In a city that loves Italian food, the opening of another traditional Italian restaurant is hardly surprising — except when it happens on Butler Street, Pittsburgh's frontier of the hip and new.
San Lorenzo Ristorante occupies a space that helped pioneer the new Lawrenceville by housing a cafe that opened more than a decade ago. The bones of the old building still shine through, effectively framing the muted, tasteful decor of its newest occupant. On a summer evening not far from the solstice, old prism-glass transoms threw evening light deep into the narrow dining room, and the ambience was a peculiarly comfortable mix of formal and homey.
Similarly, the menu straddled traditional and updated approaches to Italian food. While most dishes were familiar from fustier establishments, most also evinced reconsideration and, occasionally, re-invention in the kitchen.
Perhaps the most creative preparation started from the simplest. A classic Caprese salad consists of just three ingredients — tomato, mozzarella and basil — their flavors enhanced by a couple elemental seasonings, olive oil and salt. When tomatoes are at their summertime peak, this dish is so nearly perfect it needs no embellishment. But San Lorenzo nevertheless upped the ante by using three kinds of heirloom tomato (red, green and yellow) plus balsamic vinegar, enormous capers and peaches poached in bourbon and white wine.
Our verdict: We appreciate the concept behind these embellishments, but they didn't make a better Caprese salad. The distinct textures and flavors of the different tomatoes were interesting but unnecessary; likewise the dressing-like effects of the capers and balsamic vinegar, balanced as they were. The peaches seemed intended to add another note of summer sweetness, but were too firm, more like apples, and never quite melded with the salad's other components.
On the other hand, San Lorenzo's upgrade of greens and beans was a resounding success. Escarole is traditional in this dish, but the combination of this tender green with hearty kale, faintly bitter rapini and juicy endive added taste and textural dimension. Warm white beans were earthy and firm, and grated Parmigiano melted gently into the savory broth, rendering it slightly and delectably creamy. This dish was the perfect accompaniment to the crusty, satisfyingly chewy, warm-from-the-oven bread. (The apricot preserves, served with the bread basket, were a sweet and surprising alternative.)
The meatballs had a good crust, and we liked that they were dabbed with sauce rather than bathing in it. But their straightforwardly meaty flavor was more like hamburger than herbal Italian meatballs. If sauce is to be secondary, then the meatballs need to be top-notch.
The menu offers gnocchi in two forms, both by Fede Pasta: standard dumplings with arugula and mushrooms, and ricotta gnocchi in slow-braised rabbit ragu finished with pickled cherries. We tried the latter and it was a great success. The gnocchi were not the plump, tender ones we associate with ricotta dough, but in the rich ragu, this hardly mattered. The rabbit was finely shredded, moist and just gamey enough to add real interest to the simple, brothy sauce. The cherries, their sweetness muted by pickling, added subtle contrast, not fruit bombs, to each bite.
Chicken Milanese is often not much more than a chicken schnitzel, but San Lorenzo's version goes light on the breading and heavy on the flavor, using a mild, piccata-like pan sauce and melted cheese to keep things interesting. The bed of leek risotto was underseasoned but creamy and tender-firm. Grilled zucchini and summer squash, that perfect July combo, were tissue-thin, yet successfully charred and smoky; it must take complete focus to cook them so successfully.
Traditional Italian cuisine is many things, but spicy is usually not one of them. The kitchen took issue with this in its rigatoni with basil and jalapeño pesto, our final demonstration of San Lorenzo's self-issued creative license with classic Italian recipes. The pesto was rustic, with coarse-chopped basil in plenty of (some might say too much) olive oil; slender crescents of sliced jalapeno were not so numerous as to directly flavor every bite, but indirectly, they infused the entire dish with their piquancy.
San Lorenzo's dining room evokes the Italian-American restaurants of Lawrenceville's previous generation, but its kitchen pushes the boundaries of traditional Italian cooking. It does so not by overhauling entire recipes, but by adding ingredients that transform a dish in subtle, sometimes surprising, usually successful ways.