Love at First Bite
Top-notch dining complete with fresh, local ingredients and creative preparations has made its way to Pittsburgh.
Overwhelmingly, the chefs included on our "25 Best Restaurants" list are making ingredients in-house – from condiments (strawberry consommé and mulberry jelly) to charcuterie (country pâté and seafood sausage) to classics (ricotta cheese and pizza dough). The house-made trend extends to desserts such as Bananas Foster Napoleon, Meyer lemon tiramisu and chocolate-truffle cake. So as you make dinner reservations this year, don’t hold back – you’re sure to fall in love with the local food scene and all it has to offer.
In this year’s annual "25 Best Restaurants" issue, we are delighted to celebrate the best places to dine in Pittsburgh. The 2009 list reflects just how diverse the region’s options for eats have become: From perfect Neopolitan pizza to delicious dim sum, from Latin-style seviche to Southern shrimp-and-grits, most any craving can be satisfied in style.
Small, upscale-casual, chef-owned restaurants are now as numerous as special-occasion restaurants, and this trend is clearly reflected by the winners of this year’s "Special Awards."
Our "Chef of the Year" award goes to Trevett Hooper, who has continued to cross ambitious culinary bridges at his tiny restaurant, Legume – while never leaving us behind. It’s with pleasure that we recognize Toast! Kitchen & Wine Bar as our "Best New Restaurant." Co-owned by two Pittsburgh-area natives who sharpened their skills in other cities and returned recently to share their talents, it has wowed us with its vibrant, fun, classy approach to food and drink. No wonder that Toast’s chef, Chet Garland, is our "Rising Star Chef" honoree. Finally, our "Delicious Design" award goes to East Liberty’s Dinette, a bright, environmentally sustainable space outfitted to serve chef Sonja Finn’s simple gourmet creations.
With all the exciting innovations afoot, we hope our guide to the region’s top restaurants as selected by PITTSBURGH MAGAZINE’s Restaurant Review Panel will be more inspiring and helpful than ever.
Executive Chef Jessica Gibson
711 Washington Road, Mount Lebanon
Contemporary American food fills the menu at this lovely neighborhood bistro owned by B DeFrancis and Richard Fuchs. You’ll find center-cut filet mignon with Dijon bread-crumbs, roasted-garlic and chive-compound butter, horseradish-encrusted sea bass and crab cakes. The fun list of martinis makes a cocktail a must. Many desserts are house-made, including a Bananas Foster Napolean, which layers flaky puff pastry with vanilla cream, fresh bananas, whipped cream and whiskey-caramel sauce. The interior beckons with soothing hues of taupe and cream, warm lighting and dark wood.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Cedar-plank-roasted Bay of Fundy salmon encrusted with sun-dried tomato pesto and topped with parmesan herb butter, served with basmati rice and roasted vegetables.
Executive Chef and Owner Douglass Dick
908 Main St., Sharpsburg
This restaurant’s inimitable chef/owner – three-time winner of our "Chef of the Year" award – continues to justify his fine reputation and to prove why Gourmet magazine named Bona Terra one of the nation’s best farm-to-table restaurants in 2007. Inspiration for the fresh, unfussy and memorable menu (it changes every day) comes from local growers and purveyors: Jewel-like spring strawberries are likely to inspire a pristine salad, a beautiful clear consommé or a main course – anything but what’s predictable. Call at least a month in advance for a weekend table.
Chef’s favorite Dish to Make: Fresh cheese plate with seasonal ingredients, fruits and meats.
THE CAFÉ AT THE FRICK
Executive Chef Curtis Gamble
7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze
This beautiful, sunny bistro on the grounds of the Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze only serves lunch – but what a lunch it is. Most dishes on the menu incorporate sublimely fresh vegetables and herbs tended by Grow Pittsburgh in a Victorian-style greenhouse (visible from the café). Try the asparagus and feta salad and the mushroom lasagne, both of which showcase the excellent house-made ricotta. Every meal ends with a sweet surprise: a tiny lemon sugar cookie encrusted with raw sugar and made fresh daily by pastry chef Nadine Gindlesperger. (Seasonal dinners are served around the holidays; see Web site for details.)
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: House-made goat’s-milk ricotta with local pea tendril ravioli and crème fraîche.
Chef Alan Peet
229 S. Highland Ave., Shadyside
Happy hour on Casbah’s spacious, tented front patio has become a tradition for those who live and work in the East End. And with sensuous starters such as Oregon black truffles served fondue-style alongside melted cheese, it’s no wonder they stay for dinner and dessert – sipping wines from the well-chosen list along the way. Freshness translates to big flavor in entrees such as hanger steak with cipollini onions, fingerling potatoes and rosemary or double-cut pork chops served with spring pea and prosciutto risotto, braised kale and garlic cream. Desserts, such as tiramisù made with Meyer lemon mousse, lemon lady fingers and white-chocolate curls, aren’t to be missed.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Alaskan halibut, morel mushrooms, English peas, sun-dried tomatoes and pea purée.
Chef and Owner Sonja Finn
5996 Penn Circle South, East Liberty
East End native Sonja Finn opened her vibrant, California/ Mediterranean-inspired restaurant this past October, and already her addictive thin-crust gourmet pizzas have a dedicated following. The menu, which changes daily, always includes a colorful selection of single-serving 12-inch pizzas with simple, inventive ingredients – a recent example was topped with grilled asparagus, pancetta, mozzarella and a sunny-side-up egg. The thin, crisp breadsticks, served with every meal in lieu of a breadbasket, are a crowd-pleaser. The menu also includes house-made seasonal soups and salads, and a short list of desserts such as Arborio rice pudding or cherry cake.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Beef carpaccio with shaved radicchio, hazelnuts, pecorino Ginepro and sherry-shallot vinaigrette.
DISH OSTERIA AND BAR
Chef Michele Savoia
128 S. 17th St., South Side
At Dish, you’ll feel as if you’ve stumbled upon a hip spot in New York City’s Little Italy that only the locals know about – lucky you. Tucked in among the South Side’s row houses, this restaurant is charming and intimate with its handsome bar, hardwood floors and original pressed-tin ceiling. But the real draw is such inventive cocktails as the Rossini, combining puréed fresh berries with Prosecco; the flavorful appetizers; and stand-out pasta dishes such as Linguini al Frutti di Mare. Finish your meal with La Dolce Vita, a dessert cocktail made with Godiva liqueur, Stolichnaya Vanil, Nocello, a splash of cream and a dusting of cocoa.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Braised lamb shank prepared with saffron risotto, green peas and fresh vegetables.
Executive Chef Derek Stevens
1150 Smallman St., Strip District
This sophisticated restaurant and bar in the Strip District celebrates its fifth anniversary this June. (For more info on special anniversary events, see "Bits + Bites," page 83.) In chef Derek Stevens’ signature American-bistro cooking style, fresh, local ingredients are showcased in dishes such as halibut with Dungeness crab risotto, forest mushrooms and leeks. If you’re looking to impress, make reservations for the Chef’s Table, a prix-fixe tasting menu for up to six guests that’s served in the restaurant’s open kitchen. Satisfy sweets cravings you didn’t know you had with desserts like the chocolate-pretzel candy bar, which features milk-chocolate-pretzel ice cream and peanut brittle served with a chocolate pretzel cookie.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: A simple salad of mesclun greens, raw porcini mushrooms and artichoke with lemon, Spanish olive oil and chive blossoms.
Chef and Owner Jeff Iovino
300A Beverly Road, Mount Lebanon
Every neighborhood deserves a spot like this one, where you can feast on creative comfort food in bright, charming surroundings, secure in knowing the chef/owner is at the wheel. The menu, printed often to reflect what’s fresh, focuses on seafood and includes some mainstay dishes that regulars can’t live without such as the marinated, grilled flank steak. Chef Iovino’s knack for working with Asian and Italian ingredients and techniques shows in dishes such as black-pepper-crusted tuna with sesame-miso gnocchi and sweet soy glaze or the flavorful Mediterranean-style grilled fish.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Seared golden tilefish and shrimp quinoa with sautéd snow peas, caramelized shallots and a crab-caper rémoulade.
Executive Chef Danielle Cain
2000 Smallman St., Strip District
Most of us can’t afford a trip to the Caribbean to sample the local cuisine – but Kaya, with its colorful decor, festive lighting and tiki-style bar stools, serves up food and drinks inspired by the tropics right in the Strip District. Start things off with a mango mai tai and an appetizer of avocado tempura with spicy aioli, chili soy sauce and pepper relish. Bright entrees such as the crispy fish tacos with cabbage slaw, avocado, spicy crème fraîche and cilantro or the mole-rubbed chicken breast offer inventive twists on traditional Caribbean dishes. The Mexican chocolate torte garnished with spiced pecans and chipotle ice cream makes for a kicky finish.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Honey-glazed pork belly on sour-apple and iceberg slaw.
Chef de Cuisine Dave Racicot
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, Wharton Township, near Farmington, Fayette County
You can drive the 70 miles from Pittsburgh to Nemacolin Woodlands Resort for the beautiful countryside – but food lovers do it for this highly acclaimed Mobil Five Star and AAA Five Diamond restaurant. Modern, American fare created by chef de cuisine Dave Racicot is showcased, and all the extras of luxurious fine dining are here, from the award-winning wine list to the custom champagne carte. A grand dining room swathed in rich crimson and golden fabrics provides the backdrop for enjoying the prix-fixe menus, which run from $98 (five courses and dessert; wine pairings are not included) to $135 (12-course Grand Tasting).
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Braised beef short ribs with blue-cheese gratin, grain mustard, celery and cassis purée.
Executive Chef and Owner Trevett Hooper
1113 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square
Named "Chef of the Year" by our Restaurant Review Panel see here, Trevett Hooper creates a tightly focused, constantly changing American, French and Italian menu at this tiny 14-table neighborhood gem. Memorable bistro food gets creative grace notes from plentiful house-made preserves and charcuterie: Hooper might serve his green-tomato chutney or mustard peaches with lamb or pair his mulberry jelly with duck. The succinct list of entrees always includes an appealing vegetarian option, and desserts are memorable – Hooper, a former pastry chef, makes a chocolate-truffle cake that’s not to be missed. In a welcome recent development, reservations of any size are now accepted.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Sautéd Jamison lamb kidneys with frisée, fried potatoes, poached egg and mustard vinaigrette.
Chef and Owner Mark Collins
2104 E. Carson St., South Side
This charming, modern French-American bistro consistently makes our "Best Restaurants" list because its owners keep things fresh and new in and out of the kitchen. This year is the restaurant’s 25th anniversary, and plans include a revamped interior and an emphasis on the wine-bar theme with a new selection of small plates. Fortunately, the menu’s signature, creative interpretation of Gallic food using what’s local and seasonal will remain the same: Look for favorites such as house-made country pâté, chicken-liver mousse and steamed mussels, as well as hearty fare like cassoulet, steak frites or braised duck legs with porcini mushrooms and fava beans. Enticing French wines and desserts provide further reason to linger.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Seafood cassoulet featuring house-made seafood sausage made with lobster, crab, shrimp and a light purée of scallops and mussels with shallot, thyme and crème fraîche.
MIO KITCHEN & WINE BAR
Executive Chef and Owner Matthew Porco
225 Commercial Ave., Aspinwall
Dishes from Matthew Porco continue to wow at this comfortable, upscale spot that won our "Best New Restaurant" award last year. Rich, concentrated flavors enhance dishes such as tender braised short ribs, grilled pork chops with house-made pancetta or pan-seared monkfish with warm potato salad, bacon, whole-grain mustard and braised red cabbage. Along with the seasonally changing menu, you’ll find about 170 bottles and 20 to 25 wines by the glass, plus don’t-miss desserts from wonderful local pastry chef Barbara Ferguson. Check the Web site for details on the tempting happy-hour offerings and recently introduced three-course prix-fixe menu, which runs Tuesday through Thursday.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Hamachi tartare with pickled daikon and avocado.
NINE ON NINE
Chef Richard DeShantz
900 Penn Ave., downtown
The elegant menu at this chic Cultural District restaurant is a showcase for fresh, top-notch ingredients. The complex dishes offer spot-on flavor pairings that range from deliciously inventive – think prime flat-iron steak with kim chee, rice cake, long beans stir fry, barbecue sauce and soy glaze – to classic, as in a dish of Kurobuta pork with root vegetables, apple-wood smoked bacon and brussels sprouts. Dining options include a three-course theater menu (salad or soup, choice of three entrees and dessert) until 7 p.m. ($35) and a six-course chef’s tasting menu ($65); lunch service kicked off in April.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Bucatini all’Amatriciana: thick bucatini pasta and a zesty tomato sauce made with onion, chili and pancetta.
Ronald A. DeLuca Jr.
736 Bellefonte St., Shadyside
A food-lovers’ refuge just steps away from the bustling shops on Walnut Street, this walk-down restaurant has a beautifully lit interior that glows in hues of sunset orange. Fresh, globally inspired cuisine is created with care at this chef/operating partner-run spot: There are starters such as seared sea scallops with pomegranate mojito sauce, tapas "flights" offering a triple play on a particular theme (envision three adorable mini char-grilled burgers) and diverse seasonal entrees such as pork tandoori or duck au poivre. Portions are sized perfectly to leave room for the memorable desserts, such as a chocolate terrine with homemade graham-cracker garnish.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Grain-mustard-brushed duck breast with caramelized Georgia peach, rhubarb-jalapeño conserve and frisée.
Head Chef and Owner
703 Washington Road, Mount Lebanon
Perfecting the art of authentic thin-crust Neopolitan pizza is the driving force behind this bustling Mount Lebanon mainstay. A brand-new temperature-controlled room has been installed for making dough; another recent addition was a beautiful wood-fired oven from Italy that cooks each pizza in a minute flat. After finding a source for specialty flour from Naples, the owner has added tender handmade pasta such as potato gnocchi, ravioli, papparadello and tagliatelle to the menu. The restaurant’s three seating areas include a dining room with exposed brick and Tuscan tiles, a charming outdoor patio and a cozy wine bar.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: House-made potato gnocchi Bolognese.
POINT BRUGGE CAFÉ
Executive Chef Kevin Hunninen
401 Hastings St., Point Breeze
The signature meal at this bright, inviting Point Breeze bistro – a goblet of Trappist ale, deliciously plump steamed mussels and Belgian frites with mayonnaise – is enough to steal your heart. But explore the offerings and you’ll find even more to love, from the small plates made for sharing at the handsome, comfortable bar to the Belgian Liège waffles at Sunday brunch. Of the more than 70 beers in the bottle and four on draft, Belgian styles are emphasized. Even on weeknights, don’t be surprised to find a wait; the restaurant doesn’t take reservations and has legions of fans.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Fresh wild fish served over Moroccan tomato ragoût with sautéd hearts of palm, banana peppers and spinach, finished with lime-cilantro olive oil.
Executive Chef Yves Carreau
930 Penn Ave., downtown
$ (for tapas/small plates)
If it’s a question of finding fresh Nuevo Latino fare and memorable mojitos, this bright, colorful and casual destination is the answer. The fusion menu is split roughly 50-50 between cooked tapas (think pork empanadas or membrillo-glazed finger lamb chops) and seven seviche offerings. Made with fresh sushi-grade seafood, these range from a salmon "fire and ice" seviche with spicy habañero peppers and cooling prickly-pear granita to tropical fruit seviche with mangos, papayas and pineapples. People-watching at the bar, which tends to draw a feisty and festive cocktail crowd, is an added bonus.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Asian tartare seviche with ahi tuna, sushi rice, wasabi mayo, tobiko caviar and crisp, fried lotus root.
Executive Chef Brandy Stewart
5847 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside
At Ellsworth Avenue’s Soba Lounge, delicious Pan-Asian food is served in serene, meditative surroundings. Housed in a renovated three-story Victorian-style row house, Soba has an interior that features walls made of slate and stone, a water wall and even a Zen garden. Then there’s the food: Once you taste the wok-seared sea scallops with pork and rice-cake stir fry or the roasted-chicken noodle bowl, you’re sure to feel at least a little bit enlightened – especially if you complement the offerings with the house’s signature ginger-infused Sobatini. New to the menu is the custom noodle section, with rice flake, udon or rice-cake noodles, smothered in either broth or a full-flavored, spicy sauce.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Halibut with radish, cucumber and mint salad with lemongrass coconut broth.
Chef Courtney McFarlane
4601 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield
Walk through Bloomfield’s business district, and you’re sure to pick up on the mouth-watering scent of hardwood-grilled burgers. Follow your nose to Tessaro’s, where hand-formed hamburgers made from beef ground in-house are grilled to perfection over red oak and served towering with toppings and cheese (choose from American, Swiss, provolone, cheddar or blue). The tables, covered in denim tablecloths, are always crowded, a testament to the quality and consistency of the restaurant’s all-American cuisine. (Aside from burgers, you’ll find cheese steaks, hoagies, hot dogs, homemade soups, kielbasa and ribs on the lunch menu.) Order a draft beer and a side of potato salad, steamed broccoli or white rice and settle in for comfort food at its finest.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Gourmet burger made with one-half pound of beef grilled over hardwood with mushrooms, onions, melted cheese and bacon.
TOAST! KITCHEN & WINE BAR
Chef Chet Garland
5102 Baum Blvd., Shadyside
Winner of two awards this year – "Best New Restaurant" and "Rising Star Chef" – this hot spot co-owned by wine expert and manager Paul Tebbets and chef Chet Garland has breathed new life into the old location of Tony Pais’ Baum Vivant restaurant. The menu is printed daily with a short list of seasonal, standout contemporary-American dishes such as tender short ribs with jalapeño/red-onion relish or duck with roasted butternut squash, lentils and fig glaze. The fun wine list includes about 130 bottles and 30 wines by the glass (at least four are bubbly), and informed yet friendly advice on pairing is at hand. Upscale-casual is the name of the game in the seating areas, which include a comfortable, casual bar downstairs and three intimate upstairs dining rooms with white tablecloths.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Shrimp and grits with Byrd’s Mill grits, habañero cheddar, brown sugar and butter.
Co-chefs: Pusadee Tongdee, Michael "Buzz" Olshansky
242 S. Highland Ave., Shadyside
For the last five years, this stylish Thai restaurant has offered up classic noodles and curries as well as inventive "new Thai" cuisine. With the recent arrival of chef Michael Olshansky, a Japanese and Korean influence is now apparent on the menu as well. The fun, eclectic list of about 40 bottles and 22 wines by the glass includes lesser-known varietals such as Hondarrabi Zuri from the Basque region of Spain, a bright, acidic white that pairs well with spicy plates; cocktails with an Asian twist are a specialty at the sleek, inviting bar.
Chefs’ Favorite Dish to Make: Sashimi Sampler.
UMI JAPANESE RESTAURANT
Chef Mr. Shu
5849 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside
$$-$$$; omakase menu, $75 per person and up.
Fresh fish takes center stage at Umi, where master sushi chef Mr. Shu uses his razor-sharp knives to turn the day’s freshest catch, flown in from around the world, into sublime sushi and sashimi. The omakase meal, prepared by Mr. Shu for two or more guests at a time, is crafted from the best ingredients available that day, and is a multicourse indulgence you must try at least once. Until then, opt for the excellent sushi, sashimi and maki, or try the menu’s noodle, tempura and teriyaki dishes. Pair your meal with top-shelf sake, served warm, and don’t skip the chocolate-mousse Chocolate Maki "sushi rolls" for dessert.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Omakase (which loosely translates to "trust the chef"), a multi-course meal with items such as toro tartare and sawara seared with hot sesame oil.
Chef and Owner Sabatino "Sam" DiBattista
565 Lincoln Ave., Bellevue
To walk into this comfortable, friendly, family-owned restaurant is to feel immediately at home. With a rustic Italian-influenced menu that changes daily, there’s always something fresh and original to try. Furthermore, every element on the plate, from the delicious basic red sauce to the house-made vinaigrette dressing up the fresh and local greens, has been perfected by the kitchen. The entree price includes a pasta course and concludes, European-style, with salad. Desserts are made from scratch by chef DiBattista’s wife, Lori, and you’ll want to save room for treats such as pistachio gelato or affogato topped with fresh chocolate shavings.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Grilled domestic lamb chops with honey-truffle mustard sauce.
Chef Gloria Fortunato
1469 Bower Hill Road, Upper St. Clair
Opened last September by three friends, this tiny 28-seat bistro showcases the talents of chef Gloria Fortunato, front-of-the-house manager and chief designer Cathleen Enders and baker Lynne Bielewicz. The succinct menu includes main courses only – but don’t fret: Each one comes with sides. The grilled pork tenderloin, for example, is served with onion thyme soufflé, asparagus, shallot sauce and rocket arugula. You won’t miss out on appetizers, since a complimentary starter such as savory house-made flatbread with goat-cheese soufflé and marinated olives is always offered. Desserts such as cheesecake, flourless chocolate cake or génoise with sherried berries and mascarpone are freshly made in-house.
Chef’s Favorite Dish to Make: Seared scallops with shallots, crushed roasted sweet peppers, mascarpone, roasted tomatoes, asparagus and spaghetti.