Hours: Tue.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads $4-8; entrées $10-24
Fare: Continental-Asian fusion
Atmosphere: White-tablecloth casual
Smoking: None permitted
One of Angelique's cousins, who has lived all her life in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia, likes to say that she didn't go the city; the city came to her.
Well, yes and no. Her quiet enclave of tract homes and strip malls has none of the density, diversity or, let's face it, difficulty of Philly or of Pittsburgh, for that matter. At the same time, the selection and sophistication of businesses there, especially restaurants, is indisputably greater than it was 20 years ago, when going out to eat probably meant forking pasta at a red-sauce Italian restaurant or poring over disposable chopsticks and a zodiac placemat at a Chinese one. Times have changed, and so have the suburbs, especially those with more affluent addresses. Now, going out for a special meal no longer means voyaging into the city; it no longer even means dressing up.
So it is in the suburbs of our fair city as well. And if a restaurant can be a snapshot of its community, Iovino's Café is a flattering reflection of Mount Lebanon: cultured, attractive, tastefully appointed, yet casual and convivial. Tellingly, we think, it was packed to the gills on a Tuesday night.
Iovino's occupies a pretty little storefront on Beverly Road, a block-long business district not far from Mount Lebanon's more vaunted main drag. The ambience is one of understated elegance: blond wood, white walls and tablecloths, bud vases. This aesthetic, simple but not austere, suggests that the space was conceived as a neutral backdrop for the food and the conversation which will color each customer's experience. Under co-chefs Jimmy Iovino and Mike Humphreys, the menu is not exactly fusion, but rather a blend of Asian- and European-inspired dishes, from tempura to confit, with an emphasis on seafood and pasta in various guises.
From the appetizer list, we found torched scallop sashimi to be especially enticing. Coin-thin slices of buttery-soft shellfish were drizzled with a mildly tangy ponzu citrus-soy sauce that was a perfect foil to their briny sweetness. The accompanying avocado tempura was adventurous and delectably successful: The avocado was vegetal, soft and ripe; the panko coating lacy and crisp, for a study in contrasting yet complementary tastes and textures. Angelique thought this should have been offered as an appetizer in its own right.
Mushroom "escargot" was an intriguing exploration of the vegetarian notion that mushrooms can substitute for meat. Jason was pleased that Iovino's didn't take this concept too literally. Rather than mushrooms swimming in garlic butter, the dish consists of slices and chunks of tender oyster and shiitake mushrooms dressed with a sauce tasting distinctly of wine and garlic.
We do not usually order soups in summer, but Angelique could not pass up trying Iovino's version of one of her favorites, tomato-basil. We expect soups to be liquid, of course, but this one was actually juicy not just soupy with coarsely pureed tomatoes. Strips of chopped fresh basil leaves rounded out this classic summer combination. The optional addition of shrimp has the potential to carry this dish to an entirely new level of succulent.
Jason's entrée of crispy duck didn't quite live up to its titular adjective, but certainly delivered rich, meaty duck without excess fat. Duck confit risotto also stretched its definition, with a character more saucy than creamy, though again, the quality of the flavor was indisputable. Jason wouldn't say the same for one of his favorite vegetables, young carrots. To him, they tasted raw, heated only by the plate itself.
Angelique ordered the seared red snapper with fingerling potato hash, napa cabbage slaw, and a black pepper-mirin glaze. The fish was thick, firm and fleshy, although the attached skin was scaly. Its Asiatic seasoning was delicate and subtle, allowing the native flavor of the hearty snapper to dominate.
For dessert, we bypassed apple pie to satisfy a mutual craving for chocolate cake. Topped with a pair of ripe raspberries and a disc of white chocolate, the cake had a dense, moist crumb with a firm, fudgy icing.
While our entrées at Iovino's were satisfying, they unfortunately did not rise to the level of the appetizers, which were superb. Still, this showed us that the potential for overall excellence is there. For us city folk, Iovino's is worth the reverse commute.
Jason: 3 stars
Angeliques: 3 stars