For a minute there, it looked like the traditional dominance of the local restaurant market by red-sauce Italian joints might be fading. Old stalwarts were closing, and in their place, a new generation of Asian and upscale American restaurants have begun offering chicken banh mi in place of chicken parm, flatbread instead of pizza, and the thoroughly modern guilty pleasure of short-rib mac-and-cheese rather than stodgy old fettuccine alfredo.
But just as nature abhors a vacuum, Pittsburghers aren’t letting go of spaghetti and meatballs quite so easily. From high end to humble, Italian restaurants have resurged, and many of the new crop are throwbacks: to the family-run neighborhood pizza-and-pasta joints of the 1950s and ’60s, or even to the more formal Continental-style places of the late ’80s.
We can think of a lot of reasons Italian-American dining never goes out of style. Robust Italian-American cooking is not dainty, fussy or unfamiliar. It is made to be devoured, not admired, preferably at a long table filled with boisterous family and friends. Indeed, the deeply intertwined values of food and family in Italian culture seem key components to most traditional Italian-American recipes.
In Kennedy Township, Mia Madre Trattoria is more dedicated to family than most. Not only is owner Al Nicholas’ mother honored in the name, but his wife and son have contributed menu items as well. And when he comes out to check on your table mid-meal, the pride in la famiglia is evident.
Personal touches aside, the menu is resolutely traditional, from bruschetta to baked ziti. We filled our table with a combination of classic Italian dishes and family specialties.
Meatballs tend to fall into two categories: tender, fine ones and tough, coarse ones. But Mia Madre found a middle path, with relatively coarsely-ground meat rolled and served still tender.
Adding to these meatballs’ appeal was their presentation: They were served in a distinctive fashion, amid cylinders of fluffy, sweet ricotta, all in a shallow dish of marinara. The temperature contrast between warm meat and cool cheese was pleasing, and the creamy taste and texture of the cheese added greatly to the satisfaction of the dish.
The menu description of “linguine clam” was coy: “Tender clams sautéed in olive oil, garlic, parsley, and that’s all the recipe I’m telling you …” This secrecy was all the more intriguing because it was, in fact, a very unusual version of the classic dish. Instead of a light sauce to coat the noodles and the clams taking center stage, this sauce was thick, with a creamy texture but a flavor that betrayed no dairy. It was hard to argue with the plentiful clams, which were indeed tender, but it was also hard to decide whether the sauce’s hearty character was too insistent, or if it was simply unorthodox.
Shari’s chicken, named for Nicholas’ wife, was sautéed with northern beans, banana peppers and garlic. The pungency of the peppers and garlic, tempered by the earthy beans, made for an excellent complement to mild chicken breast. Unfortunately, this chicken was so mild as to be almost flavorless, and its texture was dry.
In fact, the best part of this dish might have been the simple side of pasta marinara. Nicholas credits his marinara to his mom, and it did them both proud. Good enough to be enjoyed, unembellished, on linguini, it also shone in other contexts: the sweet giving way to savory notes when combined with peppers and Ricci’s sausage, or as an unobtrusive, yet almost fruity, background to the marvelously cheesy lasagna.
The marinara’s effect was harder to discern in Junior’s linguini, where it was combined with marsala sauce, that sweet, slightly boozy accompaniment to veal. But this dish contained no meat, just the reduced wine sauce that lent a burgundy tint and some tangy zip to the straight marinara’s more straightforwardly tomato profile. If not exactly revelatory, the combination was a worthwhile innovation.
Some Italian restaurants strive to bring diners an experience akin to an authentic meal in Italy. But dining alla famiglia at an Italian-American table is a different kind of authentic experience, one that’s brought to you by Mia Madre Trattoria.