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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Pittsburgh's Essential Vegetarian: Udipi Cafe
In 1996, Manjunath Sherigar decided to do something that was rather outside the norm for Pittsburgh at the time — open a restaurant specializing in the cuisine of southern India.
Sherigar grew up in Udupi, an ancient city in southwestern India, and when he moved to Pittsburgh realized that he had a hungry clientele in the patrons of the nearby Sri Venkateswara Temple as well as the larger Pittsburgh-area community. Sherigar and his team forgo the all-you-can-eat buffet style that’s nearly ubiquitous in Indian restaurants for a somewhat lengthy menu of specialties from Andhra, Karnataka and Tuluva-Mangalorean cuisines. And, long before Apteka, B52 and others focused on vegetarian cooking, Sherigar, adhering to Hindu tradition, did so at his restaurant.
You’re here primarily for the dosa, a thin, griddled pancake made from fermented rice and lentils and then stuffed with potato, chutney, onion and other ingredients.
4141 Old William Penn Highway, Monroeville; 412/373-5581
photos by erin kelly
Pittsburgh's Essential Chef: Cafe Zinho
Portugal native Toni Pais moved to Pittsburgh in 1978 and quickly became one of Pittsburgh’s most beloved and influential culinary personalities via his front-of-house role at Le Normande, the upscale French restaurant that once defined fine dining in the city.
In 1992, Pais stepped into the kitchen and opened his lauded bistro, Baum Vivant, in Shadyside; it reigned supreme as Pittsburgh Magazine’s Restaurant of the Year for eight consecutive years from 1995 to 2002.
In 1997, looking to explore a Portuguese and Mediterranean menu more deeply, he opened Cafe Zinho on a quiet, leafy corner just off the Ellsworth Avenue business district in Shadyside. With this more casual space — which, even with its Bohemian interior and festive outdoor tables feels fairly upscale compared to the even more casual restaurants in today’s landscape — Pais was able to delve deeper into his culinary roots. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2005, Pais underwent a successful experimental treatment in 2012 and has run the Cafe Zinho kitchen with chef de cuisine Dounia Touil ever since.
What I adore most about Cafe Zinho is the always top-notch seafood — bulhao pato clams steamed in white wine and garlic, seared Portuguese sardines served over beans and greens and grilled branzino dressed simply with olive oil and lemon are among my favorites.
238 Spahr St., Shadyside; 412/363-1500
Pittsburgh's Essential Modern Italian: Piccolo Forno
With its array of excellent eateries, Lower Lawrenceville could very well be considered Pittsburgh’s new Restaurant Row — but Domenic Branduzzi was well ahead of the game when he opened Piccolo Forno on that six-block stretch of Butler Street in 2005. He also was ahead of the curve when he eschewed the dominant red-sauce trend of the day and tapped into his Tuscan roots, developing a menu that was much more Italian than Italian-American.
Branduzzi was following in his family’s footsteps by doing so; his parents, Antonio and Carla Branduzzi, operated the Italian bakery Il Piccolo Forno in the Strip District. Branduzzi worked at the bakery as a teenager and also spent time in his extended family’s kitchen in his native Lucca, Italy. He worked the pizza oven of his Lawrenceville building’s previous tenant — pizza legend Roberto Caporuscio’s Regina Margherita Pizzeria — before opening Piccolo Forno.
Pasta, handmade in the basement, usually by Carla Branduzzi, is the primary draw; spinach ravioli drizzled with sage butter, Tuscan-style lasagna and tortelli bolognese are some of the standouts.
3801 Butler St., Lawrenceville; 412/622-0111, piccolo-forno.com