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Lidia's sets the table for opening day tomorrow

Thursday, March 15, 2001

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification (Published March 20, 2001): Michael D. Moyta of Design 3 Architecture in Monroeville designed Lidia's Pittsburgh, which opened March 16 in the Strip District. A story about the restaurant in the March 15 Food section credited the work to David Rockwell, a New Yorker who designed only the interior.

Tomorrow is Opening Day. No, not for the Pirates. Celebrity chef Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, star of the PBS cooking series "Lidia's Italian Table," opens her latest restaurant, Lidia's Pittsburgh, in the Strip District.

Lidia's Pittsburgh in the Strip District features, clockwise from left: gnocchi with duck guazzelto, meat ravioli with thyme-infused butter sauce and trennete with rock shrimp and broccoli. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Bastianich thought she could just sneak in here and open the door for a "soft opening." Forget it. Anybody who knows that sports is big in this town knows also that Italian food is our No.1 meal of choice. With our anticipation fueled every time we catch her television show or when we get into the kitchen ourselves to try one of the recipes in her cookbooks, Pittsburghers have been waiting for Lidia's opening day for almost a year.

The feeling is mutual.

"We want to be part of the city, and the Strip feels like a real neighborhood," Bastianich says. "Our chefs can literally walk a few feet to the markets, but we're still close to Downtown. And I love our setting at the river."

Here's a preview of the new restaurant.

Lidia's Pittsburgh is housed in a block-long, red brick building at 1300 Smallman and 15th Street. Architect David Rockwell, whose designs include Planet Hollywood restaurants, the New York restaurants Nobu and Vong, and the new Michael Jordan Steakhouse in Grand Central Station, designed Lidia's building to resemble existing warehouses along Smallman.

Inside, it's no warehouse. Rockwell has created a spectacular space. A slate-covered, wood-burning fireplace is the focal point of the dining room. The hearth is meant to symbolize Bastianich's solidarity and warmth. Six circular wine displays line another wall. The bar is long, wide and welcoming enough to be a people-watching haven for those who will come primarily to look and sip.

Two huge chandeliers resemble enormous grape clusters. Originally, the "grapes" were to be made from Nonino brand grappa bottles. Each light fixture would require 280 bottles, and that many empties were just not available. So lookalikes were commissioned. Each "grape" was hand-blown by New Hampshire glass artist Jordana Corson. They cast an amber glow onto walls which are the color of (according to the paint chip) semolina.

But enough about bricks and mortar. On to the menu.

Travelers to Manhattan may have visited two of Bastianich's restaurants there, the upscale and formal Felidia, now 20 years old, and the casual Becco on 46th Street in the theater district. Lidia's Pittsburgh will tap the best features of both.

Lidia's will offer two Italian-only wine lists. On one, all selections are $20. The other, The Reserve List, focuses on wines from each of Italy's 20 grape-producing regions, the lesser known and harder to find Italian wines.

The cuisine features foods influenced by Bastianich's childhood in Istria, where Italy meets the former Yugoslavia. About 40 percent of the menu will consist of her so-called "border cuisine," a mix of northern Italian, Slavic and German cooking. The rest of the menu will reflect Italian regional cooking.

Lidia will cook at Home Show


Look for these signature dishes.

Frico -- This is the appetizer to have with a glass of wine. The frico is an envelope of golden-brown, crisp Montasio cheese with a savory filling, a specialty of the Friuli region of Italy.

Sarme-Capuccii Ripieni -- Stuffed cabbage never had it so good. This appetizer combines tender leaves of cabbage filled with ground veal, beef, pork and herbs, braised with sauerkraut, tomatoes and garlic.

Osso buco Milanese -- Lidia's version is brightened with fresh orange and carrot juices and accompanied by saffron-scented barley risotto. During this tour of the restaurant, we spied cases of cryovaced meats headed for the cooler. Hefting a portion of marrow-bone-centered veal shank destined for osso buco, we guessed that they were 3 inches thick and weighed a pound each. Now that's a real Pittsburgh portion.

Zuppa di Pesce -- A crowd of mussels, calamari, shrimp, scallops and fish fillets in an earthy and richly flavored broth come with toasts, the better to clean the bowl of every drop.

Branzino -- In the best of all possible worlds, you see a magnificent whole fish but don't have to deal with carving it. Happens here, because your server presents a whole roasted Mediterranean sea bass hot out of the oven, then rushes back to the kitchen and bones it before plating it for you.

The Pasta Tasting, a daily sampling of seasonal fresh and filled pastas, is also a Lidia trademark.

"We want to serve the best homemade pasta we can. So we limit the pasta selection to three a day." says Bastianich. "That way we can cook them continuously all night and they are always fresh. We try to have stuffed, fresh and dry and balance sauces that are vegetarian, fish, cheese or whatever makes for harmony."

The pasta is run directly from the kitchen to the table and refills are complimentary.

Christopher Juliano, executive chef for Lidia's Pittsburgh, displays a sampling of the many pasta dishes in the new restaurant's kitchen. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

The Pittsburgh staff

Bastianich designed and masterminded the food on the menu, and she plans to visit Pittsburgh for at least one week every month to make certain everything is running as smoothly as she had planned. When she returns to New York, her Pittsburgh staff takes the helm. Who's in charge?

Executive chef Chris Juliano, 37, now lives in Ross. He was sous chef at Babbo in New York and trained at Lidia's Kansas City before coming to the Burgh.

"On a professional level, the kitchen is a dream -- well organized and designed," says Juliano. "This is not a chain restaurant, and we are not slaves to recipes. We take Lidia's style and philosophy and interpret them using the products that are fresh in the market."

Sous chef Stuart Fishbein was transplanted from New York to Pittsburgh three years ago. He worked at Palio and Cafe Giovanni before coming to Lidia's. "We're doing everything from scratch," he says. "We make our own pasta, soup, stock, sauces, bread and desserts. I think Pittsburghers will take to Lidia's."

General manager Mark Hayes was born in Squirrel Hill and attended Slippery Rock University before starting his professional life in food service by traveling and working in various international venues. He's been back in Pittsburgh for five years.

The nitty gritty

There is no valet parking at the restaurant. Drop off the sandal-clad gals at the door on 15th Street and park in one of the huge dirt lots across the street on the river side of Smallman.

Upscale casual is the dress code.

The restaurant seats 175 in the main dining room. An additional 80 seats on the mezzanine are available for private parties, tastings and extra seating on weekends. Reservations will be taken only for parties of eight or more. So come early and get in line.

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 4 to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Lunch service will begin next month from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Entree prices are $11 to $22. The Pasta Tasting is $14.

For more information, call the reservations desk at 412-552-0150.

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