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Restaurant Review: Rebecca Tambellini sets a friendly table with Pittsburgh traditions

Friday, July 13, 2001

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic

Just when I think I have the Tambellinis, their restaurants, who goes with which one, and how they are related (or not related) figured out, a new one pops up.

Rebecca Tambellini with her husband, Michael Vitanovich Jr., and chef Clark Pieretti at her restaurant in Shaler. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

This time it's Rebecca Tambellini, daughter of John, once of the first Tambellini restaurant on Mount Washington and L. Tambellini on Route 51. Rebecca is the owner of the new restaurant that bears her name, just off Route 8 in Shaler.

It's Italian, naturally. Lots of dishes with red sauce, especially Bolognese, also called Pap Pap's Meat Sauce. How could you not like a sauce with a name like that? In this case, Pap Pap is Rebecca's father, John.

The lasagna is no ordinary Italian lasagna, either, but Nonna's Homemade Lasagna. Nonna is Carla Pieretti, mother of chef Clark Pieretti, Rebecca's cousin. Clark Pieretti used to be chef at Piccolo Mondo in Green Tree. And if you're wondering: Yes, Nonna Carla Pieretti was born a Tambellini. The recipe is hers, she makes the lasagna herself, and it's great. Soft and cheesy.

Opened in early February, R. Tambellini quickly earned a reputation as a friendly neighborhood restaurant -- a place where you can take the kids, have a glass of beer or wine with your chicken marsala, and spend less than you would at the ballpark. The food won't be spectacular, but it isn't spectacular at the ballpark, either.

Rebecca doesn't take chances. She's aware of what Pittsburghers have been known to like, and she offers it to them. Cajun-style fish is about as daring as the menu gets. Pasta with the Bolognese sauce or pink (tomato-cream) sauce, and those longtime Pittsburgh favorites, calf's liver and Virginia spots, are her big sellers.

"It's the biggest order of spots I've ever seen," His Honor says, tucking into a full plate of golden, lightly breaded spots. My scrod, thicker and firmer than the spots, is just as golden and just as good.

Salads that come with our dinner have white chunks of iceberg lettuce in with darker greens, some grape tomatoes and olives. I always leave the iceberg chunks prominently in the center of the salad plate when it goes back to the kitchen. I want the kitchen to know the hard chunks of iceberg aren't edible; might as well throw them out. So far, my campaign hasn't been too successful, I'm sorry to report.

 
 
REBECCA TAMBELLINI

602 Wilruth Drive
Shaler
412-486-8800

CRITIC'S CALL:

HOURS: 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; noon-11 p.m. Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday.

BASICS: Family, neighborhood, basically Italian casual restaurant; full bar and small, but reasonable, wine list; smoking permitted only in bar area; large parking area adjacent to restaurant; children's menu; happy hour, 5-7 p.m. weekdays; seats 140; new patio seats another 54; wheelchair accessible; major credit cards; reservations.

   
 

My serving of mixed vegetables has more variety than the usual, and H.H.'s potato is the baked-in-foil variety. He's not complaining, though. The wine list, mostly bottles from Italy and California, is quite reasonable in price. Wines by the glass are $4.50 and $5.50. (Yes, that includes white zinfandel and Lambrusco, big sellers in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, no matter how much wine snobs like you-know-who scoff).

Bottles range from $16 for Sutter Home white zinfandel to $32 for Rodney Strong merlot. A bottle of Beringer chardonnay is listed at $28. A very reasonable price, H.H. says, launching into an explanation of the various styles of Beringer chardonnays. The waitress and I are so impressed to hear all this. Neither one of us yawns, either.

Every week day, Rebecca has specials -- meat loaf on Monday, stuffed peppers on Tuesdays, chicken marsala stuffed with ham and cheese on Wednesday, liver on Thursday, scrod on Friday.

At one time it was said that you couldn't have a successful restaurant in Pittsburgh without calf's liver on the menu. True or not, it's still a big seller at this Tambellini's. For the Thursday special, the calf's liver comes with soup, salad, potato and vegetable of the day for $9.95 at dinner, $7.50 at lunch.

Even on the regular menu, prices are quite reasonable. Highest-priced dinners are a 10-ounce sirloin strip steak, filet medallions pizziola and broiled prime filet, $15.95 each.

For those who want to eat light, there's a bar menu that has half orders of pastas, salads, sandwiches and a long list of appetizers. One night we shared the steamed clams, which are served in a fragrant broth, a pot of melted butter in the center of the bowl. The wheat and plain dinner rolls were perfect for sopping up the broth.

Rebecca Tambellini's menu has fish sandwiches, hoagies, burritos, veal parmesan, several fish and chicken dinners. One night we sat next to a long table of 21 senior citizens. As I ate my stuffed pepper dinner ($9.95 -- not too much rice in with the ground meat), I was thinking how nice it is that the restaurant offers homey specials like this for people who don't want to be bothered cooking their old favorites any more.

But as I walked to the restroom, I got a closer look at what the seniors were eating. Deep-fried shrimp seemed to be the favorite dinner with this crowd.

One waitress was serving the long table, sweet-talking them all. "Here you go, my darlings...You're next, my lovelies...What would you like, sweetheart?... Just a moment, ladies....Did you like that, sweetie? ...Now, dears...."

Lots of children are in the restaurant tonight. If the kids don't want a complete dinner, the little ones (11 and under) can have a hot dog and fries for $1.50, and the bigger ones can have a half-pound hamburger and potato or cole slaw for $5.95.

This is the first restaurant venture for Rebecca, but Tambellini is certainly a well-known restaurant name in Pittsburgh. Her dad, John, and Louis Tambellini worked together on Mount Washington, and later opened Tambellini's on Route 51. Louis is deceased, and in recent years Andrew and John ran that restaurant. John recently retired.

Despite having the same name, the Tambellini restaurants in Pittsburgh are not connected, and the owners are mostly cousins, Rebecca explains. There is F. (for the late Frank) Tambellini on Seventh St., Downtown and Bruno Tambellini in Bridgeville. Alex Tambellini, also deceased, had a popular Wood Street restaurant Downtown for many years, and Bruno once had a restaurant in the North Hills.

Rebecca's sister, Chris, and her husband, Drew Mikrut, run DeLuca's popular breakfast restaurant in the Strip District, Downtown. Rebecca's husband, Michael Vitanovich Jr., is in business with her. "I'm the helper-outer," he says.


Woodene Merriman can be reached by e-mail at wmerriman@post-gazette.com, or by mail at the Post-Gazette, 34 Boulevard of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.

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