Hours: Mon.-Sat. 10:30 a.m..-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $4-8; salads $10-12; entrees $11-18
Fare: Old-school Italian
Atmosphere: Old-school Italian
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Designated sections
If everything old is new again, then Pittsburgh is au courant, and nowhere more so than in Lawrenceville. In its lengthy traverse from Highland Park to the Strip District, Butler Street -- along with the hillside above and the flats below -- spans not only miles, but generations. Artsy shops and galleries may proliferate energetically within the 16:62 Design Zone, but Lawrenceville is simply too large a neighborhood to ever completely gentrify, and that, after all, is its charm. It's pretty and it's gritty. It's hip with a history.
One newcomer that has not renounced the old is Geno's, in the old Mama Rosa's space, on a stretch of Butler where the twinkle of upscale shops has just begun to cast Upper Lawrenceville in a new and modern light. You might expect the successor to such a venerable Italian restaurant to introduce either a trendy gloss or an ironic retro take on its predecessor. But instead, chef/owner Eugene "Geno" Giguere has installed a dinner menu that, at first glance, embodies a sincere notion of fine dining cast in amber several decades ago.
The point is not simply to cater to Lawrenceville's old-timers, though a respect for this generation is evident in Geno's menu choices. Rather, in a dining room that makes a terrazzo floor and faux-sky ceiling seem timeless, Giguere has breathed new life into old-school classics that had seemed too tired to go on.
A case in point is artichoke dip, something we thought those corporate "neighborhood" restaurants had done to death 10, if not 15, years ago. At Geno's, the dip extolled as "a taste of heaven" is much more than chewy canned artichoke leaves tossed in an over-rich cheese sauce. Rather, tender pieces of artichoke flavored by -- not drowned in -- tangy marinade are balanced with cream and served with garlic toast rounds to create an appetizer that is fresh and noteworthy once again.
Fried calamari were coated in a breading so supremely light and fine, we wondered how it could possibly cling to the squid. Answer: It couldn't, at least not for long. When dipped in the homemade herbed marinara sauce, much of the crispy coating slipped right off. Still, we were impressed by the texture, unlike any we've had before.
With deep pockets of fat, New York strip steak wasn't the best-quality cut, but it was beautifully charred without compromising the perfect pinkness of medium rare, and the price was about right. While we appreciated that Geno's has moved beyond old-school vegetable prep -- no olive-drab broccoli, thanks! -- the dish's standout aspect was actually the roasted redskin potatoes, slightly crisp on the outside, incredibly creamy within. Steak-lovers, take note: On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Geno's serves prime rib.
Jason was thrilled to find an old favorite, linguine with white clam sauce, on the menu, but less thrilled to be served linguine Alfredo with clams instead. We wondered if this was supposed to be a unique take on a classic recipe, but Geno 'fessed up to an error in the kitchen and comped us a glass of wine to make amends. Once Jason adjusted the expectations of his palate, he enjoyed the Alfredo for the most part, but it was too mild to completely satisfy. Some subtle yet distinctive flavor was missing. Perhaps it lay with Parmesan cheese, or perhaps it was simply too much cream -- the pasta was swimming in sauce which should more properly have clung to the linguine.
Angelique's turkey shepherd's pie, on the other hand, was a seasonal special that was truly special. Sliced turkey breast, peppers, onions and mushrooms were served piping hot in a savory stew beneath a thick blanket of mashed potatoes. Though it is the very definition of comfort food, skillful seasoning kept the dish this side of Blandsville.
As the "Big Belly Deli" part of the name suggests, Geno's is also open for lunch, with subs, salads and pizzas. You can also sit at the pleasant, old-fashioned bar and have pub grub. By daylight or candlelight, Geno's goes to show that you don't have to renounce, or even reinvent, the old to create something new. Good to begin with, those old recipes still deliver.