French may be the language of love, but Italian is the flavor of Pittsburgh's favorite cuisine. From South Side to Shadyside, and of course in Bloomfield, you know you love it, regardless of whether your family hails from Rome or Romania.
The problem in these parts is not a shortage of Italian restaurants, but rather sorting out the best. In Oakmont, Hoffstot's Café Monaco is the family-dinner, birthday-dinner, anytime-dinner favorite (don't forget lunch and dessert). Located in a handsome old building on the lower side of Oakmont's main drag, the establishment spans three storefronts: a bar complete with the Steelers on wide-screen TV; a bright, bustling dining room with white walls and linen tablecloths; and a smaller, dimmer dining room with wood wainscoting lending a more old-fashioned feel.
Like a perfectly simple piece of clothing that can be dressed up or down, Café Monaco is as fancy or as casual as you want it to be. When we were there, a young couple dressed to the nines did not look out of place, even while our waitress brought our toddler a colorful plastic cup and crayons.
The menu is comprehensive, offering big portions of pasta, chops and Pittsburgh classics. Angelique was happy to see beans and greens, one of her favorite Italian dishes, and even happier when she tasted it. Plenty of white beans and escarole were stewed in an oil-based, cheesy-creamy sauce with just a hint of peppery spice.
Jason's whetted his appetite on crab Hoezel, a dish invented at the Duquesne Club for the eponymous millionaire. We doubt, however, that Mr. Hoezel's version was served in a deep-fried tortilla bowl. Its mild flavor and crunchy texture were superb foils for enormous lumps of sweet, succulent crabmeat drizzled with a lightly creamy sauce enlivened by scallions. A small mound of mesclun greens with a lemon wedge on the side complemented Hoezel's excellent legacy.
Jason's side salad was also a treat, a blend of romaine and mesclun topped with the nutty flavor of mixed sprouts -- a sophisticated and delicious move from a restaurant more traditional than trendy. In contrast, Addy's gigantic potato pancake -- named in honor of the chef's daughter -- is precisely what you'd expect, small-plate-sized cakes of tender-crisp julienned potatoes.
We are not big fans of the trend toward sweetening foods that, in our minds, should be savory, in the manner of glazed salmon and maple chicken; we prefer to save the sugar for dessert. Unfortunately, Jason was ambushed by his bourbon pork chop, with pecans in a sauce that would be delicious on ice cream. But on a pork chop already sweet from an apple-juice brine, it was far too much. This was a shame, since the brining created a beautiful chop -- rather, two beautiful chops, a testament to the generosity of Hoffstot's portions.
Sea scallops Palermo brought six puck-sized scallops baked in butter, garlic, white wine and citrus juice, then dusted with Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs. Unfortunately, the scallops were slightly overcooked, and the overall effect of the seasonings, while pleasant enough, was mild bordering on bland.
Penne in tomato-basil-cream sauce, on the other hand, hit a high note. The pasta was tender and the sauce full of herbal and fresh tomato flavors. Despite the cream, it was not heavy, with the dairy seemingly added for texture more than flavor.
How anyone could still eat one of Hoffstot's enormous desserts after consuming one of its enormous meals is a mystery to us, so don't even ask how we did it. Chocolate-mousse cheesecake, imported from New York City, was dense yet airy, and it seemed those very air pockets were packed with rich cocoa flavor, offset by a layer of tangy cheese.
Uncomplicated yet upscale, professionally run yet with a family feel, Hoffstot's Café Monaco demonstrates why the best Italian restaurants continue to have broad appeal.