As a general rule in Allegheny County, boroughs are municipalities, historically and economically tied to the industry within their bounds, while townships are adjacent suburbs. But Stowe Township and the borough of McKees Rocks are an exception to this rule. The big plants north of the Rocks Bridge are actually in Stowe, and the busy, brick-paved Broadway Avenue business district transitions seamlessly from one to the other.
Stowe Township began issuing building permits in 1905, and it is from this milestone that one of its showpieces, the 1905 Eatery, takes its name. Located in a particularly handsome brick building at the corner of Broadway Avenue and Dohrman Street, it’s marked by a tall, vertical neon sign and a plate-glass corner storefront incorporating a graceful wooden bow reminiscent of the area’s many bridges. Despite the name and lovingly restored architecture, the 1905 is a relatively new addition to downtown Stowe. As recently as five years ago, the building was run-down, with empty upper-story window openings and its gracious storefront obscured by cheesy, 1970s stucco and faux timbering.
1905 Eatery is a family establishment. Proprietor Carmen Cupelli emigrated to Stowe from Italy with his parents and siblings in 1960; in 2014, he opened the restaurant to share his family’s tradition of social, home-cooked Italian meals with the public. The menu itself is timeless Italian-American, full of red sauce, pasta and veal, and featuring family recipes made with locally procured ingredients such as Uncle Charley’s sausage, Penn Mac pasta and Breadworks bread.
Lasagna rollatini was definitely something we could picture Carmen’s mom making for him and his hungry friends when they descended on the Cupelli house in the 1960s. Miniature meatballs, crumbled sweet sausage, ricotta, provolone and Romano were rolled up in thick lasagna noodles and smothered in red sauce. Though there were only two to a serving, it was nearly enough food for three. Portions are big at the 1905, and the food is hearty. Tasty as well: The rolled-up format made for a generous filling-to-pasta ratio, and the creamy ricotta shone, even if the meatballs were a bit tough.
Tripe — cow stomach — is an Italian classic that hasn’t made it onto many American menus, but you can get it at 1905 in both starter and entrée sizes, with the former being close to a full dinner portion. Our only previous experience with this cut has been at Chinese restaurants, where preparation doesn’t shy away from chewiness. But here, it was simmered until tender and served in a spicy red sauce enriched with garlic, onion and banana peppers. The meat had an extraordinary texture that was at first firm, like squid, but then almost melted away. The assertive, astringent sauce was the perfect pairing for the complementary slice of Italian bread.
Compared to this, wedding soup was rather pallid, with mushy pasta and greens so thoroughly boiled of their character it was impossible to tell if they were the traditional escarole or not.
But with our pasta dishes, 1905’s kitchen was back on top. The grilled-chicken cutlet atop our pasta carbonara was fantastic, moist and meaty and flavorful, where all too often grilled chicken is not much more than diet-friendly, under-seasoned protein. Yet the chicken’s leanness was a welcome counterpoint to 1905’s Americanized version of carbonara, the kind that starts with a heavy Alfredo cream sauce and adds bacon and peas. Though dauntingly rich, and perhaps a bit too thick and starchy, the sauce’s flavors blended well.
Gnocchi in a sturdy marinara sauce had that wonderful mashed-potato nuggetiness that sets this pasta, at its best, apart from wheat-flour noodles. And the plainly named “sausage and pasta” was anything but plain: penne marinara with just-hot-enough Italian sausage and its natural companions, onions and peppers. We appreciated the bold, old-school use of green peppers in this dish. Although almost completely supplanted by sweet red peppers in most recipes nowadays, green peppers have a distinctive, just-this-side-of-bitter juiciness that can be the perfect foil to the sweetness of, say, marinara.
Despite the enormous portions of which we’d freely partaken, at the end of all this, there were some murmurs around the table about tiramisu, a family favorite dessert. We were saved from bursting by our server, who assured us that this deservedly popular confection was sold out for the night. It’s just as well, as it gives us an excuse to come back when the adjoining bakery is open and enjoy 1905 Eatery’s casual, convivial atmosphere again.