There are tons of reasons you might go to Girasole’s Italian restaurant.
You can go for the savory, southern-Italian sauces or the freshly made pastas. You can go for the creative and beautifully presented meat and fish dishes, or the unpretentious but worldly wine offerings. And some go just for that distinctively Pittsburgh neighborhood buzz that fills the place night after night.
While I love all of those things, I head to Girasole — the Italian word for sunflower — whenever I’m in town for “Pie.” I’m not talking about a pizza pie or a fruit-filled dessert; I mean “pie” as in paisano, the familiar Italian word for “friend.”
More specifically, I’m referring to Jimmy “Pie” Gerasole, the seventy-something patriarch of the family-owned and -operated restaurant that has graced 733 Copeland St., in Shadyside, for the past 16 years.
Pie doesn’t chef. Those duties are in the remarkably capable hands of Jennifer Hagar Gerasole, wife of his son, Gino. Pie doesn’t serve. Those challenging duties are ably performed by his son, Vito, and a vibrant and loyal professional wait staff. Nor is Pie even remotely responsible for the inviting ambiance of this long-established eatery. That’s the domain of his ebullient wife of 41 years, Patti Caracciolo Gerasole.
Pie serves as Girasole’s ever-present maître d’, although that title doesn’t quite cover the duties he performs. For example, when you walk in, you’re not greeted with the obligatory “May I help you,” but rather Pie’s distinctive: “Hey comp,” — which is short for compare, a friend or neighbor in southern Italian dialects — “how yinz doin’?”
More regular customers may get a “Where yinz been?,” a sincere expression of Pie’s genuine concern for their well-being. He makes you feel like he’s been up countless sleepless nights worrying about you since your last visit. And honestly, he just may have been. He is a caring man; you want to hug him as if he were that beloved uncle you haven’t seen in years.
And if you do ever get that hug, consider yourself family.
I think what draws me and others to Pie Gerasole are his boyish good looks and his kind, expressive face. He seemingly morphs into someone vaguely familiar.
Perhaps he reminds you of your grandfather — with that playful glimmer in his eye — whose wisdom you so always admired. Perhaps you think about your father who always had a firm but kind demeanor. Or maybe it is that buddy from school who was forever getting himself and you into trouble. Or maybe he’s like that “goombah” whom you play cards with every Tuesday night.
You’re not related to Pie, but it still feels like family. You don’t feel like you’re entering a restaurant — you feel like you’re coming home for supper.
Pie comes from a different era of Pittsburgh. His Pittsburgh had Harold Bettor’s jazz club on Walnut, Walt Harper’s Attic in Market Square, the Crawford Grill in the Hill District and Bob Prince on the radio. He’s of an era of “dolled-up” women, as Pie says, and of men with shiny hair, shiny suits and spit-shined shoes.
And while it appears he’d be more comfortable in another era, time has not passed him by. Indeed, Pie is timeless, a character that transcends every era; a man dedicated to his work and who is passionate about his family. For Pie, Girasole is both.
So, sure, you may first go to the restaurant for the unique cavatelli in a brown-butter sauce with lamb meatballs, or the sumptuous spinach-and-ricotta ravioli adorned with a tomato cream sauce, but it will be Pie who will always bring you back.
Chuck Sypula is a Mon Valley native and entrepreneur who has spent the past 40 years working in Washington, D.C.