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Dining with Woodene Merriman


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First-time customer in a Pittsburgh restaurant: ``What's good?''

Server: ``Everything.''

Sometimes that's true, more often it isn't.

So, from one who has tried it all and has the pounds to prove it, I offer a critic's choice list of SOME of the good things you shouldn't pass up in SOME local restaurants. The sum of those SOMEs is 50 - 50 foods at 50 eateries. They are presented in alphabetical order by restaurant rather than by degree of deliciousness, for which I can only rely on my subjective (but experienced) taste buds.

While there are certainly many more mouth-watering foods and eye-candy views to be enjoyed in Western Pennsylvania, consider these offerings an entree to delightful dining experiences.

Dining critic Woodene Merriman's 50 good reasons to dine out.

Menus do change, of course, but we wish you luck.

1. Alexander's Pasta Express, 5104 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield - Try the fried ravioli as an appetizer or with meatballs or hot sausage. It's different.

2. Baum Vivant, 5102 Baum Blvd., Bloomfield - When Dover sole is on the menu - and sometimes it's difficult to get - order it. This is the restaurant's most popular entree.

3. Bravo! Italian Kitchen, 4976 McKnight Road, Ross - Have the wood-grilled chicken pizza, with mushrooms, red onions, oven-roasted tomatoes and feta. It can be dinner for one or an appetizer for several.

4. Bravo Franco, 613 Penn Ave., Downtown - The fruit salsa served with some fish entrees is the perfect accompaniment - a colorful, fresh combination of chopped fruit with chopped spring onions and cilantro. The flavor balance is just right.

5. Bruschetta, 1831 E. Carson St., South Side - If you eat at Bruschetta, of course you should try their signature bruschetta, the traditional Italian toast made with garlic oil.

6. Cafe Georgio's, 24 Donati Ave., Bethel Park - The flatbread is famous. It has the thinnest crust imaginable, topped with tomatoes, herb-infused olive oil and four cheeses. And that's just the beginning. Feta, sausage, smoked salmon - add as much as you can afford.

7. Calabria's, 3107 Library Road, Castle Shannon - The rich, creamy Alfredo sauce with bits of veggies served in the fettucine primavera is excellent. Tomorrow you diet.

8. Chez Gerard, Business Route 40 East, Hopwood (southeast of Uniontown), Fayette County - The cheese course that follows the salad that follows the main course has about 15 selections - Port-Salut, Montrachet goat cheese with tarragon, brie, Roquefort and more. Many are shipped in directly through New York. The salad of greens is small, in the French manner, but guests are encouraged to sample as many of the cheeses as they like. (And some guests, says Maryanne Meyer, one of the owners, do try all 15!)

9. Church Brew Works, 3525 Liberty Ave., Lawrenceville - You have to order it to believe it - a pierogi pizza, with mashed potatoes and cheddar cheese in the pierogis.

10. Clark's Restaurant, Airport Office Park, 333 Rouser Road, Moon - The after-dinner coffee service is delightful. With your coffee come three little pitchers holding cream, whipped cream and chocolate chips, so you can make your own confection.

11. Clementine's Family Restaurant, 2604 Leechburg Road, Lower Burrell - Pie of any kind, but especially coconut cream.

12. Clifford's, 514 Upper Harmony Road, Evans City - Homemade rolls, made from scratch, are baked throughout the evening.

13. Common Plea, 308 Ross St., Downtown - Cenci, a crispy, buttery deep-fried bread, comes with a big tray of fruit at the close of a meal. Nice.

14. D'Imperio's, 3412 William Penn Highway, Wilkins - The tiramisu is as good as it is authentic. The owner took the recipe over the phone from a relative in Italy.

15. F. Tambellini Restaurant, 139 Seventh St., Downtown - Be sure to have the zucchini here. (It's where Franco learned to make it.) A good entree choice: osso bucco.

16. Franco's, 1103 Freeport Road, Fox Chapel - Go for the fried zucchini, the veal chop or tiramasu. Better yet, have all three.

17. Gran Canal Caffe, 1014 N. Canal St., Sharpsburg - Of all the good things I've had in this little restaurant, I remember most a special appetizer, a cold vegetable terrine with carrot, cauliflower and broccoli mousse, served with a bright orange carrot sauce. So light, so pretty, so good.

18. Grand Concourse, Station Square, South Side - That brownish-tan smoked fish on the Sunday brunch buffet is smoked pepper mackerel, and it's wonderful. If you go to the Grand Concourse any other time, have Charley's Chowder, so good it's been on the menu since the beginning.

19. Hyeholde, 190 Hyeholde Drive, Moon - No dinner would be complete here without a cup of the sherry bisque, a favorite since 1938. Co-owner Barbara McKenna says her parents got the recipe in the pre-Hyeholde days, when her mother was the cook and her dad the maitre d' at a tea room in Connecticut.

20. Il Pizzaiolo, 703 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon - If you can't make up your mind, go with the vongole pizza. It has fresh mozzarella, clams, pancetta, garlic, olive oil, herbs and pecorino Romano cheese.

21. J Barn, 497 Monroe Road, Sarver, Butler County - The meringue on the mile-high pie isn't quite that high, but it's a spectacular 6 inches high.

22. Kaya, 2000 Smallman St., Strip District, - Banana chocolate bread pudding. Even non-bread-pudding fans love it.

23. Log Cabin Inn, 430 Perry Highway, Harmony - The upside down apple pecan pie, a recipe developed by the restaurant.

24. Lucca, 317 S. Craig St., Oakland - You only live once. Have the Hudson Valley foie gras, rich and silky smooth, atop a bed of thinly sliced Bosc pear, served with a little currant demiglace.

25. Monterey Bay Fish Grotto, 1411 Grandview Ave., Mount Washingtonand 4099 William Penn Highway, Monroeville, - Great crab cakes, for dinner or as an appetizer. All lump crab meat, they fall apart a touch of fork. You wonder what holds them together. Also have the special Ichiban appetizer, bite-size pieces of fresh fish, marinated in soy and ginger, grilled and serve with an ancho chili mayonnaise.

26. Morgan's Family Restaurant, 204 Rodi Road, Penn Hills Shopping Center - Wonderful liver and onions. (Yes, there is such a thing.) Big thin slices of liver, sauteed until just done, maybe a little pink in the center, served with balsamic vinegar, thyme and sliced red onions.

27. North Park Lounge Clubhouse, 5301 Ranalli Drive, Gibsonia - No matter how much you have to eat (and it will probably be a lot), have the teeny tiny sundae. Pretty cute. And it's not much more than a taste.

28. Palazzo, 8 Brilliant Ave., Aspinwall - The authentic bread salad makes a fine lunch, or an appetizer for big appetites. It's cubes of bread with plum tomatoes, cucumber, celery, peppers, vinaigrette dressing and lots of black pepper. You'll think you are in Italy.

29. Papa J's Centro, 212 Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown; Papa J's Ristorante, 200 E. Main St., Carnegie; Papa J's on Campus, 5000 Forbes Ave., Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland - The white pizza is a winner, always. A little garlic oil, spinach, tomatoes and feta cheese does it.

30. PepperCorns, 3821 Willow Ave., Castle Shannon - Most popular entree here iss roasted sesame crusted salmon with braised napa cabbage, rice noodles and a honey ginger glaze. See if you agree.

31. Pines Tavern & Restaurant, 5018 Bakerstown Road, Gibsonia- The raspberry pie in a cinnamon-butter crust, all made by the restaurant, should not be missed. It's so popular three bakers worked from Thanksgiving to Christmas to bake the pies.

32. Red River Barbeque & Grille, 9805 McKnight Road, Pine Creek Shopping Center, McCandless - For 50 cents, seniors can have delicious butter-pecan ice cream for 50 cents. Young and old should check out the slow-roasted (for 16 hours) beef brisket.

33. Rico's, 1 Rico Lane, Ross - Sure it's an Italian restaurant. But the non-Italian coleslaw is terrific - tangy, lots of celery seed, bits of carrot, more.

34. River View Cafe, Carnegie Science Center, North Side - Dine for a $1 (for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich) and get a superb view of the river, just as good as the view from the big-buck restaurants on the Mount.

35. Ruth's Chris Steak House, Six PPG Place, Downtown - You go here for steak, but they have other good things, too. Don't miss their pale, custardy creme brulee with its thin crunchy top. Served with fresh strawberry halves dusted with confectioners' sugar, it looks like a picture in a cooking magazine.

36. Saybrook Fish House, 5859 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside, and 8300 McKnight Road, Ross - At the close of dinner, your waiter brings a bowl of fresh fruit, nuts, and a couple of small confections. What a nice touch! What a healthy dessert!

37. Seventh Street Grille, 130 Seventh St., Downtown - The quesadillas just might be the best around. People notice even if they use a different tortilla. Have the smoked chicken (my favorite) or the portobello. Comes on a bed of chopped lettuce with guacamole, sour cream and salsa.

38. Siena, 430 Market St., Downtown - If chocolate hazelnut torte isn't on the menu, ask for it. It's a large slice of dark chocolate torte, firm dark chocolate icing topped with tiny crunchy toasted hazelnut chips atop a creamy chocolate-hazelnut filling . . . are you drooling yet? Definitely sweet but not overwhelming, and easily big enough for two.

39. Southwest Bistro, 129 Sixth St., Downtown - One of the city's best lunches is black bean soup, salad and warm rolls here. The salad has pecans, raisins, beautiful mixed greens and a raspberry vinaigrette that's just the right blend of punch and sweet. The black bean soup is topped with a shaving of onion and a dollop of sour cream.

40. Steelhead Grill, 112 Washington Place, Downtown - It used to be Pittsburgh-style charred tuna, now it's sesame-crusted tuna, seared rare and served with soba noodles. Whatever, you should try it.

41. Taste of China, 1038 Freeport Road, Fox Chapel - Order the whole crispy fish. Be patient; they will prepare it to order. It's worth the wait.

42. Temperanceville Tavern, 426 S. Main St., West End - Belly up to the long, long bar and try the peel-and-eat shrimp, cooked in Iron City beer with Old Bay seasoning.

43. The Tin Angel, 1200 Grandview Ave., Mount Washington - Don't miss the vegetable boat, a longtime tradition. It's the shape of a gondola, and comes to the table loaded with stuffed celery, carrot sticks, cauliflower, big black and green olives, marinated artichoke hearts, stuffed grape leaves, pickled baby eggplant, sliced provolone, clam dip and much more. It's a distinctive touch.

44. Top of the Triangle, USX Tower, Downtown - The bibb salad is superb - tender bibb lettuce, orange slices, gorgonzola, candied pecans, peppered bacon. It's big enough for two to share with dinner.

45. Tuscan Inn, 2684 Wildwood Road, Allison Park - If it's available, try the pasta with shrimp and a sun-dried tomato pesto, called Pasta Isabella. Generous portion, too!

46. Valhalla, 1150 Smallman St., Strip District - Marinated artichoke and spinach dip appetizer, served with freshly made tortilla chips is big enough - and good enough - for your whole table.

47. Vallozzi's, Route 30 East, Hempfield (east of Greensburg) - Ditto on the crab cakes. Also, watch for a new, prize-winning pasta dish which won a national award, beating out New York City and Washington, D.C., chefs. It has a yellow plum tomato sauce, sauteed spinach and grilled scallops wrapped with pancetta.

48. Viaggio, 2302 E. Carson St., South Side - Ask for the European antipasto del giorno, and the chef will select three appetizers for you and yours. It's a generous platter, and the table can share.

49. Wooden Angel, Leopard Lane, Bridgewater, Beaver County - Of course you go for the great American wines. But don't pass up mama Julia Sebastian's apple kuchen. The recipe came from a Bisquick box originally, but you'd never know it now.

50. Wooden Nickel, 4006 Berger Lane, Monroeville - The barbecued shrimp is different and delicious, worth finding your way back through the Denny's parking lot to this hideaway restaurant.

-- Review by Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic
-- February 15, 1998

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