If you could go anywhere you wanted to on vacation this summer, if the world were truly your oyster, where would you go? This year in particular, when we are not taking any real vacation to speak of, we relish this little game in which time, money and other pesky real-life constraints present no obstacle to our travel fantasies. There is no end of alluring destinations, to be sure, but somehow our flights of fancy always alight on Italy. One of us has been there before, one of us has not, but both of us love the idea of twilight dinners al fresco at little local restaurants where pasta, polenta, meat and seafood are prepared with imagination above and beyond the spaghetti standard of everyday Italian America.
Happily, there is a place where we can indulge that fantasy right here in Pittsburgh, and that place is Girasole. Tucked beneath a juice bar on Copeland Street, an intimate spur off the mallish main drag of Walnut, Girasole is out of the way but feels like the center of the action, perhaps because of the genuinely sociable crowd it draws. Its cozy dining room resounds with the chatter and laughter of people enjoying the finest things in life: family, friends and good food. This comfortable yet cultivated atmosphere spills out onto the appealing garden terrace, where, because it is below street level, you can eat outdoors without fear that an SUV will parallel park in your breadbasket. A neighborhood sidewalk sale drew a pedestrian buzz unusual for a weeknight, and it became easy to fancy ourselves in bell'Italia.
The impression deepened when we opened our seasonal menus. Aside from a standard dish or two, such as penne in marinara sauce, the choices set Girasole apart from Pittsburgh's stock in trade of Italian eateries. Banished were the tired plates of fettuccine alfredo, the cunning little gourmet pizzas, the lasagna stacked high with thick, chewy noodles. It's not that we dislike any of those, but when you go on vacation, you look for something a little different. Girasole answered our hopes with innovative offerings such as Italian fish stew, spinach spaghetti, and whole-wheat penne in aglia e olio with Swiss chard, prosciutto and ricotta. Although Girasole describes its fare as "modern Italian cuisine," we were pleased to find that this didn't translate to startling combinations of ingredients or trendy, unnecessary ones (wasabi meatballs? No, thank you).
All that said, we couldn't resist a summer classic. Caprese featured fire-engine red tomatoes dripping with juice and thickly-sliced buffalo mozzarella that was mild but full of creamy flavor. Our only complaint was an inexplicable parsimony with the basil; this time of year, basil plants grow like the proverbial weeds, and so it's hard to understand why we were portioned only a few thumbnail-sized leaves. Still, the other ingredients more than held their own.
Escarole and beans filled a broad dish, an appetizer big enough to serve as a meal. Firm white beans and tender greens were united in a tomato and olive oil sauce that was slightly chunky, slightly sweet, slightly spicy, and very delicious.
For her entrée, Angelique ordered linguini in grilled vegetable pesto with tuna. This hearty but not heavy dish featured red pepper, eggplant, zucchini, and squash grilled and ground to a rustic paste with parmesan and oil for a rich, full, balanced flavor. Chunks of tuna added meaty taste and texture, but Jason thought he detected an oily twice-cooked character where the fish should have tasted freshly grilled.
Despite the variety of interesting pasta options, Jason was most intrigued by the side of the menu featuring chicken, fish and meat of the day. He ended up selecting a veal chop on a bed of roasted tomato risotto. It arrived attractively arrayed, with a thread of mild pesto ringing the plate. The chop was well charred on the outside but still tender and juicy inside, and the pesto was a surprising but apt complement, adding a bright garden freshness without being saucy. The risotto was a touch too firm, but redolent with bold flavors that didn't back down from the meat.
Both dinners came with a lovely salad of mixed greens, grape tomatoes, shredded carrot, red onion, gorgonzola and sunflower seeds -- this last an unusual, much appreciated addition -- in a mellow balsamic vinaigrette.
By the time we were ready for dessert, a cool rain had driven us under cover, so we bypassed gelato for hot coffee and cake. Lemon cake was fluffy with a whipped cream-lemon curd frosting that balanced lightness and substance, the curd grounding the cream with its distinctive sweet-tart flavor. Perfectly ripe strawberries provided color and freshness. This is just the kind of finishing touch that has made an evening at Girasole our favorite two-hour Italian vacation.
Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars