424 Allegheny River Blvd., Oakmont. 412-828-5506
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat. 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun. 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
Despite its relaxed, sociable reputation, brunch can be a challenging meal. It has a name like a tabloid couple joined at the hip, and a split personality. The disjunction doesn't arise from its trying to be both breakfast and lunch. That we can handle. No, brunch's more fundamental divide is between the sweet and the savory. Are you going to have pancakes or eggs? Or, although it means consuming enough calories to sustain a rhinoceros at one meal, the grand-slam breakfast with both? Or are you going to altogether skip breakfast foods, with their soft textures and easily palatable flavors, and go straight to the stronger flavors of seafood, meat and grilled vegetables?
Café Vita, in Oakmont, is a place that embraces the inherent dichotomies of brunch. One side of the menu is traditionally Italian, complete with panini, pasta, ratatouille and eggplant parmesan; the other offers classic breakfast fare, such as omelets and French toast. Italian notes pervade some of the breakfast options, too: You'll find French toast made with focaccia, and omelets served with Tuscan toast. It made us wonder whether an order of focaccia French toast would harmonize with a later course of chicken Milanese, or whether we should choose one side of the divide and stick with it.
Regardless, we brought along reinforcements so that we could get a sense of how Café Vita does both breakfast and lunch. In so doing, we found that ordering from both menus in a single sitting would be a preposterous undertaking because, although prices are quite reasonable, portions are staggering. Café Vita obviously does not want you to feel that by combining meals, you have skipped one.
The pancakes, for example, were possibly the largest we've ever seen: plate-sized and well over a quarter-inch thick. We're not sure how one could cook such things well, but Vita did: a bit crisp on the golden-brown exterior, quite tender and moist within. Our pancakes were part of a black-and gold-themed Super Bowl special. Some were sauced with a syrupy mixture of Nutella and brandy, others topped with bananas and walnuts. If not exactly the breakfast of champions, this was one whose sheer size and caloric content befitted a championship athlete.
The black-and-gold treatment was also available on French toast or crepes, and members of our party tried the latter. These were credible, if not as remarkable as the pancakes in terms of sheer mass.
A savory special was a thick, chewy flatbread topped with a harmonious combination of chicken, roasted peppers, cheese, greens and pesto. Roasted peppers can be single-note sweet, but Vita's retained some savor and smoke, adding welcome depth to a dish that made a tasty transition between morning and afternoon.
The pasta special was trenne (triangle-shaped penne) Bolognese. The practical effect of tri-corner pasta was that it had chewier corners, making the shape a good match for hearty Bolognese sauce. This was thick and satisfying, but lacked the sophisticated layering of flavors -- tender veal, hearty pork, sweet milk, earthy carrot -- that mark a truly great Bolognese. On the other hand, it was very generously proportioned: Jason's leftovers served him for dinner.
Angelique tried to straddle the sweet-savory brunch divide by ordering an apple-and-Brie omelet. This was a regular menu item, not a special, so she was disgruntled to be told that apples were "not the fruit of the day;" bananas were. We expect restaurants to stock the ingredients on their menus, especially when they are readily available and in season. Reluctantly, she switched her order to goat cheese-stuffed French toast. She liked how the tang of the chevre -- in contrast to a more typical French-toast filling of sweetened cream cheese -- contrasted with the already-sweet battered breakfast bread. But the toast was so thick, it threw off the proportions of bread to filling considerably.
Apples, or lack thereof, aside, service at Café Vita was a bit sloppy. We had to ask for napkins and flatware, and one of our party waited for his food for a long time after everyone else had been served. (Fortunately, we all had plenty to share.)
Ultimately, brunch is not a menu, but a state of mind. Whether you're ready for a breakfast that'll keep you going till dinner or have already mentally moved on to lunch, you won't go hungry at Café Vita -- and you probably won't be disappointed.