Favorite

Location: 411 Seventh Ave., Downtown. 412-281-6062
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Prices: $3-8
Fare: Filled pasta from around the world
Atmosphere: Light, bright, colorful café
Liquor: None
Smoking: None permitted

Picture this: Rounding the corner, heading for home at PNC Park, is Sauerkraut Saul, followed closely by Pelmeni Piotr, Ravioli Rita and Gyoza Gary. The crowd goes wild -- then stampedes to the nearest concession stand to sample the winner.

If Alex Gershanok has his way, this is the future of dumpling consumption -- not to mention racing competition -- in Pittsburgh. A native of Russia, Gershanok found Pittsburgh pierogie-rich but pelmeni-poor. Pelmeni, for the uninitiated, are the meat-filled dumplings of his homeland. Gershanko began to form a vision of a world, or at least a restaurant, where the delicious dumplings of all cultures would live together in peace and harmony. Thus was conceived DumplinZ, his clever fusion café based on variations of the stuffed pasta pocket.

DumplinZ makes its home in a repurposed Quizno's shop Downtown, whose sunny space and multicolored walls suit the café's cheerful, global attitude. Here, Gershanok, his partners and his staff do not make their own dumplings, but order them from high-quality suppliers, then customize them with a wide variety of sauces, toppings and accessories. Conveniently, the former sandwich shop's conveyor-style toaster now serves its new owner as a cheese-broiler and platter-warmer. Vintage Russian pelmeni advertising, Italian pasta posters and dramatic portraits of DumplinZ's own specialties round out the décor.

DumplinZ's menu features pierogies (of course), pelmeni, ravioli and Chinese-style dumplings, all available in "Try Me," "Like Me" and "Love Me" portion sizes. For those not enamored of stuffed pasta, there are also soups, salads and pita sandwiches, but we chose to sample DumplinZ's dumplings until we ourselves were stuffed.

Though it was afternoon, we began with breakfast pierogies, potato-stuffed pasta topped with the whole Big American Breakfast panoply: scrambled eggs, melted cheese and itty-bitty Vienna-style sausages. Jason, a devotee of the Big American Breakfast in all its high-cholesterol glory, thought this dish was brilliant. The pierogies were soft, even creamy; the egg and cheese were nicely blended; and the sausages added salty, smoky savor. Seasoned pita wedges, served alongside this and many other orders, made a crispy, tasty toast substitute. DumplinZ's breakfast menu also includes blintzes and crepes.

Ravioli Con Queso Magnifico, a.k.a. five-cheese ravioli, were good, if slightly short of magnificent. The filling was as luxurious as you would expect a five-cheese blend to be, and the marinara sauce contained a fine balance of sweet and astringent flavors. The dish was garnished with parsley, the first time we have ever seen so thoughtful a touch on a fast-food order. However, the ravioli's edges were a little tough, and we found the herbs in the sauce to be a bit harsh. Alfredo sauce, which we did not try, is another option.

"Porkplinz" are pork-and-vegetable-filled Chinese dumplings served in a dressing of soy-based sauce and scallions. Their wrappers happily avoided gumminess, which has been the downfall of many an Asian dumpling we've tried, but they were unfortunately too loose (so that the filling tended to fall out when bitten) and watery, as if insufficiently drained.

Russian pelmeni had been run under the broiler with cheese on top for a delectably melty effect, which helped us forgive the fact that the beef and pork filling was chewier than we would have liked.

Finally, "chereniki," pierogies stuffed with sour cherry filling and topped with sour cream, made a satisfying dessert and not-too-sweet stand-in for overdone pie a la mode.

DumplinZ serves Prestogeorge coffee and sells a variety of local and imported teas, condiments and jarred pickled delicacies for those inspired to try some creative cooking at home. In this, as well as in its unique approach to fast, hot, healthy food, DumplinZ is Downtown's best new place to stuff yourself.

JR:

AB:

click to enlarge BRIAN KALDORF

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