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Splendid 'Dish': South Side dive turns into out-of-the-way charmer

Friday, November 30, 2001

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic

The buzz about Dish led me to expect an old, small South Side bar where the owner cooks up inexpensive, wonderful dishes in the back room.

Not quite.

Dish owner Michele Savoia and chef Nathan Sturm focus on the specialties Savoia knew from his native Sicily. (Franka Bruns/Post-Gazette)

Dish is a savvy, splendid, sophisticated little restaurant. Owners Cindy and Michele Savoia worked in other people's restaurants in New York City, then came to her hometown -- Pittsburgh -- to open their own. They found "a little dive bar," as Cindy describes it, and began concentrating on the dishes Michele knew from his native Sicily.

Along the way they hired an Irish-German chef, Nathan Sturm, a graduate of Pennsylvania Culinary here, who is enthusiastic about honing his skills in Sicilian cooking under Michele's tutelage. And they signed on Cindy's mom, Joan Nofsinger, to make some of the desserts. The result is a hit. Don't even think about going to Dish without a reservation.

The first problem is finding Dish, especially on these dark winter nights. The best way is to find a parking spot as close as you can to the address, 128 S. 17th St., start walking in that direction and ask the first person you pass. South Side people are friendly; they'll tell you.

The first time His Honor and I went to Dish we drove by twice and didn't see it. Now there is a small sign, but it's easy to miss.

Enter through the small bar, with its dark, polished wood, and the hostess -- most likely Cindy Savoia -- will check your reservation and lead you into the equally small, dimly lit dining room. Just one candle on each table, and a little more from the wall lights makes it difficult to read the menu in some parts of the room. On our first visit, H.H. forgot his pocket flashlight, knocked over the candle and spilled candle wax over the table while trying to read the wine list. I was afraid we were going to be asked to leave before we ate.

Michele grew up on the Mediterranean, and the menu focuses on the food of that area, where olive oil and garlic, everything light and fresh, reign supreme. The menu is brief, but every day there is a zuppa del giorno, plus appetizer and entree specials.

Grilled sardines are such a popular appetizer the Savoias are considering putting them on the daily menu. Three sardines, maybe four or five inches in length, are served with thinly sliced sweet and sour onions on a bed of arugula. They can be eaten the Sicilian way, with your hands, like nibbling on an ear of corn. Most people leave the head and tail, but some customers like the oily little fish so much they leave nothing on the plate, our waiter said. Yes, they're "fishy," which is OK with me. And yes, you can skip the backbone, too, which I did.

Another favorite appetizer is bresaola. The air-dried, salted and aged beef is sliced paper-thin and served with olive oil and chilled asparagus. On the bresaola appetizer, H.H. and I agreed: It's wonderful. It's also an occasional special that may be headed for the regular menu.

Every day Dish has mixed olives in a homemade marinade, bruschetta with tomatoes or sauteed mushrooms, carpaccio, calamari, mussels and more on the appetizer, or antipasti, menu.

The menu is a la carte. If you want a salad, or a vegetable side dish, you must order it separately. The house salad is a good one -- a blend of crisp romaine and radicchio, tomatoes, black olives and green onions with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Side dishes of sauteed spinach, asparagus and risotto are regularly available, but sometimes there are special vegetables in addition. Earthy-tasting roasted fresh beets, for example, are served with thinly sliced cooked onions on top.

We've had great luck trying the dinner specials, too -- seasoned grilled striped bass one night, and orecchiette, or "little ears" pasta, with Spanish sausage and vegetables another night. Servers know the menu and the specials well, and patiently go over the descriptions repeatedly when necessary. This is not one of those restaurants where the server says, when you ask about the fish special, "I don't know. I never eat fish."

Pasta regulars are fettuccine et funghi, with a good mix of portobello, shiitake, cremini and oyster mushrooms sauteed in extra virgin olive oil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, arugula and fresh basil for the sauce, and linguine al frutti di mare, which has a different fresh seafood each day. Fish choices are grilled Atlantic salmon with white wine, shallots, fresh herbs and asparagus, and grilled tuna filet in a balsamic vinegar reduction, served with sauteed spinach. Every day, too, there is a fish of the day, like the striped bass.

H.H. and I usually avoid filet; often it doesn't have as much flavor as good steak. Here, however, the filet is served with a rich rosemary and red wine sauce, mushroom risotto that's creamy but not overcooked, and asparagus.

Appropriately, the wine list is basically Italian. Typical is a 1998 Montepulciano d'Abruzzi, smooth for such a young wine, for $26.

Desserts are different each day. But you can usually count on a tiramisu, panna cotta, and maybe chocolate bread pudding, chocolate torta, or pear tart. Panna cotta, of course, is the light, silky Italian egg custard. One night it was more like a Spanish creme brulee, very soft, almost runny, flavored with orange zest, and a little crisp on top.

Dish's biggest problem is space. Tables are too small, too crowded. Some of the tables for two are jammed up against the wall, or in one case, right against an unused outside door. One night when we were seated at that table a young man tried, unsuccessfully, to enter by that door.

It's romantic to think that you've found a fine little out-of-the-way restaurant, but it would be better if you had a little more space to eat comfortably, and a little more light at some tables.

128 S. 17TH ST.

HOURS: 4 p.m.-midnight, Monday-Saturday; bar open until 2 a.m.

BASICS: Cuisine of southern Italy and Sicily; full bar; appropriate wine list, with many Italian selections; small menu, but with added daily specials, usually including a fish, pasta and soup of the day; on-street parking; sample prices: appetizers, ranging from olives, $2.50, to grilled lamb with sundried tomato couscous, $8; house salad, $4; pastas, fettuccine with mushrooms, $13, to linguine with seafood, $17.50; entrees, from strip steak with roasted potatoes and spinach, $15, to seared filet mignon in rosemary red wine sauce with mushroom risotto and asparagus, $21; seats 45; smoking permitted; not noisy; wheelchair accessible; cash only; reservations.

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