Location: 1778 N. Highland Road, Bethel Park. 412-835-9772
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 4-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 4-11 p.m.
Prices: Starters $6-11, entrees $12-29
Fare: Vintage Italian-American
Atmosphere: Vintage Italian-American
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Designated sections
There's a lot of history perched above Washington Road in Bethel Park. A longtime South Hills venue known as The Living Room sat there. It closed, reopened as The Living Room ... Again, and is now Leonard's Living Room, an effort to connect to the past while alerting diners to new ownership.
New ownership notwithstanding, Leonard's appears to have been last redecorated sometime during the Reagan administration. Maroon walls, tablecloths and carpet soak up the light from the awninged windows along one wall, infusing the interior with a moody dimness at all times of day. Outside, there are separate entrances for the cocktail lounge and dining room. But indoors, the spaces flow together, allowing a cigarette haze to permeate the dining room and putting the food at a disadvantage from the outset.
The menu hasn't seen any recent updating, either. A quick perusal revealed the same dozen entrees that are standard at local Italian-American restaurants. That's not to say that various dishes marked "parmesan," "marsala," "alfredo" and so forth aren't classics for good reason. Even if the kitchen weren't in the business of surprising anyone, we hoped it would instead impress through execution.
One item stood out among the appetizers: mozzarella in carozza, which was described as basil and mozzarella in Italian bread, battered and fried. It turned out to be basically a grilled-cheese sandwich, albeit a very good one, with a thick filling of gooey cheese, a layer of fresh herbal flavor and a brown, toasty crust. A marinara dipping sauce proved to be fresher-tasting than the rote dips that accompany many appetizers elsewhere, with piquant hints of assertive seasoning.
More of an old-school standout were seafood crepes. The crepes themselves were excellent, tender and so light as to be almost translucent, with a gentle dappling of brownness from the pan. But within, the shrimp were briny and the crab shreds were bland. Small chunks of scallop packed a sweet flavor, but these were few and far between. The thick, creamy sauce was serviceable.
An unintended order of fried zucchini looked good enough to keep: broad strips coated with a puffy, tempura-like batter and served with a big bowl of that tasty marinara sauce. The first bite was crisp and light, making the decision to keep the zucchini seem a wise one. But after the initial crunch, a softer texture took over, as if the batter were just a bit too thick for the zucchini, which was sliced paper-thin. With such a delicate vegetable, even a little extra batter is too much.
A pair of pasta dishes, pasta scoglio and pasta Leonard, also stood out on the menu. The former is essentially that old classic, linguine with clam sauce, loaded up with mussels, shrimp, scallops and calamari. The scoglio offered much better seafood than the crepes had. While it would be too much to say that each piece of seafood offered its own flavor, each at least had a distinctive and welcome texture: tiny, tender calamari rings; big, succulent shrimp; clam shreds that were meaty without being chewy; and, best of all, the scallops. These were mid-sized, between bay and sea, gently cooked and bursting with the unique, briny-sweet flavor of scallops. The pasta sauce itself was garlicky but not overly so, with the oil and clam juice emulsified to create a creamy mouthfeel.
Unfortunately, Leonard's signature pasta dish, shrimp and veal over linguini in a creamy tomato-basil sauce, failed to show as successful a hand with texture. The shrimp were big and plump, and the pasta, though cooked slightly beyond al dente, was still tender-firm. But the veal, whose calling card, after all, is tenderness, had the texture of a middling cut of steak. The sauce was sweetly bland and, as is so often the case in restaurant pasta dishes, there was too much of it, so that even in its mildness it threatened to drown the flavors of the ingredients.
Departing from pasta, we tried one item from the steak section of the menu, medallions in a red wine demi-glace with mushrooms. The medallions were tender and nicely rare, if not bursting with beefy flavor, a shortcoming we blame more on the cut of meat itself than on Leonard's. The sauce compensated by being richly flavored and not too thick, with plenty of thinly sliced button mushrooms. A double-baked potato was crusty on top and featured a welcome note of sharpness from sour cream, but was overseasoned, as was the case with some other items.
During our visit, there were few other guests in the dining room, but the cocktail lounge was well-populated with regulars. Our meal was competent, with occasional flashes of mastery, if well short of brilliant. Yet Leonard's generally reliable, familiar brand of Italian-American fare would be a comfortable background for a social evening with old friends.