Location: Wood Street and Seventh Avenue, Tarentum. 724-224-0500
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Fare: Diner breakfast, sandwiches and burgers
Atmosphere: Formica, chrome and neon
Smoking: Designated Sections
There are diners, and there are diners. (There are also those places that want to be diners, but that's another story.) The ones we love the most are the real deal: the narrow, prefabricated steel buildings whose streamlined architecture was modeled after railway diner cars and which sprang up in working-class downtowns, near factories and along highways from the 1920s to the 1940s. Unfortunately, these have become harder and harder to come by since the ascendancy of our fast-food nation in the 1970s.
Fifteen years ago, George Gatto, owner of the Gatto Cycle motorcycle shop in Tarentum (and formerly of the Gatto Cycle bicycle shop in Point Breeze) came upon such a diner, the former Digger's Diner of Butler, and envisioned a unique way to expand his business. He purchased the abandoned, derelict building, and had it trucked -- all 85,000 pounds of it -- to a location adjacent to his shop. There he has lovingly restored it to its original 1949 splendor -- adding, of course, his own touches, such as a gallery of antique motorcycle pictures on one wall. A doorway in the rear leads directly onto Gatto's showroom floor, symbolizing the connection between diner culture and the freedom of the open road. If James Dean and the early days of rock 'n' roll are what comes to mind, then George Gatto has done his job well.
As we seated ourselves in a chrome-and-vinyl booth and took in the panoramic view of downtown Tarentum, we appreciated the labor of love that had gone into rescuing and restoring the diner. Naturally, though, we wondered: Would the food be as good as the ambience?
In a word, yes. The menu consists of breakfast, sandwiches and burgers (sorry, meatloaf fans, Gatto's Cycle Diner is not open for dinner) all playfully cast in the vocabulary of -- what else? -- motorcycles. Go ahead and order a Bad Boy or a Hot and Spicy Rider; no one will blink an eye.
Upon entering, Jason's appetite was whetted by a delicious-looking bowl of chili sitting on the counter. He quickly located the Nitro chili from the "Performance Accessories" list and decided to make it a big appetizer. A blast of nitro gives an engine an extra kick; Gatto's chili gets its kick from onions, hot sauce and sliced jalapenos. On top of it all, a blanket of melted cheddar mellows things a bit. This flavor-packed chili blows away anything topped with processed cheese. Tortilla chips on the side completed this nachos-like dish.
Jason followed up with a Bar-B-Q Glide, topped with bacon, barbecue sauce and more cheddar. The bun had a crusty character, there was just enough sauce, and the ratio of burger to bacon ensured that Jason enjoyed both. A side of fries turned out to be classic, diner-style shoestrings, golden and fluffy. The only letdown was a milkshake, which was served with seconds in a frosty metal frappe cup, just like it used to be. The whipped cream and cherry on top were a welcome throwback to childhood. But the flavor inside was a bit wan, and icy chunks remained to clog the straw.
Angelique had the Sportster, a top-notch version of her favorite sandwich, the tuna melt. Gatto's tuna salad was meaty, moist and creamy, with enough celery for crunch but not so much as to overwhelm the taste. A less-common ingredient -- diced boiled egg -- added subtle, welcome flavor dimension. The amount was perfect: plenty, but not so much that it spilled sloppily out of the confines of the sandwich. Cheddar cheese was applied in shreds to achieve optimal meltiness, and the wheat toast was perfectly buttered and browned. Ahh! Angelique wishes every tuna melt could be a Sportster.
Whether you drive two, four or 18 wheels, if you like diners, you owe yourself a road trip to Gatto's Cycle Diner.