Pittsburgh's 12 Essential Restaurants
Step-by-step, these establishments helped build our dining scene. Even better, they still have something to offer today.
(page 4 of 4)
photos by laura petrilla
Pittsburgh's Essential Restaurant Family: Joseph Tambellini Restaurant
The surname Tambellini may very well be the most iconic last name in Pittsburgh’s restaurant history. Louis Tambellini opened a restaurant with his name on it in Mt. Washington in 1948, and over the next 60 years, the extended family opened many restaurants throughout the region, all independently owned and operated. Joseph Tambellini, who runs his eponymous Highland Park restaurant with his wife, Melissa, is the last Tambellini standing in Pittsburgh.
Tambellini stepped into the restaurant world in 1979 when he worked Downtown for his father at Robert Tambellini’s, and he developed his skills at several Italian restaurants around town. In 2007, the Tambellinis took over the space previously occupied by another great Pittsburgh restaurant, Laforet. They merged the elegance of fine dining with the comfort of high-end Italian classics. Both the intimate ground floor and the second-floor space are overseen by attentive, button-down-and-tie-wearing serving staff. While you’re seated at tables draped in white cloth, it’s the increasingly rare kind of place where you’ll feel happier dressing up, too.
Start with zucchini planks; battered, crisp-fried and served with red sauce, they’re a signature item. Then, treat yourself to a hulking, bone-in veal chop, an Italian classic such as chicken romano or piccata and a hand-made pasta; mafalda giancarlo, with chewy, lacy noodles, spinach, artichoke hearts and pine nuts is a tasty option.
5701 Bryant St., Highland Park; 412/665-9000, josephtambellini.com
Pittsburgh's Essential Seasonal, Farm-to-Table: Legume Bistro
Trevett and Sarah Hooper pushed soulful, seasonal, farm-to-dining forward in Pittsburgh when they opened their first iteration of Legume in 2007 in Regent Square. Trevett ran the tiny kitchen, marrying French and Californian technique and culinary philosophy with regional cookery and local sourcing. That mix, along with Sarah Hooper’s front-of-house leadership, proved a hit, at least with the forward-thinking dining crowd.
By late 2011, they’d outgrown the 30-seat space and moved to a 90-seat spot in Oakland in a historic dining space that once was home to Nino’s. Here, Hooper’s depth of commitment to working with local farms and building menus following the cycle of seasons has expanded, as has his fermentation room, and an in-house butcher (though Hooper has pulled back on whole-animal exclusivity).
The restaurant’s alumni roster is one of the most important in today’s Pittsburgh dining scene, including Jamilka Borges (Independent Brewing Company), Neil Blazin and Justin Vetter (Driftwood Oven), Naomi Auth (Red Star Kombucha), Brian Wiltrout (Cure, Morcilla) and Rafael Vencio (Kanto Kitchen). The Hoopers now run two adjacent establishments — Butterjoint and Pie for Breakfast — and Csilla Thackray (The Vandal) stepped in as Legume’s chef de cuisine in February.
As for what to get — Legume remains one of Pittsburgh’s top-tier restaurants; get whatever moves you.
214 N. Craig St., Oakland; 412/621-2700, legumebistro.com
Pittsburgh's Essential Visionary: Dinette
Sonja Finn didn’t just open a thoughtful, vegetable-forward restaurant when she launched Dinette, she also built a model for what a progressive restaurant would look like. Finn, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America (and, prior to that, a prep cook for Toni Pais at Baum Vivant), became the first woman chef of the modern dining era to have 100 percent ownership in her restaurant when she opened in 2008 in East Liberty.
She eschewed massive portion sizes for considered, thoughtful dishes made from quality ingredients yet still kept the focus of the restaurant rooted in something comfortable — pizza. Finn also kept the kitchen open — a rarity at the time — which, in addition to providing stimulation, was a visual reminder that an actual person was cooking your food.
Over the past decade, Finn has remained at the forefront of workplace dignity, paying employees a living wage (on a no-tip model) and providing health insurance to full-time workers, as well as earning one of just four Sustainable Pittsburgh “platinum” certifications for the overall sustainability of Dinette.
The list of Pittsburgh culinary professionals who opened restaurants after working at Dinette includes Becca Hegarty (Bitter Ends Garden & Luncheonette), Jeanette Harris (Gluten Free Goat), Robert Stockard (Pear and the Pickle), Yelena Barnhouse (Lola Bistro), and Lauren Zanardelli (The Fairlane). My favorite dishes at Dinette are those built around seasonal vegetables. Although I tend to be a pizza purist, I’m also drawn to Finn’s more complex creations such as Stayman Winesap apple with red onion, peppered bacon, fontina val d’Aosta and fresh mozzarella.
5996 Centre Ave., East Liberty; 412/362-0202, dinette-pgh.com