Location: 1822 Middle Road, Glenshaw. 412-486-7159
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 3-10 p.m., Sun. 3-9 p.m.
Prices: Starters, soups, salads, sandwiches $5-9; entrees $9-18
Fare: Bar food and Italian-American
Atmosphere: Country cabin
Liquor: Full bar
If the letters "MRI" evoke claustrophobic thoughts of blinking, beeping brain-imaging equipment, perhaps you need a new referent for your acronym. In Glenshaw, "MRI" stands for Middle Road Inn, a bar and restaurant located in an historic inn on the road between Pittsburgh and Butler. Commercial life has long since passed Middle Road by, but the inn has survived and adapted, handed down from one family to another, becoming a lone outpost of public life in an area now dominated by suburban housing.
The original inn itself is now the bar, with the dining room in a spacious addition whose exposed rafters, pine wainscoting and stone fireplace evoke a cozy ski lodge; we almost felt our server should have greeted us with a round of hot chocolate instead of water. The walls were packed with nostalgic country kitsch -- camp signs, reproduction vintage advertising signs -- plus a disjunctive touch of the nautical in the form of porthole windows and a dinghy suspended from the high, sloped ceiling. In this big room, though, the overall effect was charming, not cluttered. A few old photos tested our ability to connect the current structure to its history.
The nautical theme resurfaced -- no pun intended -- on the menu, where we found fully 10 "Fresh Catches" among offerings otherwise largely given over to familiar Italian fare and its close relative, comfort food. MRI's seafood choices don't just consist of fried cod and crab cakes, either; scallops Barsac and grilled tuna steak suggest a serious, if not cutting-edge, commitment to the watery deep.
We waded in carefully, starting with some bar classics: pizza, potato skins and wings. The pizza -- one large size only -- was very good, built on a substantial crust (though it could have been a touch crisper) that stood up to a generous blanket of cheese. The potato skins, four quarters of a big russet, were topped with meaty bacon and processed cheese food product. We would have preferred real cheese, especially given the caliber of that on the pizza, but we appreciated the skins' oven-crisped shells, and the fact that they were full without being overwhelming. Most impressive were the wings, as big and plump as turkey wings, and crispy beneath the "MRI sauce," which -- if you can get beyond the medical-sounding name -- blended garlic and mild barbecue sauces. The mixture was appealing, with the sweetness of the barbecue balancing the sharpness of the garlic.
Completing our exploration of the more down-home parts of the menu, we tried the shredded-pot-roast sandwich, open face and covered with gravy, with fries on the side. Jason is a big fan of gravy fries in place of mashed potatoes, and MRI delivered with fries that were substantial but not too thick and just crisp enough to keep their texture beneath the gravy. But alas, the gravy itself was far too salty, dominating the dish and rendering the finer flavors of beef and potatoes nearly unknowable. It was a shame, too, because if texture was any indication, the pot roast was excellent, fall-apart tender without being mushy.
Mushy is an appellation all too often applied to gnocchi, and unfortunately, Middle Road's earned it with gummy dumplings more reminiscent of Japanese mochi than Italian pasta al dente. At least chunks of tomato and celery gave the vodka sauce enough character to flavor the too-dense dumplings.
The final question was just how good the Inn's seafood offerings would be. We chose the old-school Barsac preparation, a classic lemon, butter and white-wine sauce with a topping of bread crumbs, over scallops. The shellfish were sweet and firm, the sauce buttery yet lively, and the crumbs well crisped under the broiler.
While some dishes at the Middle Road Inn are, frankly, middle-of-the-road, others, including its seafood, are well worth a stop en route from Pittsburgh to Butler.