Have Your Steak and Eat It Too
1209 E. Carson St., South Side
Lunch: Mon.-Fri.,11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Sat., 12:30-3 p.m., Dinner: Mon.-Thurs., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m. Appetizers: $2.50-$9.95, Salads: $6.25-$6.50, Sides: $2.95, Entrees: $15.95-$42.95 with some items priced daily. Full bar, wheelchair access, $10 corkage fee. Nonsmoking. Dinner reservations accepted. Carry-out menu, catering and private parties.
The chef’s foot-tall starched white toque bobs in and out of sight amid the evening crowd like an angler’s float on top of the water. It is rare to find owner/chef Matthew Mantini out from behind the business end of his grill at Mantini’s Woodfired, his hip new address on East Carson Street, but here and there he slips away long enough to bear-hug some regulars and momentarily commune with patrons monitoring the progress of whatever game is popular on the bar’s flat-screen TV.
We clank Magic Hat Number 9, the apricot-y microbrew from Vermont that has attained a local cult-like following with a dissenting glass of light, crisp Wolf Blass Australian Riesling, then focus on the menu and our server’s recitation of the daily specials.
Mantini, a Pittsburgh native, has built an impressive dossier spanning nearly a quarter of a century, beginning at age 14 working for Norwood Catering (caterer for Gateway Clipper Fleet), followed by a stint at the impressive DeForo’s, which was across from Kaufmann’s on Forbes Avenue in the 1970s and ’80s, and 18 years with Marriott Corp., from Pittsburgh to D.C, to the Carolinas, back to D.C. then back to Pittsburgh, a period that included such high-level positions as running the food-service operation for the U.S. House of Representatives and University of Pittsburgh, both serviced by Marriott. An American Culinary Federation-certified executive chef, he never stopped yearning for a place of his own.
When he finally left a secure job and salary to follow that dream in November 2003, he figured, "Build it, and they will come." But when he opened Mantini’s first location at 601 E. Carson St. in the South Side, it was like putting all of his expertise into an urban vacuum, an alternate universe between Station Square and East Carson Street’s main drag. Good product, hard work and optimism weren’t enough to overcome the pre-ordained law of business marketing – location, location, location.
There was no street traffic to draw in during his three years there. "I had positive reviews and repeat business, but I never had critical mass. Nobody drove by; nobody walked by. No impulse customers," laments the chef.
But Mantini is not one to easily throw in the toque, and has happily discovered what a difference six blocks can make.
Just a little closer to where South Side’s vibe is simmering, Mantini found a restaurant (Old Europe) for sale. It became his alter ego. "Finally, a space for myself," says the chef, who can claim the comeback of the year. His hand is in every part of the design, from the light sockets to the focal point – food sizzling on the grill fired with indigenous cherry wood. "Not only does the food appear fresh, you see it, you smell it, you hear it," Mantini says proudly.
The exhibition kitchen is open and shiny. Recipes are derived from the chef’s work experiences: Sirachi hot sauce, not chili sauce, enlivens marinades; cole slaw created with olive oil and balsamic vinegar is labeled "eclectic Mediterranean" by Mantini. And just to make sure the "critical mass" turns its collective head at this new location, Mantini had one of two gas fireplaces placed right at the entrance and raised it to eye level; it’s always glowing, standing out from the myriad of neon signs that dot the street in an attempt to capture the attention of drivers-by. Original brick and massive "I" beams add character to the decor, while faux-leather banquettes in the rear create mini-private worlds. Background music is blues; with husky vocals and smooth backbeats, this makes for a perfect sound backdrop, bitter and sweet, rising above the din without overpowering conversation.
What’s on the grill? It’s the kind of food Mantini likes to eat when he goes out. A 32-ounce cowboy rib-eye is every bit as soft as a filet. A 16-ounce New York strip melts in your mouth. It’s rubbed down with spices, and the 1,000-degree grill locks in juices and flavors. Also worthy of note are an 18-ounce heirloom Grand Reserve pork chop (more marbling equals more flavor), jumbo Gulf shrimp (no farm-raised products) and cold-water lobster tails from Nova Scotia (thicker shells, sweeter meat).
Everything at Mantini’s is made from scratch. All meats are cut in-house. Trimmings from the steaks become lunchtime burgers (absolutely no ground chuck is used), which are available only at lunch for the simple reason that carnivores might never order up (or anything else) during evening hours. Meatier varieties of fish (halibut, salmon, snapper, sea bass) stand up to the hot grill, and there’s always fresh pasta (with sauce from scratch nightly) and a vegetarian offering.
Come hungry, and don’t fill up on appetizers – portions are large. Divvy up, say, a smoked-chicken lettuce wrap and maybe share some shrimp steamed in beer. That aforementioned shrimp dish might sound ordinary, but take it from some friends of mine who just returned from the coast and pronounced it better here than there. "You’re hooked for life," they declared.
Given the meaty predilections of many Pittsburghers, I’ll share a little secret: Ribs are Mantini’s hobby, something that started when he was a corporate chef in South Carolina, and he began competing for "Memphis in May," a world championship barbecue contest for Memphis-style barbecue rolls. "I do real barbecue," he emphasizes with the fervor of an ardent ribber. He explains that ribs, working muscle, were originally a poor-man’s cut and require slow-cooking for flavor and texture. Mantini’s are marinaded for eight hours and then slow-smoked seven more hours. When they are done, the ribs are cooked correctly thanks to a little wood-fired magic – the meat is falling-off-the-bone done. Mop up homemade, Memphis-style apple barbecue sauce served on pork chops and ribs.
After all the big food, light is good, so try a bourbon pecan creme brulee, Southern-style banana pudding or a county-fair baked fresh fruit cobbler (order 20 minutes in advance).
As we near the end of the grilling season in the ‘Burgh, dearies, remember that a broiler is never an exact replacement for a grill. The good news is that even if it’s cold and pouring buckets outside, if you like your meat, fish or fowl naturally juicy, the cherry embers are always glowing inside Mantini’s kitchen.
Each month, Deborah McDonald jump-starts appetites with lively restaurant reviews that scrutinize who’s cooking what and where. She works anonymously, visiting each restaurant at least twice before writing her column.
Do you know of a restaurant you’d like to have reviewed? E-mail Deborah.