Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lidia's, Pittsburgh PA

Lunch on the second day of our visit was the one restaurant that gave me pause when booking the reservation – reviews were mixed, the chef was a celebrity, the location was trendy, and it was part of a mini-chain. On the other hand, my previous experiences in the Batali and Bastianich empire of restaurants had been a resounding success and this was the restaurant of Joseph’s mother, Lidia’s…it had also been in operation for nearly a decade, was designed by David Rockwell’s Group, and had recently held onto its three-star review from the Post-Gazette. Always on the lookout for excellent Italian and impressed by the bargain basement lunch menu we decided to give Lidia’s Pittsburgh a try.

Arriving at the midpoint of the lunch hour we were surprised to find the restaurant less than 1/4 full. With the bar empty and only one section being seated be claimed our reservation and were led quickly to a table near the large glass windows – an excellent view of the river would be our companion throughout the meal. Meeting our waiter, a friendly man named Chendo we were given menus and a brief explanation of the daily special pastas for the Pasta Trio. Left to decide what sounded best (honestly, there were far more great options than mediocre options) one of the numerous members of the ancillary staff arrived to fill our water glasses and take drink orders – tea for my sister, coffee for myself, iced tea for mom. With the restaurant quite slow that day I will note we were very well taken care of throughout out meal – the service staff was excellent.

Browsing the high ceilinged room, randomly placed bottles and objects, and abundant brightly colored glass panels plus Chihuily influenced chandeliers I have to say Lidia’s is a very handsome restaurant – it has that “wow” factor of many New York City dining rooms (The Modern or Alto come to mind.) While the white paper over white tablecloth aspect of the table setting struck me as odd, everything else felt “fine dining” without seeming forced. When Chendo returned we placed our orders and were surprisingly told soup or salad would be included with the meal – a nice touch, albeit unadvertised.

Sitting and waiting for our meals to arrive we were first delivered one of the better bread baskets I’ve had in recent memory - Sea Salt Foccacia, Rustic Italian, and Cracked Wheat Sourdough served with two spreads, a Chick Pea Pesto and pureed White Beans with Black Olive, both resting in a pool of slightly sweet extra virgin olive oil. Served warm the breads were tantalizing and given the size of the portions soon to be arriving it was definitely a chore not to overindulge (a chore I failed, miserably.)

Approximately 10 minutes after orders were placed our first course arrived as promised – a competent albeit under seasoned Leek, Potato, and Bread Soup. Served piping hot my first bite was deceiving in that I thought the temperature was responsible for the obscuring the flavor. Unfortunately as the soup began to cool I realized that I was not fooled – the soup just wasn’t well done. Pungent and potato laden, in reality the only seasoning seemed to come from the salt on the bread. Not a good start – even if it was free.

For our main courses my mother opted for a salad and a contorti while Erika and I chose pastas. For myself (unpictured due to a camera malfunction) the choice was quite simple - my favorite pasta and my favorite protein on the same plate, Gnocchi with Duck Guazetto. An Italian Stew not unlike Chicken Cacciatore, but featuring duck in white wine instead of Chicken in Red the thick reduction was hearty, meaty, smoky, and laden with vegetables. Paired with a toothsome yet non-doughy potato gnocchi the dish was not only enormous, but incredibly filling. While I will admit I ate a lot of bread and helped my mother and sister with their plates I can say that this was one dish I couldn’t finish, it was just too large – but it was so good that had our hotel had a microwave I’d have certainly taken some home with me.

For Mother’s selection she opted for the Roasted Beet and Apple Salad with Frisee and Fresh Goat Cheese plus the Pan Seared Golden Polenta Fritters. A competent salad with sweet apples balancing earthy beets and pungent goat cheese the dish was brought together by a splash of balsamic and olive oil, ample in size and flavor, very nicely done. Not fairing quite as well as the Salad were the Fritters – nicely prepared and crispy on the outside with creamy polenta within, they again lacked flavor, much like the soup. Paring the fritters with some of the sauce from my sister’s pasta or the Guazetto certainly helped, but if I were Lidia’s I’d use a more aromatic cheese or pair these squares with a marinara.

Erika’s selection would be the signature Pasta Trio – three pastas plated tableside with unlimited refills. Admittedly the concept sounds somewhat “Olive Garden” but that is before you realize two of the pastas are made in house and one is imported direct from Italy…and all the sauces are made daily in the kitchen, as well. Served up onto a single large platter the daily selections for the 29th of June would be hand torn Tagliatelle and Pork Ragu, Imported Orchiette with Fennel Sausage and Thyme, and house folded Sweet Pea and Corn Ravioli with Cream Sauce. Enormous in portion I cannot really fathom anyone requiring seconds of the trio and at a mere $14 the selections were excellent. Smoky and Sweet the Pork Ragu complimented the al dente Tagliatelle nicely while the aromatic sausage was an equally balanced flavor for the Orchiette (which, in my opinion could have used a little more straining prior to adding the sauce.) The most impressive of the group, the sweet pea and corn ravioli, was sweetened only by the vegetal components while the cream itself had notes of cinnamon and nutmeg. Some may call the trio gimmicky – personally, if a gimmick is good I don’t mind.

Returning food to the kitchen and actually quite full we originally declined Chendo’s suggestion of dessert – but then decided it wouldn’t hurt to look at the menu...well, at least it wouldn’t hurt anything but our waistlines. Browsing the menu from top to bottom and finding not a single unimpressive option we decided to go with two desserts to be shared around. Arriving simultaneously and thankfully smaller than the entrees was Torta di Mandorle e Mirtilli - Blueberry and almond cake, blueberry-lavender ice cream, almond crunch, blueberries. If a little is good a lot is better seemed to be the theme of this dessert and it worked nicely – the fresh blueberries lacing the buttery pound cake, the flowery accent to the blueberry ice cream, and the crunchy sugared almonds paired with even more blueberries – excellent.

The second dessert, larger in size but lighter in texture, would be Panna Cotta alla Fragola - Strawberry and ricotta panna cottas, lemon-strawberry sandwich cookies, fresh strawberries. Served in a 12oz glass better suited for a milkshake the panna cotta was surprisingly springy and well blended with a more gelatin strawberry base topped by an ample creamy layer of whipped cream and ricotta. Unnecessary but welcomed the lemony cookies were much akin to a shortbread in texture and Madeline in flavor.

Settling the modest bill my mother picked up a Jar of Lidia’s Marinara as a souvenir for my aunt and paid up front before we made our way to the street. With a full afternoon of wandering Falling Water and Nemacolin ahead of us I have to admit I slept like a baby in the car while my mother and sister navigated – a nice carb load will do that to you. Thinking back on the meal I have to admit it wasn’t the best Italian food I’ve ever had, but it was nicely done and served at an excellent price point in a fantastic room. Having heard “upscale Olive Garden” comparisons I personally find that assessment far from accurate and would actually go so far as to say that aside from the lack of seasoning (ironic given the fact that most people critique Batali and Bastianich restaurants for over seasoning) the experience was on par with many fine dining Italian establishments in other cities…if the portions were smaller I’d have loved to try more of the menu.

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