Downtown Pittsburgh has changed a lot since there were forts instead of fountains at the Point, but if you know where to look, you can still catch a glimpse of a city so old it doesn't even appear in photographs. Papa J's Centro, located in a Civil War-era building on the Boulevard of the Allies, is one of those time machines, even as it provides a dining experience that we very modern foodies can appreciate.
To hear their proud owners talk, you'd think that every old building was once a brothel or a stop on the Underground Railroad; Papa J's lays claim to both distinctions. But whether its history was risqué, heroic or both, the place is steeped in authentic, not overwrought, Victorian style that the chains out by the mall can only dream of. Papa J's is a family restaurant, as signaled by the fact that white tablecloths are overlaid with butcher paper for crayoning, but the atmosphere is grown-up, with candlelight reflected in dark varnished wood and age-fogged mirrors. The Italian menu is classic but not dusty, and the wine list thankfully reaches beyond raffia-wrapped chianti.
The first indication that modern sophistication has seeped into the old woodwork came when the waiter delivered a basket of homemade bread and poured olive oil (extra virgin, of course) and balsamic vinegar onto a plate for our dipping pleasure. Despite these complimentary carbs, we were enticed by the garlic rolls. Golf-ball sized nuggets of baked dough were fluffy and chewy inside with a garlicky crust rolled in grated Romano, olive oil and butter.
Wedding soup is one of those not-so-standard standards, a dish that's found on virtually every Italian menu but whose preparation can vary a lot from place to place. Papa J's includes slices of carrot, chewy bits of tubetini and a crouton on top, but what made it memorable was the way the veal meatballs suffused the broth with their savory flavor.
The menu includes pizza, panini, and chicken and veal dishes, but both of us ordered pasta preceded by a la carte house salads. The salads were very simple, consisting only of Romaine leaves accompanied by a token tomato wedge and black olive, but made special by a delicious citrusy dressing.
Angelique's pasta with basil pesto cream sauce was a delightful variation on a traditional theme. The addition of cream mellowed the intense flavors of the basil and garlic, while a scattering of whole pine nuts lent the dish a toasty, nutty dimension. Diced fresh tomatoes were an astringent touch that kept the dairy richness from being overwhelming, and the sauce's texture was neither clumpy nor runny, but perfect for clinging to the bow-tie pasta.
Jason applied his test for traditional Italian menus, ordering the filled-pasta sampler. Manicotti, a stuffed shell, and eggplant rollatini were served in a broiling dish surrounded by a chunky marinara and covered in a blanket of browned provolone. For a little variety, Jason also got a side dish of veal meatballs, which arrived tucked beside the pastas. The strong flavor of these balls belied the usual mildness of veal and left him wishing he'd tried the sausage instead. Regardless, the pasta and eggplant more than held their own. The manicotti noodle was thick and chewy, but the sweet ricotta filling still dominated; the cheese in the stuffed shell had a more complex flavor, hinting of nutmeg. But the star of the platter was the rollatini, in which delicately fried eggplant remained wonderfully crispy under a mantle of melted cheese, and the flavor evinced an intricate interplay of vegetal and herbal elements.
The dessert list is short and sweet, and we readily settled on tiramisu over ice cream or cheesecake. Papa J's version of this classic Italian confection is as solidly traditional as everything else about the place, with a spongy layer of espresso-soaked ladyfingers topped by a fluffy, creamy float of whipped mascarpone and a dusting of bittersweet cocoa.
With its patina of genuine antiquity, Papa J's manages to achieve elegance without bowing to trendiness. Whether madams or runaway slaves ever dined there, we can't say, but we do think the food, classic Italian undisguised by artifice, is timeless.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2.5 stars