Pittsburgh's 12 Essential Restaurants
Step-by-step, these establishments helped build our dining scene. Even better, they still have something to offer today.
photo by laura petrilla
One of the most common questions people ask me is, “What are the new restaurants that I should go to?” We love new. I get it — I do, too. The other day, however, I was thinking about the past. I was contemplating memories of eating special meals in a familiar booth, the joy in visiting with a bartender I’ve known for years and the comfort that comes with enjoying a dish that’s going to taste as good as it did the first time I had it years ago. It got me thinking about Pittsburgh’s culinary history.
These 12 restaurants, all in business for a decade or more, are essential to the development of Pittsburgh’s contemporary restaurant culture. Even better, all of them still serve delicious things to eat. So, the next time you’re planning on visiting what’s new, perhaps think about what’s not. From fine dining in faux-castles to city barbeque to dishes made with straightforward, seasonal ingredients, these are Pittsburgh’s 12 essential restaurants.
photo by erin kelly
Pittsburgh's Essential Classic: Hyeholde
William Kryskill promised a castle for his wife, Clara. In 1931, the couple began construction of a Tudor-revival manor house on a cornfield just outside of Pittsburgh. In 1938, they served their first meals to paying customers, running the establishment as a cozy country restaurant for nearly four decades.
In 1974, Pat Foy purchased and expanded the operation, turning it into an award-winning fine-dining mecca — and, for a short time in the late 1980s, a nightclub. Kryskill’s daughter, Barbara, and her husband Quentin McKenna brought Hyeholde back into the founding family when they purchased it in 1991, and Barbara has run the upscale-yet-cozy restaurant since Quentin died in 2003. Along the way, some heavy hitting chefs played a prominent role in the restaurant’s kitchen, most notably Chris O’Brien (Scratch Food & Beverage), who worked 17 years at Hyeholde — among his colleagues were Richard DeShantz (Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group), Derek Stevens (Union Standard), Dave DeVoss (Cocothe) and Brian Hammond (Siempre Algo).
After 80 years, Hyeholde remains one of Pittsburgh’s best options to dress up for a special occasion meal as well as our most transportive reminder of a long-gone era. The elegant tradition carries on today with classic Continental dishes such as sherry bisque, lobster thermidor and elk loin with chestnuts and juniper sauce.
1516 Coraopolis Heights Road, Coraopolis; 412/264-3116, hyeholde.com
photo by douglas duerring
Pittsburgh's Essential Barbecue: Wilson’s Bar-B-Q
George A. Wilson Sr. grew up in Louisiana, trained as a butcher in Little Rock, Ark., and worked for two decades as a meat fabricator at Armour & Co. in Pittsburgh. He also had a reputation among friends and neighbors for knowing his way around a smoker, and, in 1960, he decided to turn his hobby into a business by launching Wilson’s Bar-B-Q in Manchester. He moved his restaurant to its current North Side location in the early 1970s (and for a time ran a second, now-closed, storefront in Lawrenceville).
Wilson’s barbeque style is rooted in that of the Great Migration, when more than 6 million African Americans moved from the rural south to the industrial cities of the Northeast, Midwest and West; The Dream BBQ and Showcase BBQ in Homewood also are examples of this style in Pittsburgh. The pitmasters’ technique is passed on from that of the Mississippi Delta, but this city-style dictates that the meat — pork ribs, sausages, rib-tips and chicken are the most common items — are cooked for a slightly shorter period of time, resulting in a chewier texture than the southern style that long has reigned as the dominant barbeque trend.
Sweet-tart, ketchup-based sauce is ladled onto the meat before serving; during his nearly 60 years as a Pittsburgh pitmaster, Wilson built a following for his secret-recipe sauce. Wilson passed away in October, and his son, George Wilson Jr., now runs the business. It’s largely a takeaway operation, with just one plastic table for dining in. On the menu are smoked ribs and chicken and a handful of side dishes such as collard greens and potato salad. Calling ahead to reserve your order is recommended — Wilson’s remains so popular it sells out nearly every day.
700 N. Taylor Ave., North Side; 412/322-7427
Photo by Erin Kelly
Pittsburgh's Essential Neighborhood Restaurant: Tessaro’s American Bar and Hardwood Grill
Who would have thought the most popular restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Little Italy would be a hamburger joint?
The allure of Bloomfield’s Italian restaurants faded years ago, but the restaurant that Richard Tessaro opened in 1981 remains as popular as it’s ever been. The Harrington family purchased the business in 1985, and matriarch Moira Harrington leads the operations today. Some of the staff have worked at Tessaro’s for nearly as long as the Harringtons have owned it — grill master Courtney McFarlane, for example, started in 1987. And customers are just as loyal — so much so that the Harringtons have twice expanded Tessaro’s into adjoining buildings.
Hamburgers are the specialty of the house, and they’re what you want to get when you visit Tessaro’s. In-house butcher Dominic Piccola double-grinds a custom blend of chuck, short ribs, brisket, New York strip and filet trimmings and McFarlane sears the 10-ounce patties on a custom-made, cast-iron grill, using a variety of Pennsylvania hardwoods such as oak, maple, hickory and ash. Sure, Pittsburgh is a great hamburger town, and there are a lot of places to get a good one, but these smoky, meaty classics remain a must-do on your hamburger checklist, particularly if you can grab a seat at the gorgeous vintage bar.
4601 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield; 412/682-6809, tessaros.com
photos by laura petrilla
Pittsburgh's Essential Building Blocks: Kaya and Casbah
big Burrito Restaurant Group founders Tom Baron and Juno Yoon helped lay the groundwork for Pittsburgh’s modern dining resurgence when they opened a duo of specialty restaurants — Kaya in the Strip District and Casbah in Shadyside — in 1995. One of their first hires at Kaya was a young-gun sous chef named Bill Fuller, who had recently moved back to Pittsburgh from Washington, D.C. Fuller was Casbah’s first executive chef, and currently is corporate chef and president of what now is a small empire that includes six standalone concepts,
13 Mad Mex restaurants and a popular catering business. In addition to producing a self-populating team of in-house culinary talent, the Kaya and Casbah alumni roster reads like a who’s-who of Pittsburgh’s top chefs: Justin Severino (Cure, Morcilla), Kevin Sousa (Superior Motors), Derek Stevens (Union Standard), Henry Dewey (Penn Avenue Fish Company), Dan Carlton (Fish nor Fowl), Chris Bonfili (Bonfire) and Shelby Ortz (Lux Artisan Chocolates), just to name a few. Even better, both of these restaurants remain viable today: Kaya’s monthly vegetarian dinners and weekly fried chicken nights are a draw. And Casbah, under the leadership of Executive Chef Dustin Gardner, is as strong as it’s ever been.
Pittsburgh's Essential Pizza: Il Pizzaiolo (Mt. Lebanon)
It was a dire landscape for pizza in Pittsburgh when Ron Molinaro opened Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon in 1996. Sure, there were — and still are — the classic Pittsburgh-style slice and pie joints, but Molinaro envisioned something more groundbreaking and, frankly, better.
Neapolitan pizza (and its close cousin neo-Neapolitan pizza) relies on peerless ingredients and masterful technique, and the pies must be cooked in a red-hot, wood-fired oven. Quality matters because there aren’t a lot of ingredients; there is nowhere to hide in this ethereal style. Molinaro’s most significant challenge in 1996 was finding a way to get his top-flight ingredients to Pittsburgh, making weekly trips to New York City until he was able to find a supplier who’d deliver to him.
Eating at New York’s old-school pizzerias, a trip to Naples, Evelyne Slomon’s 1984 classic how-to “The Pizza Book” and a lot of practice helped Molinaro master his technique. Master he did — while there might be other places to get a great pizza in Pittsburgh now (including Molinaro’s eponymous Downtown restaurant and two other Il Pizzaiolo locations), the Margarita DOC at the original location remains Pittsburgh’s essential pizza.
703 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon; 412/344-4123, ilpizzaiolo.com
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
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