Location: 5996 Penn Circle South, East Liberty. 412-362-0202
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers and salads $4-12; personal pizzas $14-16
Fare: Refined pizzeria
Atmosphere: Bright and shiny
Almost 40 years ago, a young woman named Alice Waters defected from the teaching profession to the kitchen -- and the garden -- and never looked back. In the radical crucible of Berkeley, Calif., she acted as Pied Piper to a ragtag band of small-scale farmers and chefs seduced by her mantra of seasonal and local ingredients, and together this group began to redefine American cuisine. Yet their techniques were still grounded in the seemingly indomitable tradition of classical French cooking.
Nowadays, the center of gravity has moved south and east, as Mediterranean cooking has gained primacy over French. Not surprisingly, its summery seasonings, fresh flavors and quick cooking techniques speak to modern chefs trained in the California tradition.
One such chef, Sonja Finn, started at Baum Vivant over a decade ago and has since spent time at some of the country's finest restaurants, all the while developing her own culinary vision. Now she's back in Pittsburgh, where her new restaurant and wine bar, Dinette, breathes a fresh San Francisco sensibility into a local dining scene groaning with the effort of change.
Dinette is as small and intimate as its name implies, but instead of cozy and candle-lit, its bright lights bounce fearlessly off shiny surfaces. The menu is small, too, with a brief list of appetizers rounding out an entrée selection consisting entirely of gourmet thin-crust pizzas. A carefully curated wine list makes up the facing half of the menu. Most importantly, to the well-established ideals of seasonal and local, Finn has added a firm commitment to be sustainable, not only in the sense of recycled takeout containers, but also in the economic sense of paying her staff a living wage.
The concept certainly appeals to the same cadre of comfortable, concerned urbanites who have flocked to nearby Whole Foods. But to be truly sustainable, a restaurant must have a product that will bring customers back.
In this regard, Finn has nothing to worry about. To jump to our conclusion, Dinette is a phenomenally successful new restaurant.
We began with an appetizer of beef carpaccio. Tissue-thin slices of vibrantly red, buttery-tender beef were topped with a light scattering of savories such as capers and olive oil. An herbal salsa verde and firm chunks of ricotta rounded out the flavors. The meat was top-notch, though the cut -- filet -- meant that its own flavor faded to the background. But the judicious proportion of supporting ingredients meant that we cleaned the platter without so much as a caper left behind.
Mild, wintry potato-leek soup was finely pureed to the texture of silk velvet, then swirled with crème fraiche and cumin oil studded with whole seeds, which gave this soup its primary spice note. A salad of Bibb lettuce, baby beets, Maytag bleu cheese and red onions had a buttermilk dressing that was full-flavored but exceptionally light; we wished only for more of those delicious beets.
Although we were seated at a table, a visit to the counter -- which doubles as the wine bar -- offered a front-row seat for the pizza-making. Two chefs assemble the pies and bake them while a third applies finishing touches, whether lightly dressed greens to be wilted by residual heat or a little minced garlic for vibrancy. We got to watch Jason's littleneck clams -- a pizza topping so unusual, he had to order it -- go into the oven to cook with the pie. After the shells popped open and the crust crisped, garlic and olive oil were applied for an effect surprisingly like linguine with white clam sauce (though the sauce on the pie was tomato). The juices exuded by the clams could not help but make the crust slightly soggy, but the overall effect was so succulent and savory that we were willing to forgive.
Our two other pies, the pepperoni and the Brussels sprouts, were equally superb. The former featured grilled escarole, which lent a crisply bitter note, and a sunny-side-up egg in the center. Though the copacetic combination of egg, cheese, sausage, tomato, greens and bread is common at breakfast, it seldom makes an appearance at dinner; Finn makes us wonder why. The latter pie paired a judicious scattering of barely bitter Brussels-sprout leaves with earthy grilled leeks, salty pancetta, creamy mozzarella and tangy chèvre for a symphonic crescendo of flavors and textures.
There is no question that Dinette's commitment to excellence, not to mention social and environmental justice, comes at a premium: This is the most you'll ever pay for a meal of pizza (in Pittsburgh, anyway). But the atmosphere is bright and cheerful, the menu is focused and exciting, and the results are, in a word, brilliant.