Pittsburgh's 12 Essential Restaurants
Step-by-step, these establishments helped build our dining scene. Even better, they still have something to offer today.
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Photo by Erin Kelly
Pittsburgh's Essential Neighborhood Restaurant: Tessaro’s American Bar and Hardwood Grill
Who would have thought the most popular restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Little Italy would be a hamburger joint?
The allure of Bloomfield’s Italian restaurants faded years ago, but the restaurant that Richard Tessaro opened in 1981 remains as popular as it’s ever been. The Harrington family purchased the business in 1985, and matriarch Moira Harrington leads the operations today. Some of the staff have worked at Tessaro’s for nearly as long as the Harringtons have owned it — grill master Courtney McFarlane, for example, started in 1987. And customers are just as loyal — so much so that the Harringtons have twice expanded Tessaro’s into adjoining buildings.
Hamburgers are the specialty of the house, and they’re what you want to get when you visit Tessaro’s. In-house butcher Dominic Piccola double-grinds a custom blend of chuck, short ribs, brisket, New York strip and filet trimmings and McFarlane sears the 10-ounce patties on a custom-made, cast-iron grill, using a variety of Pennsylvania hardwoods such as oak, maple, hickory and ash. Sure, Pittsburgh is a great hamburger town, and there are a lot of places to get a good one, but these smoky, meaty classics remain a must-do on your hamburger checklist, particularly if you can grab a seat at the gorgeous vintage bar.
4601 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield; 412/682-6809, tessaros.com
photos by laura petrilla
Pittsburgh's Essential Building Blocks: Kaya and Casbah
big Burrito Restaurant Group founders Tom Baron and Juno Yoon helped lay the groundwork for Pittsburgh’s modern dining resurgence when they opened a duo of specialty restaurants — Kaya in the Strip District and Casbah in Shadyside — in 1995. One of their first hires at Kaya was a young-gun sous chef named Bill Fuller, who had recently moved back to Pittsburgh from Washington, D.C. Fuller was Casbah’s first executive chef, and currently is corporate chef and president of what now is a small empire that includes six standalone concepts,
13 Mad Mex restaurants and a popular catering business. In addition to producing a self-populating team of in-house culinary talent, the Kaya and Casbah alumni roster reads like a who’s-who of Pittsburgh’s top chefs: Justin Severino (Cure, Morcilla), Kevin Sousa (Superior Motors), Derek Stevens (Union Standard), Henry Dewey (Penn Avenue Fish Company), Dan Carlton (Fish nor Fowl), Chris Bonfili (Bonfire) and Shelby Ortz (Lux Artisan Chocolates), just to name a few. Even better, both of these restaurants remain viable today: Kaya’s monthly vegetarian dinners and weekly fried chicken nights are a draw. And Casbah, under the leadership of Executive Chef Dustin Gardner, is as strong as it’s ever been.
Kaya : 2000 Smallman St., Strip District; 412/261-6565, kaya.menu
Casbah : 229 S. Highland Ave., Shadyside; 412/661-5656, casbah.kitchen
Pittsburgh's Essential Pizza: Il Pizzaiolo (Mt. Lebanon)
It was a dire landscape for pizza in Pittsburgh when Ron Molinaro opened Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon in 1996. Sure, there were — and still are — the classic Pittsburgh-style slice and pie joints, but Molinaro envisioned something more groundbreaking and, frankly, better.
Neapolitan pizza (and its close cousin neo-Neapolitan pizza) relies on peerless ingredients and masterful technique, and the pies must be cooked in a red-hot, wood-fired oven. Quality matters because there aren’t a lot of ingredients; there is nowhere to hide in this ethereal style. Molinaro’s most significant challenge in 1996 was finding a way to get his top-flight ingredients to Pittsburgh, making weekly trips to New York City until he was able to find a supplier who’d deliver to him.
Eating at New York’s old-school pizzerias, a trip to Naples, Evelyne Slomon’s 1984 classic how-to “The Pizza Book” and a lot of practice helped Molinaro master his technique. Master he did — while there might be other places to get a great pizza in Pittsburgh now (including Molinaro’s eponymous Downtown restaurant and two other Il Pizzaiolo locations), the Margarita DOC at the original location remains Pittsburgh’s essential pizza.
703 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon; 412/344-4123, ilpizzaiolo.com