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Cafe Valentino courts Pittsburghers with well-prepared dishes

Friday, September 07, 2001

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic

Let's hope the third time really is the charm for the new restaurant at the corner of Jane and 27th streets on the South Side.

Jeanette Garcia shows off a freshly made Caesar salad at Cafe Valentino. She is flanked by, from left, chef John Murray, Terrance Nagy, Marie Adams, Nick Kapelonis and chef Amil Pryer. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

In less than a decade, it has been three different eateries. First it was Antonini's, a restaurant I can't forget because one night there was a hair on my salad plate. When I pointed it out to the waiter, he said: "Not mine. You can see I'm a blond." That Antonini's closed after the owner died, and another Antonini's moved in, developed a good following, then suddenly closed in July 1998 and eventually moved to Scott.

Now the restaurant on that corner is Cafe Valentino, an Italian restaurant -- again -- notable for several reasons. Gino Croce, the semi-retired Pittsburgh chef who has taught so many other chefs and has a following of his own, is head chef and cooks at Cafe Valentino on Friday and Saturday nights.

Every night, tableside cooking is a specialty. If you like, Caesar salads, bananas Foster and cherries jubilee can be made at your booth or table. It's a nice touch; tableside cooking is rarely available around Pittsburgh.

Cafe Valentino, with large photos of the old-time heartthrob on the wall, is the creation of John Adams, his daughter, Maria, who is the manager, and his wife, Rene. The Adams family once had the Great Gatsby restaurant on Route 28 in Harmarville.

The menu is Pittsburgh Italian, from the fried zucchini with marinara sauce and banana peppers stuffed with hot sausage to the spaghetti and meatballs "just like home."

Most of the appetizers will sound familiar to Pittsburghers. In addition to the fried zucchini and stuffed banana peppers, the menu offers crab meat-stuffed mushrooms, portobello mushrooms stuffed and grilled, fried calamari, bruschetta and that cliche from the '50s, shrimp cocktail. Something different and delicious is the fonduta gamberi, or a thin, creamy dip with tiny shrimp, artichokes, spinach and asiago cheese, with grilled flatbread for dipping. It's big enough to serve four, but so good His Honor and I ate it all.

The main courses are familiar, too -- think penne pasta and chicken in a creamy tomato vodka sauce, penne e pollo puttanesca (which translates to "as prostitutes would prepare pasta"), chicken tetrazzini, veal saltimbocca, parmigiano, marsala and scaloppine. and that old standby, spaghetti with meatballs in tomato sauce, with Parmesan cheese on top.

Braciole Calabrese is thinly sliced steak stuffed with prosciutto, spinach, mozzarella and whole hardcooked egg in the center of the roll, simmered in pomodoro sauce. It's a good variation on this popular entree; a pleasant combination of ingredients and most importantly, the steak was tender. Another Pittsburgh favorite, osso buco, is served Milanese style, braised (according to the menu) in a savory sauce with risotto, vegetables, gremolata garni.

But the kitchen had no risotto the night H.H. ordered it, so he OK'd a substitution of fettuccine Alfredo. The osso buco was tender and flavorful, and like the menu said, the sauce was really savory. The fettuccine Alfredo was creamy and rich, as a good Alfredo sauce should be.

Another night we ordered the seafood Alfredo, and were disappointed. The seafood -- crab meat, langostino shrimp, scallops -- was fine, but the sauce was bland and tasteless. It was definitely inferior to the fettuccine sauce we had earlier. What happened? H.H. kept grinding pepper onto it, complaining with each twist.

If you go to Cafe Valentino, watch for the specials. One of the best entrees we've had was Cornish hen with apricot Cognac glaze. It was a big, juicy hen, split and grilled, topped with orange slices as well as the sweet glaze. (This is the same glaze used on the restaurant's thick pork chop Valentino.) The vegetable, sauteed mixed squash, seasoned with herbs, was soft and overcooked.

Another popular entree that is not on the menu, but often available, is one of Croce's creations, lobster rubini, or lobster tail meat that has been battered, pan-fried and served with mandarin oranges, Grand Marnier and caramelized green grapes. Chef John Murray and others on the staff prepare it when Croce's not on hand.

The Caesar salad and flaming dessert prepared at tableside should not be missed. Our waiter was a pro; he learned tableside cooking when he worked at Le Mont on Mount Washington for several years. The combination of fresh chopped anchovies, pressed fresh garlic, coddled egg, oil, mustard, etc., tossed with crisp romaine, is one that can't be matched by bottled dressing. His cherries jubilee recipe has whipped cream in the sauce, making it especially rich.

I would have liked a little less dressing on my salad, and real whipped cream instead of the stuff puffed from a can in the cherries jubilee, but those are small complaints.

The new owners seem to be making a big effort to make a success of Cafe Valentino, with well-prepared, authentic Italian dishes, an affordable list of wines from the United States, Italy, France and Argentina, tableside cooking, secluded patio and a softly lit, quiet, pleasant dining room. On Monday, they start to serve lunch, with a menu that's truly Italian, and much like the dinner menu. Later, they plan to open on Sunday.

So far, it looks like the third time could be the charm.

3 stars

CAFE VALENTINO

2700 Jane St.

South Side

412-390-0800

HOURS: 5-10 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m., Friday and Saturday; starting Sept. 10, lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

BASICS: Traditional Italian cuisine; appetizers, $4.50 (bruschetta al pomodor) to $9.50 (jumbo shrimp cocktail); Caesar salad, $11 for two; cherries jubilee or bananas Foster, $10 for two; entrees, $10.50 (spaghetti with meatballs) -- $29.95 (lobster rubini); parking lot behind restaurant; full bar and list of about 30 wines, $25-$50; children under 10 eat free; seats 150 in two dining rooms and bar; wheelchair accessible to back dining room; no smoking in back dining room; reservations for six or more.

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