Location: 4770 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. 412-687-5775. www.stagionipgh.com
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner Tue.-Thu. 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-10:30 p.m.; brunch Sat.-Sun. 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers and salads $4-10; entrees $12-20
Fare: Sophisticated, modern, seasonal Italian
Atmosphere: Intimately elegant
True, romance may be rose-tinting our memories, but how fondly we recall an evening we spent in Toronto's Little Italy on our honeymoon. Espresso machines hissed and pastry cases tantalized from the many cozy cafes. Brightly lit bookstores stayed open late, and each little storefront restaurant looked more charming than the last. Why, we asked ourselves, could Bloomfield not be more like this?
Not that Bloomfield doesn't have its charms. It does, and as neighbors who frequently walk there to partake of them, we appreciate Bloomfield as a fading slice of a vanishing Pittsburgh way of life: the tight-knit ethnic neighborhood, a small town within the larger city that meets its residents' every need.
And now, a new addition to Pittsburgh's Little Italy: Stagioni. The storefront restaurant, across from West Penn Hospital, has succeeded in wrapping an atmosphere of decidedly urban elegance around an Italian menu that is modern, seasonal and superb.
Rather than taking on an expensive remodeling of the 100-year-old interior, Stagioni's owners, Cara DelSignore and chef Stephen Felder, have wisely chosen to dress up its original fine Victorian bones. Wood wainscoting is painted a woodsy shade of taupe. Above this, white walls showcase a few framed botanical specimens and rise to a high, stamped-tin ceiling. The space is tight but inviting and, depending on your outlook, either noisy or convivial, with the conversations of several tables ringing off all those hard surfaces.
The menu is similarly understated but elegantly conceived. We dined on the final weekend of the fall menu, but the winter menu carries some items forward, and we can hardly wait to see what the kitchen will produce in the spring.
We began with an appetizer called, simply, the Trio: roasted eggplant, white bean spread and oven-dried tomato compote. The white beans were rustic in texture, savory and unabashedly garlicky in flavor, for an overall effect that was hearty but not heavy. The eggplant had been lightly cooked in large chunks, a presumed attempt to try to overcome this gourd's inherent sogginess. While this almost worked, we thought the result would have been better as an ingredient than as a stand-alone portion. The tomatoes were the most remarkable thing about this plate. Not so much a compote in the traditional sense as halved grape tomatoes, these were sweet and delicious in a bright olive-oil dressing that supported and maximized their flavor. At a point on the calendar almost directly opposite when tomatoes are at their freshest, this was a lovely treatment which effectively recalled the juicy fruits of summer.
Jason found our other appetizer, the spiced fig tart, unctuous. But Angelique loved its dense, sticky sweetness paired with a generous hunk of tangy gorgonzola, paper-thin sheets of salty prosciutto and a rich, syrupy balsamic reduction.
Of the four salads on the menu, we tried two, both of which were excellent. The Bibb salad was presented with the leaves clustered as if a small, whole head. The lettuce had a mild, sweet flavor, providing a sophisticated base for the assertive but well-balanced Dijon-caper vinaigrette. The mixed field-greens salad with roasted shallots, dried cranberries and blood-orange vinaigrette was a masterful combination of available winter produce, its flavor notes dancing nimbly between sweet and tart in every bite.
House-made fettuccine in pesto-cream sauce with shrimp and oven-dried tomatoes was perfectly cooked: With fresh pasta, al dente doesn't mean chewy, but rather offering the slightest resistance to the tooth. Though the sauce was luxuriously creamy, it was not heavy, so that the delicately briny taste of the shrimp and astringent sweetness of the tomatoes mingled beautifully with the herbal notes of the pesto.
Beef short ribs, braised in Chianti and balsamic vinegar, and served over puréed parsnips with a dollop of crème fraîche on top, was like a pot roast fit for a king. The meat arrived shredded in pieces just a bit bigger than fork-sized, which served to emphasize its rich beefy flavor and marvelously tender texture. The parsnips, with a bolder taste than the traditional mashed potatoes, held their own in the intensely flavored, velvety sauce, reminiscent of French-style beef burgundy.
Apple cider and Chardonnay-braised lamb delivered a successful combination of savory meat and oaky wine grounding the sweet cider, even as the latter brightened and enlivened the tender meat. Cipollini onion, caramelized at the edges, amplified the effect, while gnocchi -- here, more like large, fluffy dumplings than dense potato balls -- provided a vehicle for the sauce and a respite from the other, rich flavors.
A vegetarian dish, acorn squash risotto with walnuts, sage and chestnut honey, was as well prepared and fulfilling as all the heartier items we ordered. Here again was a masterful combination of flavors and textures -- sweet, earthy and herbal; tender, moist and crunchy -- that was unexpectedly, perfectly satisfying.
Stagioni has revolutionized a piece of Pittsburgh's Little Italy with its marriage of traditional Italian ingredients and modern, seasonal sensibilities. Welcome to Bloomfield!