Location: 46 Fox Chapel Road, O'Hara Township. 412-781-3700. www.donatosrestaurant.com
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thu. 5-10 p.m.; Fri. 5-11 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. 4-10 p.m.
Prices: Soups, salads, sides and appetizers $5-15; entrees $15-37
Fare: Haute Italian
Atmosphere: White tablecloth
Liquor: Full bar
High-end dining is a lot more varied than it used to be. Not only can top dollar buy you more -- and more interesting -- foods than steak and lobster, these days a white-tablecloth restaurant may be so urbane and sophisticated it dispenses with tablecloths altogether. While we generally embrace the casual-contemporary trend, especially when executed with style, there's still something to be said for old-school paneling, upholstery, polished silver and, yes, crisp white linens. They make a person sit up a little straighter.
At Donato's in the Fox Chapel Plaza in O'Hara, owner and executive chef Donato Coluccio has incorporated all those marks of distinction and updated them -- just enough -- to provide a modern, yet traditionally sophisticated setting for one of the area's best Italian menus. The timeless tuxedo color scheme is emphasized by dark walnut walls and woodwork, while cherry-red upholstered banquettes provide bold, modern pops of color. The bright kitchen is partly visible through a window to the dining room, providing illumination and a glimpse of the action behind the scenes without intruding on the dining experience. And the big barroom behind the host station is the kind of comfortable, convivial place that we'd like to inhabit -- with our Old Fashioneds, of course.
We found Donato's service to be professional and prompt, with helpful insight into the offerings. On our server's recommendation, we started with baked oysters Florentine. While the spinach tempted us to try this dish, it was the pancetta cream that will keep us coming back for more; its savory richness enveloped the oysters while highlighting their distinctive brininess. Tender tuna tartare was served with orechiette chips, named after thick, ear-shaped pasta. They were more like tortilla crackers, but, regardless of their name, made an excellent base for scooping up the velvety tuna and its tart, lemony dressing.
Donato's offers excellent salads; we commend it especially for offering a roasted-pepper and mozzarella salad in place of a tomato-based caprese at this time of year. In the event, we tried the house and heirloom salads, while a well-traveled dining companion reported the Caesar one of the best he's ever had. If the chopped heirloom lettuces in the other two salads were not immediately distinguishable from garden-variety roughage, both included traditional Italian ingredients which added both interest and substance. Donato's house salad included earthy chickpeas, spicy pepperoncini and briny olives, while the heirloom salad was nearly a meal unto itself with asparagus, tiny fingerling potatoes, peas, olives and radish croutons. The dressings, particularly the roasted-shallot vinaigrette, were light and flavorful, sharpening rather than masking the various ingredients.
Coluccio spent time at the Capital Grille Downtown, and his experience with steaks is obvious. A dry-aged Delmonico was a truly superb cut of meat, perfectly seared to create a bold crust with a juicy interior. Several flavoring options are available, including an espresso rub and porcini mushroom dust; Jason chose the latter drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar, a special preparation that added just a hint of sweetness to the big steak.
As good as the steak was, the veal-and-spinach cannelloni managed to be even better. Cannelloni is one of Jason's favorite dishes, blending tender pasta, gently cooked meat and luxurious bechamel sauce. To this, Donato's adds spinach for color and texture as well as a splash of tomato sauce that brightens the bechamel without adding any overt tomato flavor.
Veal saltimbocca consisted of a generous quartet of tender cutlets topped with prosciutto, sage and melted mozzarella cheese. The meat's natural jus was used to create a pan sauce which, in a more restrained execution, might have been a good idea. Here it was soupy and overly salty, threatening to drown the harmonious flavors of this classic dish.
With jumbo scampi linguine, however, Donato's took another classic and rendered it fresh and new. Gloriously plump and sweet shrimp were tossed with whole-roasted garlic, wilted spinach and tender -- not chewy -- oven-dried tomato for an effect that evoked the zing of traditional scampi without its usual downfalls of grease and heaviness. It was a taste of spring in winter.
A couple of other dishes were less than perfect. Gnocchi Bolognese was adequate but unexceptional, and another companion found her osso bucco tender but utterly bland. Nonetheless, these were minor missteps in a meal that lived up to the promise of its sophisticated surroundings. Donato's offers a gently updated, Italian-inflected twist on the classic fine-dining experience.