Location: 108 43rd St. Lawrenceville (412) 683-4004
Hours: Mon-Fri. 11:30am-3pm
Prices: Appetizers $4.50-7.50
Fare: Internationally influenced American
Atmosphere: Fine dinning, family style
We love Lawrenceville for so many things: the kind of antique shops where you can find affordable treasures, the kind of clothing shops where you can find wearable art, the kind of art galleries that don’t blow you back out the door with the sheer force of their attitude. But with one or two exceptions, Lawrenceville didn’t have much to offer us foodies when hunger struck. Somehow, for all its energetic grassroots creativity, the neighborhood had emerged as artist-rich but restaurant poor.
All that has changed now that we’ve been to River Moon Café. To call the location not even on newly bustling Butler Street, but a couple blocks toward the river -- unassuming would be an overstatement. Yet it is appropriate, too, as owner and head chef Josephine La Russa-Impola runs her restaurant with a warm, gregarious tone that makes it feel more like your corner luncheonette than a place with slate tile floors, jewel-colored walls, white tablecloths and a subtle Modern/Asian aesthetic.
A veteran of Pittsburgh’s dinning scene since the 1970’s, La Russa-Impola was one of the first to run a Chinese restaurant of the non-chop suey variety. She went away for 20 years and came back, like so many subject to the area’s specific gravity, to be near family. Her experience shows in the kitchen, where she is both innovative and traditionalist, unafraid to combine distinctive ingredients but single-mindedly focused on a satisfying result. What could embody contemporary American cuisine better that Mexican ingredients wrapped in a Chinese eggroll wrapper, cooked by an Italian immigrant in a former mill-hunk bar in Lawrenceville? This kind of fusion, expertly prepared, is the hallmark of River Moon Café.
We regarded the menu over a basket of bread that was warm, crusty yet light, and served with a plate of olive oil, salt and herbs. The menu is not long, but it ranges from classic steak and seafood to modern Italian, Asian and free-form fusion dishes, tempting the plate in a half-dozen directions.
We found the aforementioned Tex-Mex eggrolls delightfully chunky with a plethora of ingredients -- chipotle chicken, black beans, corn, peppers, tomato, avocado and cheddar-Jack cheese -- whose flavors blended together beautifully to become more than the sum of their parts. Raspberry-chipotle dipping sauce added a sweet-spicy counterpoint.
We also started with blue crab and corn fritters. Theses were unlike anything in our experience -- fluffy and delicately crisp at the outside, but almost creamy at the center. The mellow Maryland bay crab and occasional corn kernels served to flavor the fritters, whose pillowy character was the opposite of so many leaden batter lumps that have gone by this name.
Both of our entrees were served with salads including the reddest, juiciest tomatoes we have ever eaten in February.
For her entrée, Angelique ordered the restaurant’s signature pasta dish, River Moon penne. Josephine created it for her husband, who loves peppers, and indeed, the sweet flavor of these vegetables dominated the dish. Lightly sautéed strips of red, orange and yellow peppers kept company with tender chicken breast in a mild tequila cream sauce. Bits of jalapeno in the sauce were meant to keep the menu’s promise of spiciness, but Angelique would not have hesitated to recommend this dish to her spice-averse mother. Diners who would like a bit more heat should not hesitate to say so when ordering, and the kitchen will oblige.
Confronted with a plethora of meat and seafood, Jason sought refuge in bourbon-glazed pork. The tenderloin was pre-roasted, sliced, then quickly finished in a pan when ordered, resulting in meat that was flavorful and tender, but a bit chewy. Afterwards, La Russa-Impola asked how we liked it, and expressed frustration with the dish’s shortcomings -- a frank admission that’s unique in our dining experience.
Such a delicious meal portended delicious dessert, which River Moon delivered. Lemon-shortbread torte consisted of slices of flaky, buttery shortbread interspersed with layers of butter cream, which were redolent of natural lemon flavor without being tart. A cloud of light whipped cream finished this wonderfully fresh confection.
River Moon is not just a restaurant for those who like to eat; it is a place for those who like to talk, both over their food and about it. The atmosphere is refined yet casual, even jovial, and foodies like us will enjoy coffee talk with La Russa-Impola, who comes out of the kitchen to greet her diners and gauge their reactions to her work in person. It’s taken awhile for Lawrenceville’s rebirth to bring forth a restaurant worthy of the neighborhood’s complex mix; River Moon is worth the wait.