Location: 3932 Route 8, Allison Park. 412-486-1800
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat 4-11 p.m.; Sun 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
Prices: Starters $6-9; entrees $9-21
Fare: Calabrian and Italian-American
Atmosphere: Simple trattoria
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: None permitted
It's an appetizing version of the American Dream: Young immigrant arrives, makes a living and then, retirement approaching, opens up a little restaurant serving favorite food from his homeland. You can taste it for yourself at Spadafora's, a small, southern Italian-style eatery on Route 8.
Though little more than an unassuming concrete-block box on the outside, inside Paul Spadafora has created a warm, welcoming trattoria from what appears to have been an old roadside bar. The room is still dominated by the bar, but now it's an elegant new wood one. The dining room, warmed by apricot-colored walls, recreates the simplicity that Spadafora identifies as typical of his boyhood in Calabria, at the "toe" of Italy's boot -- no pictures, no kitsch on the walls, the only decoration three metal panels with a cut-out olive-branch motif. The servers include his daughters, and the family-run friendliness is palpable.
Spadafora has been cooking since his boyhood, when his family ran a restaurant in Sharpsburg. He left the kitchen to pursue teaching as a career, but has returned with recipes both traditional and familiar. He mostly tends bar these days, but Spadafora's kitchen prepares food as he learned to, with a focus on southern Italy, as well as the more assimilated Italian dishes that Americans expect.
We began our meal with a crab cake which, truly, had the light and fluffy texture of a bakery cake. There were no lumps, just finely minced, extra-moist crab in a golden-brown, crispy breaded crust. Such a crab cake should not be compared to the loose patties of jumbo lump which most restaurant versions aspire to: Spadafora's was a completely different preparation, and we enjoyed it as such. We devoured every bite, mopping up the cream mustard sauce, whose rich yet bright flavor both complemented and contrasted with the crab.
Shrimp bisque consisted of briny, sweet, and creamy flavors whose near-perfect balance was thrown off only slightly by a tad too much salt. Succulent chunks of shrimp made each mouthful more satisfying.
Angelique continued the seafood theme with her entrée, lobster ravioli in pink sauce. Though ravioli can be heavy, the filling of these was silken and weightless within soft pasta pockets, their edges just al dente. The "pink sauce" was, of course, composed of tomato and cream. It was bright and sweet with plenty of tender tomato bits for texture. In this single, simple dish, Spadafora's captured the culinary bounty of a region blessed by plentiful seafood and tomatoes ripened under the Mediterranean sun.
One of the specifically regional dishes, chicken saltimbocca, was -- like the crabcake -- quite different from others we've had, and in this case quite a bit better. The standard preparation for this dish is a chicken cutlet wrapped in prosciutto and cheese, breaded and sautéed. Spadafora deconstructs this model, deep-frying a full breast, then layering on the prosciutto and asiago cheese, broiling it, and topping it all off with a sun-dried tomato pesto. The crispness and juiciness of the chicken was a welcome result, and the asiago had a richer flavor than the more typically used mozzarella or provolone. But it was the thick, intense sauce that really set this saltimbocca apart. The tomatoes provided body more than taste, which was herbal like a basil pesto, but heartier.
Eggplant parmesan comes from the "Italian dinners" portion of the menu -- in other words, old-school, red-sauce Italian. In this case, it was extremely red sauce -- chunky and with a heady aroma. It covered several big planks of breaded eggplant, crisp at the edges, and topped with a big puddle of melty cheese. While nothing special, it was an exemplar of its type.
We love Italian desserts, and Spadafora's reminded us why. Actually, chocolate lava cake may or may not be Italian, but it was certainly in the spirit of the rest of our meal: The dense, moist chocolate cake and oozing fudge filling were richly flavored and textured without being over the top.
There are so many Italian restaurants in western Pennsylvania that it takes a lot -- of quality ingredients, of thoughtful preparation, of warmth of atmosphere and service -- for any one to distinguish itself. Spadafora's is one we will remember and return to again and again.