A new place in growing Eastside offers casual dining, simple fare, a buoyant attitude—and good food!
"After seeing the space for the first time, I felt an immediate, intense connection,” says owner/chef Sonja Finn of Dinette, the latest entry into the burgeoning culinary scene in the new Eastside section of East Liberty. There were two grounding inspirations: Pizzeria del Fina, Finn’s favorite spot in San Francisco, and a memorable stay in Italy.
Dinette is a meticulous little café done in shades of warm “panda” white and bright orange; it’s a cozy spot with simple, modern aesthetics, more eccentric than chilly nouveau. Sweeping, multidirectional views of the world (or Eastside, if you will) add a little romance, while a compact menu and a price point as comfortable as the orange-colored air chairs by Jasper Morrison are practical and down-to-earth. I especially like touches such as “Dinette” spelled out in neon cursive and a Marsal oven with wooden knobs that is lined in stone 2 inches thick.
Dinette’s menu changes daily and focuses on Finn’s favorite things—bread, in the form of individual pizzas; gorgeous soups; salads; and a few, not-too-sugary desserts. No two-fisted eating. Skip it if you’re looking for overflowing, take-home portions. “I use simple techniques but strive for perfection,” says Finn, a graduate of Columbia University (sociology) and the Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park), who wrote her college thesis on the urban renewal that led to the decline of East Liberty in the late-1960s/early-1970s. That the area’s current resurgence coincides with Dinette’s opening is not lost on Finn, an East End native.
As an employer, Finn wants happy employees able to afford rent. Everyone receives a living wage, with health insurance for non-tipped personnel. And Finn takes ecological sustainability seriously. She uses energy-efficient equipment and participates in recycling.
Finn is part of a family that loves to cook. At the age of 6, she had perfected her favorite chicken parmesan, and laughs at the thought of waking her parents when she discovered “The Frugal Gourmet.” The summer after her senior year at Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill, she landed a prep position at Toni Pais’ legendary Baum Vivant, where she pureed soups, made the ever-popular olive hummus and the Portuguese sugar cookies served with every check. She returned two summers later, intoxicated with the idea of creating food that delighted customers. By the time her dad dropped her off at Columbia for junior year, he gave his blessing to Sonja’s pursuing what would become her present career. “If you want to be a chef, that’s OK,” Finn says he told her. “He knew. He just knew.”
Finn enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. She took an externship at Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C., known for its spectacular Southern cuisine. Then after graduation she proceeded to California, where vegetables practically grow out of concrete, and female chefs are not uncommon. Finn landed a position at the famed Zuni Café in San Francisco, “a perfect place to work with the best ingredients,” she remembers. Not only did it change the way Finn looked at a completed dish—“perfect technique, using simple ingredients”—she also learned to work fast and hard, her palate forever elevated. “If you look at my [Dinette] menu, you can tell I worked at Zuni. There’s no way to hide it,” she chuckles.
After two years at Zuni and a stint at Neiman Marcus Rotunda Restaurant in San Francisco, Finn realized she was just “more East Coast.” She made her way back to Pittsburgh with ideas for money she had saved for the restaurant bouncing around in her right brain.
On Oct. 9, she opened Dinette, a cozy little room with good eating and a buoyant attitude. If you open the door and encounter a queue, Dinette gives you the option of taking a pager with a range far enough to browse the shelves in Borders. I did. Back inside, instead of the quasi-religious breadbasket, I was presented with a glass of tall breadsticks, a fun but slightly elegant touch. My personal addiction to sparkling water was enhanced when I learned that Dinette filters and carbonates its water on-site.
Every single thing I tried focused on flavor. Soups are bold and fresh: A perfectly smooth, earthy mushroom soup with crème fraîche seems to change and expand in the mouth; cauliflower soup with cumin oil and fried parsley sprinkled on top is rich and distinguished, and I love the intense tomato- fennel soup with parmigiano reggiano and Kung Pao chili oil. You want to pick up the bowl and drain every drop.
Salads are snappy and inventive with interesting textural notes. “I believe a salad can be great,” remarks Finn in a way that makes you a believer before you’ve even picked up a fork. There are beautiful lettuces, herbs—whatever is fresh and makes sense for the season. Salad mimosa uses little gem lettuce with egg mimosa, radishes and champagne vinaigrette; wild-arugula salad features fennel, pomegranate seeds, sheep’s-milk feta and sherry vinaigrette; Bibb lettuce salad offers Maytag blue cheese, radishes, scallions and buttermilk vinaigrette.
If it’s on the menu when you visit, try my favorite appetizer, the fritto misto (radicchio, cauliflower, portobello mushrooms, onions and sage) in an ethereal batter that frames the flavor of each ingredient.
Individual thin-crust pizzas (10 inch), somewhere between Tuscan and Neapolitan style (more chewy, more dough), have crispy crusts made with finely milled flour. Dough is stretched into 10-inch rounds so that you can practically see through the bottom. The house uses the best cheeses (you can almost taste the cow in the mozzarella) and tomatoes, with goodies thoughtfully strewn across the top. Her approach expects that you appreciate each bite and its different possibilities. “It’s all about crust, tomato sauce and cheese. Anything else is like a bonus,” Finn says.
Contemplate pizza: with brussels-sprouts greens, lardons, butternut squash, chèvre and fresh mozzarella; with radicchio, pancetta, sunny-side-up egg, mozzarella and tomato; with oyster mushrooms, shiitakes, truffled pecorino, pine nuts and mozzarella.
Most likely, you won’t have to skip dessert. The selections include a pleasant pot au crème with dark Belgian chocolate and not too much sugar; a spongy plum cake, luscious without being cute; or an excellent baklava made by Finn’s mother, Olivera.
I love the colors, the diminutive service, the casual room without pretensions. But most of all, I really like the food and hope that, as time passes, Finn will add a few more items. Racy pastas, maybe, perhaps some fresh fish.
My husband, Brad, and I stopped briefly on election night for a quick coffee at the shiny metal bar, which, by the way, offers Pennsylvania and Ohio crafted beers and 20 or so wines by the glass or bottle, interesting selections with prices that are eminently reasonable. We played a pen-and-paper game of Hangman with the bartender as white noise exploded from below into a crescendo of celebration. Finn has her dream, an aesthetic urban restaurant in historically rich surrounds that reflects her cutting-edge vision, and the East End has another participant in its nascent new urban culture.