Location: 649 California Ave., Avalon. 412-766-6662. miamadretrattoria.com
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 4-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 4-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, soups, sandwiches and salads $5-12.50; entrees $11-16
Atmosphere: Casual elegance, old-world style
A "family restaurant" that welcomes families is one thing (a good thing, from our perspective as parents who often dine out with small sidekicks in tow). But a family restaurant that's also the family business takes the concept to another level. Or at least, it should.
As its name suggests, Mia Madre Trattoria is in the latter category. Located in the picture-postcard business district of Avalon -- an older suburb that feels more small-town than sprawling-subdivision -- the restaurant is the labor of love of Al Nicholas, his wife and their family. The youngest of six children, Al grew up in his mother's kitchen in Brookline, helping her cook the southern Italian dishes she herself had learned as a child.
Now, her son has turned her recipes into the menu of Mia Madre, an Italian restaurant in the old-fashioned mode. Faux grape arbors festoon the interior, while paintings of European market squares communicate the restaurant's old-world emphasis. Mia Madre embraces a BYOB policy, even offering a wine locker for regular patrons. Its ambience is cozy without being overly casual, elegant without pretense.
The food, which consisted largely of what has come to be known as "comfort food" -- pasta dishes, breaded cutlets and casseroles with lots of melted cheese on top -- fit right in. No question about it, this was family-style Italian-American food, and at its best it made clear just why these recipes inspired a restaurant.
In particular, the beans and greens stood out from the myriad versions of this classic Italian appetizer we've tried over the years. While this dish's basic ingredients -- canellini beans and escarole -- are consistent, its preparation varies considerably from kitchen to kitchen. We've had it all ways: soupy, tomatoey, full of sausage, and so on. Mia Madre's is elemental, with the braising liquid merely clinging to the full escarole leaves and pockets of canellini. Where some beans and greens are stew-like, this was more like a warm salad, its flavor well balanced among fruity olive oil, sharp garlic, earthy beans, bitter greens and nutty parmesan. Best of all was the texture of the escarole: Its thicker stalks showed just a hint of browning and were almost creamy within their crisp exteriors.
Our appetizer wasn't the only pleasure at Mia Madre. The pizza was a welcome break from ubiquitous thin crusts, with a crisp, semolina- and herb-laden bottom crust, chewy middle layer of dough, and simple topping of smooth tomato sauce and a creamy blend of cheeses. It was rather too heavily salted, but not so much that we failed to appreciate the pie.
We tried the chicken parmesan by accident (more about that in a moment). Jason, a connoisseur of this dish, appreciated the crisp crust peeking out from the sauce and melted cheese, as well as the thin breast that was just thick enough to be meaty among all of that competition.
Jason also sampled the linguine with white clam sauce, a favorite of his that is inexplicably rare in Pittsburgh. Mia Madre's version was loaded with plump and tender clams, and the pasta was perfectly cooked. But, in a dish that generally tends toward being too oily, here the oil was practically missing. The effect was to change the character from "noodles and clams drenched in white wine garlic sauce" to "noodles flavored with white wine and garlic and tossed with clams." The generous topping of pulverized parmesan further thickened the composition, with a result that wasn't traditional, but was in fact quite delicious.
Angelique went full-on for the comfort food with a casserole of hot sausage and bell peppers in marinara sauce, baked under a blanket of provolone cheese. The star of this dish was the marinara, which was bright, tangy and just a smidgen sweet.
She had been planning to save room for tiramisu, Italy's gift to dessert, but by the time we finished our meal, the restaurant was closing and we were too disgruntled to stick around, anyway. We don't usually dwell on the service at restaurants -- important as it is, we understand that many factors can contribute to a good or bad experience -- but sometimes, we have to make an exception. This is one of those times.
Our experience of the food at Mia Madre was, unfortunately, overshadowed by dreadful service. Our salads did not arrive for a full hour after we sat down, our entrees took another 30 minutes, and the water we'd requested upon being seated, another 10 beyond that. Two of the four entrees we received were not what we had ordered. Silverware was cleared between courses and not replaced. And all without a hint of concern on the part of our surly server, who abandoned our table for half an hour at a time.
And yet, we saw excellent, prompt, friendly service being delivered to other tables by the other server on duty. It let us know that, but for the happenstance of seating, we might have thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Mia Madre. Food tastes better served with a smile.