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Pittsburgh Restaurant Review: Molinaro Ristorante

Ron Molinaro's Downtown restaurant offers high-end Italian dishes made with top-notch ingredients, but is it worth the price premium?




photos by laura petrilla

 

A nostalgic picture of high-end Italian dining is tables draped in white, napkins folded like swans next to polished silverware, servers with a cloth draped over their forearm pouring bottles of Barolo, Puccini soaring and Sinatra crooning in the background while exuberant, high-fashion diners cut into their chops and lobsters.

Molinaro Ristorante in Market Square aims to bring some of that past to present Pittsburgh. Ceramic jugs inspired by those in Vietri on the Amalfi Coast and a domed ceiling mural a-la-Roman-cathedral are among the first things you see when you walk in. Luxurious leather banquettes and cushy chairs create semi-private spaces yet allow for customers to see and be seen. Waiters don tuxedo jackets and bow ties. The wine list is lengthy and impressive. A salt-crusted fish is wheeled to the dining room, carved and presented tableside. There is a steak gargantuan in size and in price.

The restaurant is the vision of Ron Molinaro, Pittsburgh’s dean of the dough, who upgraded the city’s culinary world in 1996 when he opened Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon. Over the past five years, he’s expanded his reach, first with the opening of a more elegant version of Il Pizzaiolo in Market Square, which, after a disagreement with his investors, he left (it now is called Pizzaiolo Primo). In 2015, he started working with business partner Robert Wolfinger; they now operate two suburban Il Pizzaiolo locations and several Downtown ventures.
 


 

There are three ways to make the most of Molinaro:

Saddle up to the marble bar — or take a seat outdoors if it’s nice — in the early evening, and order a pizza or pasta, a salad and a glass of wine. It’s a simple bit of sorcery that’ll transport you for a short spell away from the humdrum of your day to the Italian coast.

Or go for lunch. The portions and menu size might be a little smaller, but the food is prepared with care and costs a lot less than the dinner service. The art of lunch is a lost art, and here you can reconnect with it for a bit.

If you have the time and the money, lean in hard to the sometimes wonderful ridiculousness of the establishment where a server might sing you a song for no good reason while you’re helping yourself to another forkful of pasta. You’ll likely spend more than you have at a restaurant in a very long time; Molinaro is a throwback to when dining out used to be reserved, primarily, for special occasions. The restaurant has the potential to become one of those places where you’ll want to celebrate an anniversary, a promotion or the accomplishment of friends.
 


 

Molinaro Ristorante is, as everyone working is trained to tell you, “a restaurant with a real southern Italian focus. We make it here, or we bring it in from wherever it’s famous.”

While neither of those is entirely accurate, the spirit of the description is. Molinaro’s menu mainly is comprised of dishes rooted in the southern part of Italy, save for a few exceptions meant to be familiar to diners in a part of town where adventure isn’t the name of the game. Don’t come to Molinaro expecting beautiful renditions of piatti poveri dishes using components such as trotters, spleens and hearts; do expect thoughtfully prepared versions of classics such as veal Milanese and salt-crusted branzino. As for ingredients, though there is some falloff around the edges with components such as garlic and dried herbs, much of what the culinary team is using is excellent, sometimes even outstanding, in quality.
 


 

Adding bona fides to the regional Italian focus of the restaurant is its executive chef, Domenico Cornacchia, who grew up in Abruzzo. Cornacchia made a name for himself working in restaurants around Europe and in Las Vegas before landing in Washington, D.C., where he ran esteemed Beltway establishments Cafe Milano and Assaggi Osteria. It’s a strong move for Molinaro to pull in a chef of Cornacchia’s pedigree.

Also imported from Italy by way of Virginia is pizzaiolo Tonino Topolino, and his craftwork is where you should start every meal. I’ve ordered one on every visit and daydream (too often, probably) about his soft, chewy, charred, flavorful crusts, which are a little thicker than a classic Neapolitan, cooked at 800 degrees in an electric oven. Toppings are restrained — and sticking to a classic such as margarita, topped with San Marzano DOP tomatoes, fior di latte, basil, romano and olive oil, is a perfect stage for Topolino’s artistry.

But Molinaro, even if it’s serving the best pizza in Pittsburgh right now, isn’t a pizza joint.

Pasta is essential to a formal Italian meal, and you’re in for a treat at Molinaro. You really can’t go wrong with anything on the menu. But even on a standout list, there are stars. Paccheri is a hands-in-the-air magnificent creation. The cylindrical tubes of dried pasta are served with Genovese sauce, a Neapolitan specialty of slow-cooked onions, veal and wine. “This is so good I might start crying,” a friend said. Other favorites-among-favorites are veal agnolotti with chanterelles, thyme and veal reduction, and a spot-on rendition of classic red-sauce cavatelli with sausage, broccoli rabe and pecorino.
 


 

Round out your meal with any of the following dishes: Caesar salad is a pitch-perfect assemblage of crispy romaine, crunchy anchovies, tangy dressing and generous strips of umami-rich, high-end Parmigiano Reggiano. Battuto di tonno, tuna tartare, is poppin’ fresh with a bit of bite from capers and a little heat from Calabrian chili oil. And eggplant parmigiana (baked eggplant, fior di latte, tomato, Parmigiano Reggiano, basil) is excellent. It’s layered and a much more elegant version than an Italian-American style; here you can actually taste the eggplant.

And then there’s the steak Fiorentina, which pretty much sums up everything that’s happening at Molinaro’s. The 48-ounce monster, listed as serving two but really good for four, turns heads as it’s wheeled to your table. When it arrives, on a bed of beautiful bitter greens, rich forest mushrooms and perfectly roasted potatoes, your server will ceremoniously present it before wheeling it off to be carved.


 

The Pat LaFrieda, grade-A prime beef is ringed with rendered fat dancing an end-of-the-night love caress with its salty, porcini dust crusting. All that gives way to the tender-browned umami musk where meat meets fat and finally the rich, medium-rare interior. A friend cackled with joy as he ate it, and by the end of the evening we were all passing around the bone and gnawing off it like savages. When you finish, you might think, like I did, “Did I just order the most expensive steak in Pittsburgh?” You did; it goes for $150. And you might not, at least until the next time you look at your bank statement, care. But later you’ll think, “hey, that was a remarkable experience that I had that one time, but maybe tonight I’ll spend a little less money.”

Service at Molinaro’s ranges from meritorious to unintentionally comical. When it’s on-point it reminds me of dining in higher-end Italian restaurants in New York or Dan Tana’s in Los Angeles — formal but friendly, with a staff eager to make jokes and have a good time with you but also aware that the experience is about making you happy and not showing off how funny or cool they are.

It can also get a little goofy. While some on the staff are actual Italians from Italy, most aren’t, yet on a couple of visits, they acted as if they were pulled from the set of “The Godfather” or “Donnie Brasco,” putting on their most excellent eye-talian accent as they described the menu. And sometimes it’s very evident all the restaurant’s training systems aren’t up to speed, like when a server bragged about Elysian Fields lamb from Chicago; the ranch, one of the best lamb producers in the country, is located a little more than an hour from Pittsburgh.

And that leads to what I think is going to be the biggest challenge when it comes to Molinaro’s longevity. I’m drawn to this restaurant because they’re letting great ingredients shine; the drawback of that is that top-shelf stuff is expensive, and when you combine that with the high-rent of its marquee location, it invariably leads to sticker shock and the expectation of perfection. “Is this a good value proposition?” is the question I keep asking myself.

Maybe. I’d like it to be.

I hope diners will choose Molinaro for a high-end meal rather than one of the national steakhouse chains populating Downtown; it’s better than any of them. My hope for Molinaro is that ownership will stick with quality ingredients rather than dumb things down to cut costs while at the same time continue to hone in on training staff with a skill-set to match. I’m not sitting on the edge of my seat expecting either of those things to happen. Then again, stranger things have. I’m an optimist by nature, so I’m hoping this will, too.

PPG Place, 2, Downtown; 412/586-4599, molinaroristorante.com

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