Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, salads and sandwiches $6-10; entrées $11-24
Atmosphere: Warm bistro
Smoking: None Permitted
One of our favorite ways to explore Western Pennsylvania is along its former highways and byways. Driving off the beaten path puts us on historic alignments of the Lincoln Highway that pass through towns, rather than pass them by; routes whose names divulge their construction, like Beaver Grade Road; and even roads that conjure memories of a bygone suburbia, like Old William Penn Highway. As this last winds through parts of Monroeville most of us never see, it leads us past vintage businesses, vestiges of industry and the occasional local treasure.
We no longer recall how we heard about La Cucina Dolce. All we know is that we would never have found it on our own. Tucked into a tiny strip mall in a valley below the Miracle Mile, La Cucina serves a couple of functions for those in the know: Italian pastries and coffee by day, comfortably upscale restaurant by night. Although we admired the baked goods in the front-room case on our way in, as we took our seats in front of a flickering fireplace we were focused on dinner.
The grilled-sausage appetizer was our first taste of the pleasures to come from the kitchen. The plate contained two contrasting sausages, a spicy lamb chorizo and an herbal pork made with dandelion, each sporting lovely grill marks, and each bearing a distinct relationship to half a poached pear, its hollowed center bubbling over delectably with melted sweet gorgonzola. The pear's tender texture and gorgonzola goodness enriched the dandelion sausage while cutting the spice of the chorizo. We found this a fortuitous substitution for the shaved fennel indicated on the menu.
Beans and greens is a dish Angelique never passes up, and La Cucina Dolce rewarded her loyalty to this warm Italian salad. The barely wilted greens were almost crisp, bathed in seasoned oil with white beans, grated Parmesan and a few unexpected ingredients which greatly enriched the flavor: pungent whole garlic cloves, tangy sun-dried tomatoes and hearty wedges of roasted potato.
The fresh side salad that came with our meals was excellent as well. We both selected the white vinaigrette dressing and found its sweet-tart flavor a welcome departure from the much more common red or balsamic vinaigrettes.
For her entrée, Angelique ordered a house specialty, crab cakes, which are normally offered every Thursday. "We're famous for these," our server told us, and we could see why: The jumbo lumps of crabmeat were impossibly moist and succulent, assembled into loose cakes which reduced chewing almost to mere formality. Citrus aioli was a light, bright accompaniment. We also enjoyed the tomato and asparagus orzo that came on the side; we only wished it contained more than a scant three spears of asparagus.
Frankly, it's been so long since we've had really good gnocchi, we can hardly recall what it's like. But it surely isn't by turns gummy and crumbly, with an odd sweetness to the potato dough. Jason's gnocchi with cream and cheese -- essentially an Alfredo sauce -- was our first, and only, disappointment of the evening. The sauce, unfortunately, was dissatisfying as well, with an imbalance between truly creamy portions that spotlighted the gnocchi and overly salty bites dominated by Parmesan cheese.
The fact that this misstep scarcely diminished our pleasure is a testament to the overall excellence of food, atmosphere and service delivered by La Cucina Dolce. Tiramisu, dense and well balanced with a custard as smooth as the proverbial silk, clinched it. Our next backroads journey will lead right back here for pastry.