Location: 424 S. Main St., West End. 412-458-0417
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sat. noon-2 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads $3-11; entrees $10-20
Fare: Traditional Italian antipasti, pasta and pizza
Liquor: Full bar
This year, the two of us came to the rather shocking realization that we have lived a combined 30 years in Pittsburgh. That's a lot of dining out. You might think, at this point, that there isn't a neighborhood we haven't broken bread in, but you'd be wrong. Of some 10,000 dinners (again, by combined count) we've consumed in our fair city, not one of them has been at a restaurant in the West End.
Not that the thought never occurred to us, West End Circle -- and its infernal, eternal construction -- be damned. Over the years, we've set our sights on a couple of intriguing places that closed before we could get to them: a blues bar in an old church, a historic stone inn. Most recently, the Temperanceville Tavern poured its last beer. Was it more than a neighborhood hangout, serving up worthy pub grub? We'll never find out.
But we did make a point of showing up promptly at its replacement, the Village Tavern and Trattoria. The establishment stretches across two storefronts on recently beautified South Main Street, housing a bar in one and dining room in the other. There's a pretty patio, too, which was full on the breezy summer evening we were there. We dined inside the trattoria, in one of the dark-stained booths nestled up against exposed brick walls. Each booth was lit by its own stained-glass pendant lamp, and the walls were hung with oversized mirrors, salvaged mantels and framed ephemera (matchbooks, advertisements) from Pittsburgh's Steel City era.
Some menus' focus can be hard to pin down, but the Village took a tack we appreciated, offering variety within a few narrowly constrained categories: antipasti, pizza and pasta. We were particularly intrigued to see that the pasta section was organized around seven noodle shapes, from capelli to rigatoni, each paired with three or four distinct sauces. Not one is repeated, not even classic marinara (with meatballs, of course). Pairing pasta shapes with the right sauce is an ideal honored more in the breach than in execution, but the Village takes it pretty seriously, offering smooth sauces on long, thin pasta and chunkier ones on shorter, more textured noodles.
As we were debating our pasta selections, our pizza and antipasti arrived. The pie was small (six slices), reasonably priced and well above average. A pizza lives or dies by its crust, and this one was substantial enough to have both crispy and chewy layers. The cheese was thick and stringy, and the sauce just enough to put a hit of sweet-tangy tomato in every bite. The meatball topping (or, as the menu put it, MEATBALLS!; never second-guess a chef in all caps) was cut into manageable wedges. If we lived in the neighborhood, this pizza surely would become a staple.
We also liked the beans and greens, atypically made with spinach and mesclun rather than escarole. Optional spicy sausage kicked up the flavor without drowning out the mineral notes of the greens, which held up surprisingly well in the bean broth, with the beans themselves full of earthy savor and almost creamy texture. Insalata spinachi, a satisfying toss of spinach, goat cheese, roasted pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes and a credible warm bacon dressing, was most notable for bits of flash-fried prosciutto, Italy's ethereal answer to bacon bits. With their brittle texture and salty, smoky flavor, these drew family members otherwise uninterested in salad to prospect for every last one.
The pasta dishes could be had in whole or half orders, with half-portions being ample; even the children's plates -- not on the menu but proffered by our friendly, thoughtful server -- were generous. Our server -- and the kitchen -- also cheerfully replaced a dining companion's linguini al limone (chicken, lemon zest, Stolichnaya vodka-cream sauce and parmigiano) when at first it arrived without chicken (oops!) and insufficiently lemony. The second time was the charm, yielding a heady combination of creamy, citrusy and grilled flavors in a nest of al dente pasta creamily coated with sauce.
Jason always orders linguini with clam sauce when he can find it, and he liked the Village's, which promised both whole and chopped clams. The shellfish were chewy, not tough, and the sauce perhaps a bit butter-heavy, but overall well balanced among garlic, shallots and white wine. Angelique also enjoyed the intermingled sweet, nutty, tangy notes of her fusilli with roasted eggplant and roasted red peppers in a cream sauce with plentiful gorgonzola, studded with pine nuts.
Warm, welcoming and satisfying, the Village Tavern and Trattoria has, at last, put the West End on our dining map.