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Dining South: Tillie's is still living up to its reputation almost 40 years later

Wednesday, February 14, 2001

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic

Long before the Buca de Beppo restaurant chain got the idea, Tillie's in McKeesport was serving southern Italian immigrant cooking. You know -- spaghetti and lasagna with thick red sauce, the home-style Italian cooking so popular in the United States a half-century ago.

Tillie's was just five stools and a few booths when it opened almost 40 years ago.

But Tillie Teti, who put money down on an old truck stop named Portner's Restaurant to open the restaurant, already was known for her good Italian cooking. She and her former husband, Guerino Teti, had been running Teti's Cafe not far away on Walnut Street.

Now Tillie was on her own, but family and friends stepped in to help, as Tillie's son, Angelo Teti, remembers. (With paintbrush in hand, he was one of those who helped.)

Tillie's Restaurant has grown and grown in the years since.

Today Angelo and his wife, Phyllis, run the restaurant, featuring the same made-fresh-daily sauces, homemade pastas, gnocchi and ravioli that Tillie served.

Tillie, Matilda T. Smith now, and 84 years old, comes in every Saturday night and sits at the first table in the lounge, where she can check things out.

Her husband, Lee Smith, who continues to work a couple of days a week at the restaurant, goes to the kitchen to personally fix a dish of spaghetti for the woman he still calls "my bride."

A painting of Tillie, serene and smiling slightly, is on the wall just above us in the center of three dining areas. As usual, the restaurant is busy. We had to wait a few minutes to get in. Families with young children and elderly couples are all around us.

People heading for the bar walk past our table. Tillie's is unusual; you walk through the no-smoking section to get to the bar and smoking area. Often, it's vice versa, and it's irritating if you can't stand secondhand smoke.

I've been to Tillie's several times and know my favorite: gnocchi. The popular potato dumplings are cut into strips here, cooked until tender but not flabby, and served with lots of the ubiquitous red sauce. I've never had better gnocchi. With it, I'm having a "fantastic meatball," or so the menu says. It's a single meatball about 11/2 inches in diameter. Whatever, I like it.

His Honor is having lasagna, made with three cheeses, ground beef and lots of red sauce. "It's smothered," he complains. "All I can taste is red sauce."

Tillie made her reputation with homemade pasta. It's still used in the lasagna, fettucine, and ravioli as well as spaghetti. Pasta imported from Italy is used in some of the other dishes, such as rigatoni.

Dinner started with wedding soup. (What else in an Italian restaurant in suburban Pittsburgh?) It was cloudy and watery, but had good meatballs.

From experience, I knew about Tillie's salads, and we ordered one to share. It's a huge serving of iceberg lettuce, three tomato wedges and black olives, with light Italian dressing on the side. On the menu it's a small tossed salad, but it could easily serve three.

I remember the night I was at Tillie's with three other people, one of them my niece, a student at West Virginia University. We ordered a large salad for the table. It came in a big stainless steel bowl.

We ate what we could, and my niece took the rest back to college. It was dinner for several girls in the dorm the next night.

Best selling dinners at Tillie's today are the homemade spaghetti, cheese ravioli, gnocchi, chicken parmigiana and lasagna. But the menu has expanded to include all-American favorites like T-bone and Delmonico steaks, pork chops, grilled ham, fried chicken, fried seafood, barbecued chicken wings and a hot roast beef sandwich.

Mary DiMartino was one of Tillie's first employees, and she's still one of the cooks. "She's our secret sauce person," Angelo Teti says.

DiMartino prepares the packages of spice mix for the sauce. She also prepares the special entrees like tripe in a special broth and rabbit cacciatore. They're special, Teti says, but not very popular.

A familiar of four could eat a family-style dinner of homemade specialties for $21.95.

That would include ravioli, homemade spaghetti, gnocchi, lasagna, meatballs and a loaf of bread. A large tossed salad would be $4.95 more.

Tillie's sells a lot of thick-crust pizza, which Tillie herself first started making in 1947. It's $6.75 for a plain eight-cut, traditional toppings available at added cost. Other sample prices: cup of soup, $1.50; fried seafood platter, $9.25; one manicotti with meatball or meat sauce, $3.95 (each additional manicotti, $1.95); fettuccine Alfredo, $7.95; lasagna, $6.95.

It's not fine dining and doesn't pretend to be. Red sauce, the staple of early Italian immigrant families, covers many of the entrees. It's a nostalgic taste of the past, at inexpensive prices. Judging from the people waiting to get in when I've been there, it's just what a lot of people want.

But Tillie's is very modern, too. The restaurant even has its own web site, www.tillies.com. There you can read the history of Tillie's that Angelo is writing. He has only the first of three parts finished, but it's a charming story.

Tillie's, 308 36th St., McKeesport (412-672-7557) is open seven days a week, serving lunch Sunday through Friday and dinner every day.

Woodene Merriman can be reached by e-mail at wmerriman@post-gazette.com , or by regular mail at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh 15222.



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