. I tried the homemade cannoli and the panna cotta ($5 each). Although I often find desserts too sweet, both of these weren’t sweet enough — and the cannoli was a little tough.
Sienna’s bar, located along one wall of the restaurant, is integral to the space; it’s the site of a constant flow of patrons standing, sitting and talking. The wine program, predominantly comprised of Italian selections, is designed to match the food — “reasonable and food friendly,” says Porco. A reserve list is always available for diners who want to spend more for high-end bottles. The restaurant also offers beers and specialty cocktails with homemade syrups and juices.
If you’d like to dine at Sienna, don’t let parking deter you: Market Square now has its own daily valet service from 5 p.m. to midnight. And fortunately, it’s affordable — $5 with restaurant validation and $7 without.
Market Square has truly experienced a renaissance. Sienna contributes to its European feeling by finding that sweet spot between casual and refined; you can come as you are, and enjoy the happening scene.
Matthew Porco, Executive Chef | Sienna Sulla Piazza
What happened to your former fine-dining eatery, Mio?
Mio was a very successful restaurant. I had a nice time there for the three years we were in business; however, as time went on, I found that I was spending too much time on business issues without having enough time to cook. Also, I think the trend is away from fine-dining and more toward casual-dining. So when it stopped being fun, I decided to move on to something that would allow me to focus on food in a more relaxed environment. I am the chef, not the owner, of this restaurant — so I can really focus on cooking food that’s unpretentious and fun.
Do you have a special connection to Market Square?
Yes, when I was growing up, my uncle had a restaurant here [The Garden on the Square], and my dad owned a bar. So I spent a lot of my childhood playing ball in the Square. I’ve always thought of it as a hidden gem; it reminds you of the open spaces in Europe. I think it’s one of the things that makes Pittsburgh great.
How does Sienna fit in the Market Square dining scene?
Well, in the old days, downtown restaurants were mostly chains and steakhouses. What it really needed was the passion of individual chefs and restaurateurs. I like to see more food- and chef-driven restaurants downtown, places like Meat & Potatoes. I’m really excited that Il Pizzaiolo is opening in the Square. It’s really exciting to draw people into downtown for the food. We have people coming to Sienna from all over.
What do you wish you had done when you began your culinary career?
Travel more! I’ve worked in Myrtle Beach and New York City, and I’ve traveled in Europe — but I wish I had moved around more so I could’ve been exposed to as many different kinds of foods as possible.
What mistakes do you think people make when cooking?
Too many people look at recipes as strict things to follow. Recipes are really guidelines. You can add things you like or omit things you don’t. The key is to have the confidence to try things out, evaluate the results and then try again until you get to something you like.