If the 1980s movie Back to the Future taught us anything, it's that DeLoreans were overrated. No, wait, that was what we realized in hindsight. The movie itself seemed to want to persuade us that time machines are a bad idea. You could prevent your parents from falling in love and, thus, yourself from ever being born! And yet, who hasn't wished, foolishly or not, to visit another time?
If your temporal destination is circa 1960, you need travel no farther than McKees Rocks (and, we might add, your ordinary automobile will suffice). In this post-industrial town, the Broadway shopping district is a thriving surprise, appearing frozen in amber since its mid-century heyday. The businesses are mostly insurance offices, ice-cream shops and other small storefronts serving a neighborhood clientele. But at the center of it all is The Primadonna Restaurant, an Italian establishment with clearly more cosmopolitan ambitions. What is more, the plaudits, both local and national, which crowd its windows and walls suggest that those ambitions have been achieved.
Primadonna, which opened in the 1980s, has an old-school vibe: Here is food that doesn't need the hippest décor to sell it. The atmosphere is homey without being humble.
Prepare to spend some time at Primadonna just perusing the menu. Quite possibly the longest we've ever seen outside a Chinese restaurant, it's loaded with literally dozens of dishes featuring pasta, veal, chicken and seafood. Precisely three options, all chophouse classics, are available for that rare Pittsburgher who doesn't like Italian. But we think it would be hard to pass up Primadonna's many variations on traditional Italian-American themes, some of them red-sauce restaurant classics like arrabiata, others more homestyle offerings like spaghetti with sausage made with sausage from a couple doors down, of course.
Wanting to sample the menu at every level of ambition, we started with fried zucchini. This was, simply, spectacular: Paper-thin strips of zucchini in airy, delicate puffs of crisp seasoned breading reminiscent in texture, not taste of Indian papadam bread. A sprinkling of Parmesan and a squirt of lemon completed the success.
This was a lot to live up to, and our other starters didn't quite. In what was to be an omen, stuffed-pepper soup was thick, almost stew-like, but woefully underseasoned, an odd failing for such an earthy bowl. Likewise, the quarter-sized marinated scallops were pleasantly tender yet firm, but the marinade Primadonna's signature dressing was far too mild, and without lemon borrowed from the zucchini plate, the scallops' flavor was simply bland.
Jason was truly excited about his entrée. He often laments that linguine with white clam sauce is oddly scarce around here, but Primadonna offers it proudly. An enormous portion arrived, studded with chopped clams. The shellfish were meaty, not chewy, and the sauce was well balanced between oil, wine and lemon. But, unfortunately, here was all the salt that had been missing from the soup, dominating each bite and robbing the other ingredients of their rightful roles.
Angelique ordered a house specialty, chicken zummo, in which a chicken breast is folded around an entire stuffed hot pepper, pepperoni, provolone and prosciutto, then seasoned, breaded and baked. Loaf-sized and smothered in tomato sauce, it made an impressive appearance. But the chicken was dry and, though the dish was labeled Hot! on the menu, Angelique found it not to be so. In fact, the fine ingredients of the filling had so little impact on the overall dish, she almost felt them to be wasted.
Our dessert of tiramisu brought the meal full circle, back to the excellence of the fried zucchini with which we'd started. Primadonna's tiramisu was everything this traditional Italian dessert should be, a light yet luxurious vehicle for the complementary flavors of coffee and cocoa. The custard had the airiness of a mousse, and the ladyfingers, though soaked with Kahlua, retained their cookie texture instead of dissolving into mush.
So sell that DeLorean on eBay and take your parents out to dinner on Broadway. You don't have to travel through time to experience McKees Rocks as it once was, with The Primadonna Restaurant, a homegrown place for splurge and celebration, in its midst.
Jason: 2 stars
Angelique: 2.5 stars