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Legends of the North Shore is a winner

Friday, January 17, 2003

By Sarah Billingsley, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The North Shore was so recently designated a neighborhood that the name "Legends of the North Shore" gives one pause. How could this place inspire legend, a concept that by definition demands the passage of time?

Dan Bartow has a wide-ranging menu with something to please everyone at Legends of the North Shore. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Legends of the North Shore owner and chef Dan Bartow was formerly a chef/partner in Legends of the Green in Upper St. Clair, which is now under new management. Bartow hopes the name of his new venture, an echo of his first, will lead his faithful South Hills clientele back to him on the other side of the Point. He's kept many of their old favorites -- the grilled crab melt, the veal and shrimp champagne -- on the menu at Legends of the North Shore.

The restaurant's handle is also Bartow's celebration of the real legends of the neighborhood: the Steelers, the Pirates, deceased county commissioner Tom Foerster, Gus "the ice ball guy" Kalaris and the doctors and nurses of Allegheny General Hospital -- all people who support, improve and inspire this city. In time, Bartow hopes to become part of North Side history, after passing the years that make legend a possibility on his bright and tidy corner near the Mexican War Streets.

Daily management of the restaurant is a family affair. Bartow's wife, Zoe, is front-of-house manager; his 10-year-old daughter, Danyelle, assists her grandmother, Connie Sprighetti, who makes all the desserts, with the baking. Son Kristopher, 12, buses tables when he's not in school.

Legends of the North Shore opened June 1 after extensive renovations to the space, which was formerly the Allegheny Diner and Pizza Shop. With 50 percent of his funding from the Urban Redevelopment Authority's street face program, Bartow restored the original look of his building, circa 1952 (think Hopper's "Nighthawks" meets New York bistro).

Inside, only the open kitchen and counter seating -- for people who want to eat in a hurry, knees against the wide picture windows, looking out beyond North Avenue onto Downtown Pittsburgh -- resemble a diner. It's a clean, sunny space, with a fresh-faced Ikea look from spindly blond wood furniture. The tables are set with colorful Fiestaware and the walls are hung with black-and-white photographs of Forbes Field.

Bartow is a chef who cooks what he likes to eat: roasted meats, freshly baked breads and "good gravy," a chunky, intense marinara. His wide-ranging menu has something to please everyone; unusual sandwiches at lunch, fresh pizzas, calzones and salads anytime, and ambitiously conceived seafood and pasta entrees.

Every meal begins with a basket of irresistible house-baked focaccia, spiked with rosemary, olive oil and sea salt, then thinly sliced. The warm strips, dipped into herbed oil and sprinkled with a bit of powdery Parmigiano-Reggiano, are habit-forming.

Bartow's bruschetta ($4.95) is not the same old stale bread and wet tomatoes. It's an unusually thin, steamingly fresh round of crisp Neapolitan-style dough, served with a side of Bartow's "gravy."

Appetizers rank from humble to elegant. In addition to fried mozzarella sticks and red hot wings, there were plump mussels ($5.95) to smile through their bath of garlicky tomato basil sauce and a hot antipasto ($7.50) of grilled baby artichokes, sweet roasted peppers, sauteed spinach and crumbled mild gorgonzola that made me forget it's not springtime.

With entrees comes a choice of a homey soup of the day -- potato Cheddar, wedding -- or a nice green salad of spring mix with tiny black olives. Entree salads are utterly fresh. The North Shore salad ($7.25) of red peppers, hearts of palm, artichokes and a milky chunk of fresh mozzarella is full of brisk and pure flavors.

Pastas are simple and hearty. Blackened shrimp penne ($14.95) is frisky with red pepper and studded with big, juicy shrimp. Spaghetti fagioli ($13.50) ties butterscotch pudding for the ultimate comfort food, combining greens and beans with traditional spaghetti marinara. A more solid noodle than thin spaghetti is needed to stand up to the fibrous greens, however, and the pasta was overcooked.

Crab cakes ($16.95) were disappointing. Zesty tomato remoulade and a sprinkle of white Cheddar -- a creamy foil to delicate crab -- couldn't save a singed, all-backfin cake that tasted of burnt butter. Though Parmesan mashed potatoes were pleasantly mild and nutty with garlic, they were cool and starchy.

Seared veal and shrimp ($15.95), on the other hand, was buttery and tender. Lamb rack chops ($17.95), served with a rich cabernet sauce and mint jelly, were superb. Bartow roasts, slices, then sears the chops, sealing in the juices, and I savored the match of sweet herbs to gamey meat -- the classic mint/lamb pairing now so rarely seen in new restaurants.

Connie Sprighetti's all-American desserts -- layer cakes, apple pie -- are served with a big scoop of French vanilla ice cream (a steaming mug of La Prima coffee or cappuccino is a nice accompaniment, too).

Coconut cream pie ($4.50) has a crumbly coconut walnut crust and is topped with a froth of flavored whipped cream, though the filling was more vanilla pudding than tropical custard. Caramel butter pecan cake ($4.50) could have been a prize-winner at the fair: layers of butter pecan cake sandwiched with toasted pecans and excellent whipped cream frosting. The whole is drizzled with caramel sauce; it tastes like a giant praline.

Legends of the North Shore's prices seem a tad high for a family restaurant and for the North Side, but the parade of special touches -- the bottomless basket of focaccia, quality olives and cheeses, impeccable greens and the chilly little chunk of fudge that ends every meal (made from Grandma Mary Sprighetti's recipe) -- justify them.

In a neighborhood more commonly associated with sidewalk barbecue and dark bars, Legends of the North Shore is a place you can take children. The restaurant lacks pretension -- it's not fine dining -- and fills a void for fresh, honest food in a clean, nonsmoking space.

Legends of the North Shore could have been just another Italian joint; thankfully Dan Bartow chose to be a little more.

Legends of the North Shore
500 E. North Avenue, North Side

The basics:American and contemporary Italian cuisine; non-smoking; all major credit cards. Reservations accepted on weekends; seats 32 at tables, seven at counter. BYOB; corkage $2 per glass. Catering and takeout available. Monday through Wednesday, 10 percent off; ladies night Thursday; $15 prix fixe includes appetizer, entree, dessert and beverage.

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The last word:

Sarah Billingsley can be reached at sbillingsley@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1661.

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