This successful, people-pleasing Italian restaurant in Shadyside, friendly and flavorful, won't rest on its laurels (or sunflowers).

Spinach and ricotta ravioli in a tomato cream sauce.

Photo by Laura Petrilla

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Just a few months after Girasole celebrated its 10th anniversary in April, readers of Pittsburgh magazine voted it the No. 1 Italian (non-chain) restaurant in the region. What better time than now to investigate the secrets to Girasole's success and to learn what's planned for the future?

This small restaurant off Shadyside's Walnut Street offers hearty food in a friendly, upbeat setting. Girasole means "sunflower" in Italian, and it's also close to the surname of the restaurant's owners, who are at the core of the success of their enterprise. Their constant presence, care and welcoming personalities make customers feel at home.

At almost any time of day, you will be greeted and seated by owner Jimmy Gerasole, who opened the restaurant in 2000 with his wife, Patti.  Although he had a background in retail, Jimmy always wanted to open a restaurant.  In 2000, son Gino, who worked at Viaggio Restaurant at the time, found the restaurant's Shadyside space for his parents; he then encouraged them to open the restaurant and came on board as a manager.  Gino's wife, Jennifer, joined them as Girasole's opening chef and continues as executive chef to this day. Jimmy and Patti's other son, Vito, is also an integral part of the restaurant as director of wines, floor manager and a server; he is joined by his wife, Vicki, who occasionally helps out as a server. 

Patti gives special credit to daughter-in-law Jennifer Gerasole: "We think the world of her, and we're lucky to have her both as a daughter-in-law and as our executive chef; she is a very talented chef." Jennifer, a graduate of the former Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts (now Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh) establishes the menu and oversees food service and catering. In turn, she credits Chris Corimski, an International Culinary Academy (now also merged into Le Cordon Bleu) graduate who has worked at Girasole for 10 years, with the quality of the day-to-day cooking. Corimski, who has worked in many Pittsburgh restaurants—among them are Casbah and the now-defunct Le Perroquet—reiterates that it is the consistent quality of the food that keeps customers coming back for more. Patti also gives credit to other "wonderful" longtime employees who work hard to meet the needs of customers.

In addition to family, a second key component to Girasole's success is that the restaurant serves plentiful portions of simple food that tastes good. Currently, the dinner menu is divided into primi (first course), pasta and risotto.  In addition, there is one daily special from each of these categories: pollo, pesce and carne. The base menu changes four times a year according to the season.

Upon first glance, the prices might seem high for casual dining, but, in truth, the portions are so large that you are paying for two meals—the one you eat at the restaurant and the leftover meal you take home.

A wine list, which features exclusive Italian wines, accompanies the food selections. They're available by the glass (about three reds and three whites ranging from $8.75 to $10 per glass) or by the bottle (about 25 choices widely ranging from $26 to $250).

Located on Copeland Street in a below-ground space that feels like a grotto, Girasole features an interior of stone walls, wooden accents, copper-topped tables, dried sunflowers and paintings of mostly Italian scenes. During warm months, outdoor seating is available on the front patio.

The atmosphere here is usually bustling, loud and often crowded. A word of advice: Although the restaurant does not take reservations, you may call ahead to put your name on a wait list; that's a wise move for peak hours.

Servers squeeze between the tables, delivering large plates of food generated in a surprisingly small kitchen in the back of the restaurant. Service is quick and attentive, although on two visits, new courses were served before the plates from the previous course were cleared. As in many restaurants, the service is more competent when the restaurant is less crowded.

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