The Italian chophouse may not be exactly a groundbreaking restaurant concept, but there's a reason it's never gone out of style. The chophouse menu naturally covers a broad range of prices and preparations, from kid-friendly spaghetti-and-meatballs to a hungry man's porterhouse steak, from Alfredo to arrabiata, and filet of fish to filet mignon.
A little more upscale than your average family weeknight meal, but neither exotic nor extravagant, the chophouse is well suited to first dates, birthday gatherings and just about any remotely special occasion involving people of disparate, or unknown, tastes.
Trapuzzano Italian Chophouse, which opened recently on Walnut Street in Shadyside, follows the current fashion for espresso-stained wood, fieldstone accents and arty black-and-white photography. The photographs' subject — Pittsburgh streetscapes — and the restaurant's second floor location give it a bit of a neighborhood clubhouse feel. This was accentuated by the lounge, comfortably appointed with leather chairs and sofas and the source of the live jazz music that filled the adjacent dining room and bar. All signs pointed to relax.
The menu was standard, featuring traditional Italian meat, seafood and pasta dishes. There's nothing wrong with by-the-book preparations as long as they're solid, and we quickly spotted a number of favorites from which we composed our order.
Trapuzzano's beans-and-greens was first rate. A rich, not thin, broth enhanced the tender, wilted escarole and creamy cannellini. Some recipes add meaty texture and savory flavor through sausage, but this one utilized pancetta, a brilliant stroke. The little morsels of cured pork were chewy and intensely flavorful amid the milder backdrop of the earthy greens and beans. Only a slight over-saltiness, perhaps also attributable to the pancetta, kept this dish from perfection.
The menu credits Trapuzzano's polpe — meatballs — to a family recipe, and it's a worthwhile one: The meatballs offered a good blend of beefiness and seasoning and a texture that balanced on the fine line between firm and loose, well away from dense and tough. The sauce was a simple marinara darkened with meatball juices, and a pleasing garnish of flat square shavings of Parmesan delivered bigger flavor than ordinary grated shreds.
After these superb appetizers, we expected the kitchen to dispatch a dish as ubiquitous and almost uniformly competent as fried calamari with ease. But alas, Trapuzzano's was sub-par at best. Beneath a tough, too-thick batter, the meat was rubbery and slightly dry. At our table, even mediocre calamari seldom goes unfinished, but this was an exception.
The chef's choice risotto — primavera — was another big disappointment. Gummy rice was bound into a sticky mass by a too-thick sauce, and the spring vegetables promised in the name, instead of being plentiful and flavorful, seemed thrown in just for color.
Fettuccine Alfredo was better, with a sauce that consistently clung to the noodles without weighing them down. Jason thought he noted a hint of smokiness in the sauce, but we both agreed that the flavor was too restrained, without the big Parmesan punch that defines this dish.
Bistecca Abruzzo, the best of our entrees, was also flawed. The beef was quite good, a tender cut of New York strip, expertly grilled so that it had enough presence to hold up under caramelized, almost melted onions and pungent Gorgonzola.
Alongside was a pleasing presentation of tricolor carrots and tricolor potatoes, simply cooked and buttered. Only, they were not consistently cooked: One variety of carrot was too firm, while one of the potatoes was simply underdone. We could forgive this sort of thing at a humbler establishment, but at this location, at these prices, and in these surroundings, we expect execution to meet aspiration.
We were charmed by Trapuzzano Italian Chophouse's handsome dining room, comfortable lounge and welcoming service. As for the food, when it was good, it was very, very good. But, unfortunately, the kitchen lacked consistency in preparation, resulting in dishes that could use improvement.