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Dining with Woodene Merriman

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The Primadonna: Walls filled with praise

Friday, October 09, 1998

The Primadonna has the biggest "Wow! Look at me!" walls I've seen in a restaurant.

It starts on the outside. Large windows flanking the corner door are filled with framed honors, awards and reviews with praise for the restaurant and its ebullient owner, Joseph Costanzo Jr.

Open the door, step into the reception/lounge area and there, behind the tuxedoed maitre d', are more framed honors, awards and reviews. (Possibly they are some of the same reviews, awards and honors posted in the windows; it's so crowded in here it's hard to tell.)

Welcome to The Primadonna on a Friday night. Warned that the wait will be an hour and 20 minutes, His Honor and I elbow our way into the bar. Uh, oh. Lots of celebrities' pictures on the wall above the back bar, each one with a glowing inscription, of course.

No one ever accused Costanzo of modesty. And he has reason to be proud. This must be the busiest spot in "the Rocks" on a Friday night. It's not the least expensive restaurant around, either. But who's worrying? The two bartenders are filling frosty beer mugs, pouring wines and mixing drinks as fast as they can.

"One beer and one merlette," shouts the man leaning in past me, waving a twenty.

"That's mer-lowe," says the bartender, softly.

"It's mer-lowe," says the customer, looking toward his friend.

"OK, so it's mer-lowe," replies the friend. "I only heard about it yesterday."

Whatever, he must have liked it. Before we could finish our wine, the two were back for refills.

There are booths in the bar where some folks are having dinner. One couple has a small baby in a carrier, propped up on the table. One of the surprising things about Primadonna is the number of children who are here, waiting for dinner along with the grownups. Another surprise is how informally people are dressed. We're seeing lots of Reeboks and jeans, on women as well as men.

We finally get a table in the no-smoking dining room. (Actually, the wait was only an hour and 15 minutes; His Honor went out to walk around Greater McKees Rocks, and, after that glass of wine, I almost fell asleep on a bench in the reception room.)

Who's looking down on us from a framed cover of a local publication? Costanzo. And who's there in person apologizing to us for the long wait? Costanzo.

The man works hard, greeting everyone, seating many of them, rearranging tables and so on. This is our second recent dinner at Primadonna, and it was the same both nights, except the crowd was much smaller mid-week. That night there was no wait.

We can choose from 33 pastas, plus a big selection of veal, seafood, chicken and American (beef and pork) entrees.

I'm having Primadonna's best seller, spaghetti con sausage, and from the size of it, it looks like I could take the leftovers home and both of us could eat it for a week. Lots of crumbled, loose hot sausage from Ricci's, another big name in McKees Rocks, tops a big platter of spaghetti with green peppers and onions in the tomato sauce. "That's my favorite dish," says Costanzo as he goes by. H.H. is having portafoglio-delizia, described on the menu as a pocket of veal filled with ham, cheese, artichokes and fresh mushrooms, and served with a fine gravy-like red wine sauce. As the name indicates, it's delizia.

We're drinking Atlas Peak sangiovese. "That's a good wine," says Costanzo, taking a new group to a table. The man doesn't miss a trick.

For the most part, our dinners at Primadonna have been very good. I particularly liked the mostaccioli a la Kelly, with pesto sauce made from fresh basil and jumbo shrimp, garnished with red roasted peppers. The flounder stuffed with crab meat was a little overdone and dry, but then this is Pittsburgh and customers seem to like it that way.

The house salads are built on iceberg lettuce that actually has crisp green leaves, the garlic toast is made of Mancini's bread (a McKees Rocks product again), and the house dressing is light and a little sweet. The fresh fried zucchini, the house specialty, is battered and deep fried so it's tender and golden.

Only the stuffed clams, an appetizer, were a disaster. The bread stuffing with bits of clams in the three little clam shells was gummy, too garlicky, and shy on pieces of clam. For $6.50, that's also expensive.

Donna Costanzo, Joe's wife, and his mother, Helen Costanzo, and others in the kitchen make some of the desserts. Head chef James Zummo's rum cake is a winner. So is the cannoli, filled to order. The cannoli shells from Theresa's Italian Bakery next door are crisp, not hard, as they are so often in restaurants. Some day I want to try Donna's cheesecake and Helen's apple pie.

Working with Zummo in the kitchen are Betty Blatz and Gary Vaught. They make gnocchi, ravioli and manicotti. Other pastas are imported.

It isn't an inexpensive restaurant. Pasta dinners, which include a salad and garlic bread, range from $13.95 to $19.95. Other dinners are $15.95 to $19.95. Fried zucchini is $6.50, and desserts are $4.50 and $5. A cup of coffee, with no refill, is $1.50.

The service is generally good. But for prices like that, I wish I didn't have to ask for another knife and fork because I left mine on the salad plate that was carried off to the kitchen. I wish I didn't have to ask for fresh ground pepper on my salad. I wish the parmesan cheese was brought to the table in a chunk and ground onto my pasta, instead of having a shaker of pre-grated cheese drying out on the table.

Fortunately, Primadonna does most things right. Next February it will be 13 years old. It started as a little neighborhood restaurant but now is more of a regional restaurant, according to Costanzo. Along the way, he expanded, adding another dining room. It still seats only 83, but on a good weekend night, he says, he serves 275 to 280 people. I was there on a Friday night; I believe him.

The Primadonna
801 Broadway Ave., McKees Rocks

Hours:Monday through Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m.The basics: Southern Italian cuisine, featuring pastas, veal, seafood, and chicken; no parking area; full bar and better than average wine list, half Italian and half California; one step at entry, but an aluminum ramp is available for wheelchairs, and bathrooms are wheelchair accessible; no-smoking dining area; seats 83; children's menu; all major credit cards; no reservations.

The last word:3 1/2 stars

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