POLI'S | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


Poli's still has that great feel of an old-time dining establishment, the sort of place where without even looking at the menu you can confidently order a Manhattan, a shrimp cocktail, and surf-and-turf. There's plenty of shiny cherry woodwork, large mirrors framed in black and gold, brocade-backed chairs and booths. Each booth has its own wall-mounted lamp, and a well-placed spotlight shines down on the cut-glass flower vase that sports a single, fresh red rose. The waiters wear the time-honored white shirt with a trim black vest, and even on a weeknight, Poli's quickly fills up with regulars cheerfully greeting one another.

We began with an order of hot banana peppers stuffed with sausage and sitting in a robust chunky marinara. Our waiter generously grated cheese over the peppers, and returned quickly with chiabatta bread -- a rustic, low loaf served warm -- "to soak up the sauce." I had a cup of the soup du jour (house soups are she-crab soup and two chowders), which that evening was pasta fagioli: noodles, diced carrots, celery, onion, white beans and ham in a thick tomato base.

We also nibbled on the complimentary starter -- pieces of crispy fried bread accompanied by a small pot of creamy whipped fish spread. And naturally, all entrees come with a salad. I was glad to see the house salad contained a nice selection of lettuces. As much as I enjoy the charms of old-school restaurants, I'm encouraged that they're dropping the iceberg lettuce for more colorful, tastier varieties.

The menu offers Northern Italian specialties with an emphasis on fish and other seafood. While tempted to try more contemporary-sounding creations like chicken breasts with macadamia nuts and a creamy sesame-soy sauce, or one of the "classic" seafood selections like broiled Boston scrod with buttered bread crumbs, both my companion and I found it impossible to resist that evening's fresh fish selections (Poli's offers a dozen off-menu entrees based on season and market availability).

My companion went at once for the walleye pike -- a moniker that never fails to amuse the Midwestern sport fisherman that he is: "The walleye isn't a pike at all, it's a perch. And one of the nicest eating perches." Indeed it was: Walleye has the light flakiness of the smaller pan fish, but the bulkier fish provides generous forkfuls of meat. This walleye had been lightly breaded with herbs, then sauted to give the soft filet a crisp exterior.

I, on the other hand, succumbed to the season's trendiest fish, Copper River salmon. Harvested for only a few weeks in late spring, these wild Pacific Coast salmon -- fabled for their arduous navigation up Alaska's rugged Copper River, their superior flavor and their high omega-3 oil content (one of the "good" fats) -- have the foodies all a-dither. What is an unlucky break for the homeward-bound salmon is a real spot of luck for the discerning diner.

Copper River salmon costs a few dollars more than the farm-raised Atlantic salmon served year round, but it's a small treat worth indulging in. The filet I had was thick -- at least 3 inches -- and the meat, when cooked, is a delicate silvery pink. It flaked easily at the tine of a fork, and was wonderfully moist (thank you, omega-3). The flavor -- at once richer and softer than Atlantic salmon -- is so unique, that upon my first bite, I immediately remembered that this is how salmon used to taste, reminiscent of my West Coast youth where wild Pacific salmon was more prevalent and a favorite entre of mine.

Poli's had grilled the salmon and dressed it with a Southwestern corn chutney, and while it provided a lively garnish, I was glad that two-thirds of the fish remained unseasoned. The superior taste of these salmon needs no gimmicking -- just simple grilling and perhaps a squirt of lemon.

Each of us had received "Pittsburgh-style" portions -- that is, large: big pieces of fish, huge stalks of broccoli, and ample piles of buttery mashed potatoes and wild rice. We split a cannoli for dessert -- a nice crisp shell that oozed sweet cheesy custard dotted with chocolate chips.

We exited through the darkish bar illuminated by a fish tank in which pretty silvery fish the size of my hand swam. A waitress stopped by to sprinkle some fish food flakes into the tank. "You're gonna have to feed 'em a lot more than that," I joked. At this "Pittsburgh institution," you know the big fish are destined for your plate; the little fish are just for decoration.

Inside Eat'n Park's test kitchen
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Inside Eat'n Park's test kitchen

By Mars Johnson