Location: 5701 Bryant St., Highland Park. 412-665-9000
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 4-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 4-11 p.m.; Sun. 4-9 p.m.
Prices: Starters $7-12; entrees $14-36
Fare: Traditional Italian, with grace notes
Atmosphere: Convivial white linen
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: None permitted
When Chef Joseph Tambellini moved his new restaurant into the space long occupied by the well-regarded Lafôret, he also took on the formidable task of competing with Pittsburgh's memories of great meals past. While we'd never actually enjoyed a meal at Lafôret, we have eaten at Franco's Trattoria, Tambellini's previous venture in the South Hills. There, we found a charming, welcoming atmosphere undermined by a by-the-book approach to Italian food. Would Tambellini, working for the first time under his own name, be able to break from hoary tradition?
First, let's clarify one potentially confusing point: Despite a plethora of area restaurants under the Tambellini name, Tambellini is neither a chain nor an Italian dining empire. It is, instead, an extended family with several members who have gone into the restaurant business independently. Thus, each Tambellini's location is its own brand, so to speak.
Joseph Tambellini's new restaurant is located on Bryant Street, the pleasant, if underachieving, commercial heart of Highland Park. Unlike the previous occupant, Tambellini uses all three floors of the building, a former residence. The first floor includes a cozy bar and convivial dining, the second floor a dining room that's a bit quieter and more staid. The third floor, a former apartment, is available for mid-meal breaks, informal gatherings and even watching the ball game.
The menu straddles the ultra-familiar -- the five choices in the chicken and veal section are trattoria staples -- and the more unusual, if not unique. There's a strong emphasis on pasta, which is all fresh and handmade, and seafood. This is where things start to get interesting, with offerings such as crusted Chilean sea bass in an orange buerre blanc and berry marmalade. We appreciated that some of the dishes were distinguished by small innovations: shiitake mushrooms in the marsala, panko on the fried shrimp, aged provolone on the stuffed banana peppers.
Those peppers, sampled in an appetizer platter, were fiery and assertive, with creamy cheese and crumbly sausage for taste as well as texture balance. Gorgonzola polenta was creamy, too, and firm, with a subtle tang complemented by strips of mildly spicy sausage patty. Crab balls were fried for a resilient skin. All were very good, but the star appetizer was fried zucchini, which bore no resemblance whatsoever to the pub grub by that name. Thin planks of the vegetable were fried in an ethereally light cracker crust and perfectly matched with an irresistible marinara made of late tomatoes tempered by carrots and celery.
Angelique enjoys an innovative salad, and Tambellini's salad of the day fit the bill: a bed of field greens topped with grated carrot for crispness, fried apricot for chewy sweetness, sunflower seeds for crunch, sprouts for earthiness, gorgonzola for richness and a lovely, seasonal orange-marmalade vinaigrette.
An entrée of stuffed salmon featured a sizable piece of rosy, tender fish topped with crispy breadcrumbs and filled with a luxurious mixture of fluffy crabmeat, spinach and sweet red pepper. In case this was not indulgent enough, a prosecco grape cream sauce topped it all off. Reeling from the richness of it all, Angelique could not come close to cleaning her plate. Though she appreciated the ampleness of the serving, a smaller portion of this heavy dish would have been more manageable, especially because it would not reheat well as a leftover.
Lamb osso bucco, a daily special, presented an enormous piece of lamb, including a fair amount of shank to compensate for the modesty of the joint itself, in a dark, savory sauce that was well suited to wintry weather. Also complementing the lamb nicely were carrots and, most unusually, sweet potatoes. Both were cooked to tenderness verging on mushiness; perhaps a bit much for the carrots, but welcome with the sweet potatoes, which always risk being too firm and starchy. The white truffle risotto had a bold truffle flavor which came through even the intense notes of the sauce.
At the end of our meal, we looked deep within ourselves and somehow found room for dessert. Our server was very eager for us to try butterscotch pound cake, so we did. Made by a baker who calls herself Mrs. Poundcake, it was sweet and dense, with the perfect ration of cake to sauce and vanilla ice cream, and the cake standing up well to both toppings.
Mrs. Poundcake was also the source of the cheesecake. A cheesecake aficionado, Jason likes his dense and creamy, but he fell for this light, fluffy and intensely flavored version.
The verdict? Joseph Tambellini is a chef to be reckoned with. Embracing both tradition and innovation in fine Italian dining, not to mention plenteous portions, his restaurant will be creating its own memories of meals on Bryant Street.