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Dining with Woodene Merriman

Current Review
Past Reviews
Zarra's: Old-time recipes fill former nightclub with Italian flavors

Friday, July 14, 2000

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic

Zarra's used to be the Electric Banana. New wave, punk rock, go-go, disco -- this place has seen it all.

Judy Zarra sits in front of son Donny, left, husband Johnny and son Johnny Jr. in their restaurant. On the table are Mussels Di Johnny, Linguine Di Contosta, stuffed mushrooms and Ravioli Di Filomena. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette) 

"Soooo ..." His Honor is unimpressed. "Why don't they turn the lights on?"

It IS a little dark. The dining room has no windows.

It's also funky. Walls are covered with Straub, Michelob, Miller, Coors, Pabst and Rolling Rock signs. A black curtain across the back hides the old stage. An old-fashioned curio cabinet is the wine closet.

"Some nice wines in there," H.H. proclaims after he walks over to take a look. "But they shouldn't store them standing up."

Around the room are dining room sideboards from an earlier time. Tables are different sizes, chairs don't match, the no-iron tablecloths of different colors are seriously wrinkled. Cloth napkins come in still other colors.

And hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room is the mirrored disco ball.

Only a few tables in the dining room are filled, and no one (except us, of course) seems interested in the odd decor. It's the old-time Southern Italian food they came for -- not the spaghetti and meatballs of their grandmothers, but the polenta Calabrese and handmade ravioli of their grandmothers' grandmothers. This is the place to get it.

Since January, the Electric-Banana-turned-Zarra's has been serving that old-time food -- mostly. One of the most fabulous dishes, our waiter says, is Calamari di Julia, the same calamari cooked in red sauce and served over a bed of capellini that his mom, Judy Zarra, serves to her family on New Year's Eve and other very special occasions. Julia was his grandmother.

Most everything on the menu has a history. The ravioli di Filomena is made from the recipe that his great-grandmother Filomena brought from Meliza, her village in Catanzara, Calabria, says Donny Zarra, the waiter.

Pollo Cacciatore a la John Jr. is named for his brother, John, who likes to hunt. (It's a hearty dish, with lots of chicken, tomato sauce with Chianti and sliced mushrooms.) Linguine di Contosta is named for Uncle Joe, who used to serve this dish of mussels, shrimp and scallops at his Charriot restaurant in Highland Park.

Mussels di Johnny, an appetizer, is named for the owner, Johnny Zarra, who developed the garlic and butter sauce. The sauce is fine, but we're a little disappointed in the mussels. I miss the briny taste of the sea that usually accompanies good, fresh mussels.

In some ways, this menu is very different from the menus at other Pittsburgh Italian restaurants.

Where's the wedding soup? Sorry. The specialty here is ricotta dumpling soup. Johnny Zarra found the recipe in an old Italian cookbook at Carnegie Library. He checked the book out, noticing that nobody had borrowed it in 23 years. Judy made the soup and they liked it. We do, too. I'll take it over wedding soup any day.

Where's the fried zucchini? Not on this menu. But they do offer banana peppers stuffed with sausage and cubanella peppers Potenza style. That's peppers stuffed with a lot -- a whole lot -- of seasoned bread crumbs. Next time we'll skip that one.

Entrees come with a big salad of mostly greens, tomato wedges, sliced beets and -- one night -- very tired mushroom slices, and garlic or Italian bread. The garlic bread is thick and crusty; go for it.

Entrees range in price from $10 (pasta with the family red sauce) to $18 (Uncle Joe's famous Linguine di Contosta, with mussels, shrimp and scallops).

Appetizers and $5 and $6; soup, $3, desserts, $3 and up, to $9 for two.

Judy Zarra cooks it all, and she isn't even Italian. She's 100 percent German, raised on a farm in West Virginia. After she and Johnny were married, his grandmother and other women in the family taught her to cook the Italian way, and she learned her lessons well.

But the biggest surprise of all at Zarra's comes at dessert time. One choice is Tirami-Suzy, the Zarra version of you-know-what. It's not the chocolate cake with white icing that some restaurants call tiramisu. Johnny Zarra says he called his cousin Rena and got her recipe. Judy softened up the marscapone with a little sour cream. soaked the pound cake in Chambord, Amaretto and black coffee, sprinkled cocoa on top, and yes, it's very good.

But wait, there's more. Order cherries jubilee or bananas flambe for two, and Johnny Zarra prepares your dessert at tableside. Order the baked Alaska, and a beautiful white, soft mound, with a little golden brown tinge, arrives at your table. (Flaming, if you like.) Inside is a slice of Judy's pound cake, and a generous slab of vanilla ice cream. A sauce made of Chambord, brown sugar and butter is dribbled over it. It's the hit of the evening.

A second visit to Zarra's was a little different. This time we were seated in the new, remodeled bar and lounge, not yet finished. But several tables for two or four were set up, each with pretty new blue and unwrinkled tablecloths. Big windows look out onto Bigelow Boulevard.

"In the near future," as Johnny Zarra says, the main dining room will be remodeled, too. The bar and stage will be gone, and I suspect they'll take down the beer signs and lighten up the place. It will have fireplaces. Judy says she wants it to look like an "old Italian lady's dining room."

Maybe they'll also remodel the rest rooms, take out the old turquoise sink from the ladies' room, patch the tile floor and wash off the names scribbled on the back of the door by a previous generation.

I hope they'll leave the mirrored disco ball in the dining room, at least.

Will it be as much fun as it is now? I doubt it.

3887 Bigelow Blvd., North Oakland

Hours: Lunch, Monday-Friday, noon-2 p.m.; dinner, Monday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m. Closed Sunday.

The basics: Old-time, Southern Italian, home-style food, plus some surprises, like cherries jubilee and baked Alaska; seats 100 (and growing); wheelchair accessible; no smoking in dining room, only in lounge; full bar and small selection of better-than-usual California wines; cash only; reservations usually not needed.

The last word: 2 1/2 stars

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