click to enlarge Antipasti and house-made meatballs - HEATHER MULL

2350 Railroad St., Strip District. 412-281-6595
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Prices: Soups, salads and antipasti $2-4; sandwiches, pizza and pasta $6-12
Liquor: Wine list


Eskimos, famously, have many words for "snow." It's a timeworn cliché that may not even be true, but serves to illustrate how precisely a given culture's language expresses what is important to its speakers. Small wonder, then, how many variations -- verbal and conceptual -- Italians have on the word "restaurant."

Ristorante sounds like the most direct analogue, but actually refers to a high-end, fine-dining establishment, complete with white tablecloths, formal service and a wine list. More casual (and affordable) are trattorias, family-run places without printed menus where wine is sold by the decanter. Osterias are more casual still, aligning best, perhaps, with the English concept of a pub or tavern: local gathering places for friends and neighbors to enjoy light libations and simple, satisfying meals made from local ingredients and recipes. 

Osteria 2350 brings a loose translation of this classic Italian institution to the Strip District. A true osteria it's not, but the straightforward yet classic fare, lovingly prepared and served in stylish, but not luxurious, surroundings, is true to the spirit of its Italian inspiration.

At the same time, Osteria 2350 raised ristorante-worthy expectations, being run by the same award-winning executive chef, Greg Alauzen, as its next-door neighbor, swanky steakhouse Cioppino. We'll spare you Mr. Alauzen's impressive resume and simply note that the man knows his way around a kitchen, and we had every reason to show up hungry.

Located on the ground floor of the Cork Factory's parking garage, the space's previous incarnation as a small Italian market still remains. The staff works behind service counters and display cases, while the big, open room, with its high ceilings and concrete floors, is more utilitarian than cozy. But long, rustic wood tables add instant atmosphere, and moments of interior design, such as a handsome old sidebar in the vestibule, suggest deeper layers of history. There's a small bar with a TV at one end of the room, but the atmosphere is mostly dominated by the conviviality of its customers. When we came in, several tables had been pushed together for a large party, providing as much warmth as any fireplace.

The menu, printed on paper placemats, has been pared down to the essentials of Italian cuisine: antipasti, pizza, panini and pasta. It's a formula that can be found in many pizzerias and cafes, but Osteria takes it seriously. Although Italian-American touchstones like rigatoni with sausage and pork are present, their preparations represent a unique marriage of old-world recipes and local ingredients. Fede artisan pasta from North Huntingdon and Parma sausage, brought in from Penn Avenue, not Emilia-Romana, demonstrate that there's no need for imported products when their equal can be found here. 

The roasted-parsnip antipasto epitomized the simple excellence of osteria cuisine. For two dollars, we got a small plate of coarsely diced parsnip, roasted to bring out its natural sweetness and tenderness, and dressed with grassy, fruity olive oil. In truth, it was simpler than any pub grub, yet the effect was elevating, with flavors both richer and subtler.

We also ordered a small pizza to act as a first course, and this brought to mind another Italian term with no direct English translation: sprezzatura, the art of making the difficult look effortless. Here was a pizza with a crust that was thin yet chewy; nutty and slightly sweet; amply spread, but not drenched, with a bright sauce; and blanketed with cheese satisfyingly creamy and hinting of tang. It's a pie equally well accompanied by a glass of wine as by a pint of beer.

Another Italian staple which often suffers at the hands of American chefs is gnocchi, but Osteria 2350 showed what they could -- and should -- be: pillowy puffs of potato in pasta dough, substantial without being heavy, perfect for conveying sweet tomato sauce and molten swirls of Fontina and Parmigiano Reggianno cheese to the palate.

A special mortadella panini with arugula was made with attention to detail which set it light years apart from its American cousin, the bologna sandwich. A thin layer of mild, melted cheese added butter-like creaminess to the crisp bread and subtly meaty mortadella, which the wilted greens balanced with a hint of bitterness. A dressing just barely perfumed with lemon brightened the arugula, lightened the meat, and somehow evoked, with the cheese, a light lemon-cream sauce. It was a sandwich that only a chef would think to make -- but with the right ingredients in the right proportions, anyone could. 

A similar grouping occurred in Jason's riccolina, which combined a noodle that rolled up on itself like the end of a ribbon with mushrooms and arugula. The dish was perfect for the transition from winter to spring, with a lightness of flavor that looked forward yet a heartiness of body that kept us warm. Chunks of mushroom were cooked so that they retained their body without reducing to nubs, while plenty of wilted arugula gave the flavor an edge. The only sauce was truffle oil, subtly reinforcing the mushrooms, and perhaps some uncredited lemon. Like a good salad, which this dish in some ways resembled, its components remained distinct, yet their combined effect was in complete unison.

All this, and the prices are so reasonable that you can get an antipasto, a sandwich, and a glass of wine for under $20 (including tip). Other Italian restaurants may offer a more refined atmosphere, broader selection or more imported ingredients, but you won't get better Italian cooking for your money than at Osteria 2350.



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