Folino’s Ristorante | Restaurant Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
Location: 1719 E. Carson St., South Side. 412-488-8108
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat. 9 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun. 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads $3.25-7.95; sandwiches, subs and burgers $6.95-8.95; pasta and entrées $10-18
Fare: Traditional Italian plus upscale deli, grill and pub grub
Atmosphere: Casual with optional elegance
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Designated areas

Opening, closing, contracting, expanding — things have been a little complicated over on the 1700 block of East Carson Street. For years, you had Tom’s Diner, a card store and Young’s Tavern, a little glass-block bar dating back to Prohibition. Eventually, Tom’s spilled over into two storefronts, the card store closed, and the last of the Youngs passed on. Now, the diner is back to a single storefront, but the family who owns it — the Folinos — has consolidated the block. They’ve taken over the card shop and the tavern to create a rambling establishment that includes: a bar-style dining room with wood booths and coin-operated games; a standard meet-and-greet bar with plenty of TV screens to provide conversational fodder; and a tall, tasteful main dining room that manages to evoke a bygone dining era while remaining up-to-date.

All of these rooms share an extensive menu that runs the gamut from subs to steaks to pasta and focaccia-based pizzas. Although there’s little here to suggest contemporary Italian cooking, in its details Folino’s establishes itself as more than a traditional Italian-American throwback. For one thing, iceberg lettuce is conspicuously absent. For another, sandwiches come on ciabatta rolls with cusabi (that’s cucumber plus wasabi) slaw on the side. Folino’s offers vegetarian fare in each menu category, and a children’s menu let us know that despite the grown-up atmosphere, families are welcomed here.

Folino’s selection of subs and sandwiches is varied, with Italian standards like meatball and veal parmigiana keeping company with such home-style favorites as turkey Devonshire and more modern deli fare, such as the grilled chicken hickory. Tempting as this all was, our dinner-sized appetites steered us toward the entree and pasta pages.

But first, we whetted our appetites with cups of soup and an order of Prince Edward Island mussels. These were the biggest, plumpest mussels we have had thus far from Canadian waters. Cooked well but not mushy, they were savory, succulent vehicles for lemon-garlic beurre blanc sauce. Buttery, garlicky and cheesy, this was more like escargot dressing than typical mussel broth. Having devoured the shellfish, we could not resist asking for more bread with which to mop up the rest of the sauce.

Jason’s seafood bisque was similarly rich yet refined. Thick enough for the proverbial spoon to stand up in, it tasted like a divinely simple mixture of butter and cream, studded with tender flakes of fish and strips of shellfish.

Wedding soup is an addictive concoction Angelique had never even heard of before moving to Pittsburgh. Now, she’s a fan. Having tried dozens of versions, she found Folino’s to have a pleasing mix of meatballs, greens and pastina, but an overly salty broth.

When it came time to order our entrees, the mixed grill let Jason relinquish decision-making. When Folino’s says “mixed grill,” the emphasis is on the grill. Filet tips and a split-half chicken breast arrived charred with black stripes almost as wide as the gaps between them. The smallish pieces of beef were nonetheless rosy inside, and the balance of char and meatiness was excellent. The chicken wasn’t just moist, but actually juicy, with a tantalizing hint of herb and vinegar marinade. Meanwhile, a length of sausage, split lengthwise, melded intense pork flavor with an underlying spiciness. It seemed to have been slow-grilled so as to cook off extra fat, leaving a stand-alone sausage that didn’t need sauce or bread for complement. Delicioso!

Angelique was in the mood for pasta Bolognese, which arrived in a bowl the size of a serving dish. The sauce was meaty, thickly coating the noodles with plenty of chunky ground beef. Pulverized vegetables filled out the sauce’s flavor and texture. Far from the light, fresh tomato-y taste of Folino’s marinara (which we sampled on our daughter’s kid-size portion of creamy, pillowy cheese ravioli), the Bolognese had the deep, dark, hearty character of a burgundy.

It’s not so much that everything old is new again, but that some things never get old. So it is with traditional Italian restaurant fare. Folino’s serves time-tested favorites in an ambience so refined that the impression is one of elegant, modern dining.

Jason: 3.5 stars
Angleique: 3 stars

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