Following the local food scene can skew your perspective. Read enough about a new restaurant, hear enough buzz, see enough tantalizing photographs, and suddenly, what was a normal quality eatery starts to carry the immense weight of importance. The hype raises expectations as it draws in more customers, but it can also make the first experience with a restaurant oddly dissonant, like there is a difference between trying out this hotly buzzed restaurant and the actual experience of eating and socializing in said restaurant’s environment.
I find myself most wary of this disconnect when it comes to Italian restaurants. It doesn’t help that I have in-built dismissal of them. Maybe it’s leftover hard feelings from places like Olive Garden or even the “beloved” Bloomfield fixture that is Del’s on Liberty Avenue, but I always feel like I’m getting ripped off. Noodles, sauce, maybe meat, maybe some veggies. Add a crappy glass of wine and some bread. Great, now pay $30. Congratulations. You spent three times the amount of money you would have if you had made the same dish – and you could have, believe me – at home. No matter how much a place is hyped to me, if it’s an Italian restaurant, I’m unlikely to follow-up on the praise. And if I do, it’s hardly ever an experience that turns me around on Italian dining. It sounds harsh – and please, devoted consumers of Italian food, do not misunderstand me, as I do not mean to disparage the cuisine itself – but I’d rather be in the kitchen with pasta than in a restaurant or cafe. At least I know exactly where my money is going and the quality it has been spent on.
Still, my prejudice against Italian restaurants and my normal underlying hesitancy of hype did not dissuade me from visiting Osteria 2350, a fairly new restaurant in the style of a casual tavern, less upscale than the norm of the cuisine, and thereby somehow less intimidating and more promising. A quick scan of the menu online affirmed how casual the dining experience was sure to be – not a dish over $12, with most of the small plates $3 or $4 – not to mention inexpensive. This combined with the highly favorable buzz practically made up our minds for us.
Expecting a Friday night crowd, we were pleasantly surprised at how low-key the surroundings were. Behind the Right By Nature market, across the street from the Cork Factory apartments, Osteria is remarkably inconspicuous, offering an attractive environmental mix of tavern and cafeteria. The lighting is soft and golden, the tables are mix of small two-seaters and large wooden fixtures with long benches to match. There’s a counter/bar area and a little television in the corner for sporting events. We were seated in front of the dessert display case and the large chalkboard advertising what was available. A little kid played amongst our coats hanging on a coat rack. It was all very calm, very pleasant, even sedate.
Minimalist menus are all the dining rage these days, but Osteria does the idea a lot of justice. Their placemat menus are straightforward and clean, and the options are enough to tantalize a palate upon several visits, but not so overwhelming as to indicate a questionable quality. It also makes choosing a menu selection all the easier, as it seems to be a natural inclination to focus in on an item early. Left to peruse the menu while enjoying our beverages (a bottle of wine split among Kait, Jackie, and I; a bottle of Duvel for Yigit), we made up our minds within a minute or two.
Jackie and I ordered salads as starters, but Kait and Yigit stuck to the complimentary bread basket with an accompanying dip of basil-olive oil. The bread was fresh, springy, and a little warm. They were cut into perfect handheld blocks and retained their structural integrity even when the insides were soaked with oil. A breadbasket and olive oil is not an uncommon complimentary starter at an Italian restaurant, but the quality of the bread and oil were unquestionable.
The small plate Cesar salad Jackie ordered was filled out by crisp Romaine leaves and homemade croutons. it came pre-dressed, but carefully and with a delicate hand. The croutons were crispy and a little salty, but were more of a textural counterpart than a flavor departure.
I ordered the rapini salad to start and was happily surprised by a small plate of chilled leafy rapini stalks set in a pool of pepper oil and sprinkled with tart, vibrant Pecorino cheese. The Pecorino was the perfect choice for this salad, effectively tart but not overpowering. Rapini has a little bit of acidity to it, and the spice of the oil played well against the strong flavors of the cheese, neutralizing both the greens and the dairy.
For his entrée, Yigit ordered the gnocchi. Gnocchi can be delicious, but if you get the processed version from the grocery store, you’ve not had real gnocchi. That stuff starts off as hard little dough lumps and become moderately softer once cooked at home. They can even be considered edible when paired with a better than decent sauce. But they are not gnocchi worth their name. In fact, they are the reason while the little pasta dumpling is an out of fashion Italian menu offering.
Osteria’s gnocchi are made in-house and are (justifiably) touted as some of the best this city can offer. Favorable comparisons to the gnocchi from the Italian groceries in Bloomfield only boost the reputation. High expectations, yes, but I can absolutely attest to their validity. Instead of slightly less-hard dough rocks, these gnocchi were powerful in their delicate nature: Soft little nuggets, light as the potato filling each one, easily sliced and well coated in rich Fontina and Parmigiano cheeses. The deep scarlet marinara sauce was mild despite its deceptive coloring, allowing the cheese to boost the flavor and the gnocchi to give just the right combination of texture and neutral taste to bring everything together.
The in-house made specialty is the cavatelli, and Jackie dug right into her pasta dish featuring the soft little slices of pasta accompanied by rapini, Parmigiano, and roasted carrots, all swimming in a shallow pond of olive oil. The homemade cavatelli accomplished the same ends as the homemade gnocchi, turning something that is often less than its trumped-up reputation into a dish worthy of its traditional standing. The roasted carrots were the surprise winner, though. They had been cooked until their natural sweetness was evident, serving as a nice counterpart to the cheese and rapini (also, it’s clear by now that Osteria has a few favorite ingredients that work their way into several menu items, something I find charming and in line with the casual, homemade-focused dining the restaurant clearly acknowledges as its strong point). I didn’t know what I wanted another bite of, the cavatelli or the roasted carrot. Lucky for me, Jackie is an exceedingly generous person and gave me more than a few bites of each.
Kait’s riccolina was another fine example of standout ingredients. In this dish, the caramelized mushrooms play the star, although the truffle oil is the strong, competent background player. She described it as “earthy” and I agree. The best feature of this dish were its fresh flavors. The gnocchi and the cavatelli dishes all had bold flavors, but this was crisp, mild, and refreshing. The arugula brought a little sharpness into each bite, but without pulling the dish away from its clean taste. Despite the wonderful gnocchi, this is the dish I’m most excited to try on my next visit.
Maybe I was in a bread mood, cause the cheese and tomato panini seemed so tempting. Thick slices of beefsteak tomato, thick fresh slices of mozzarella, and roasted red peppers are drizzled with balsamic vinegar and stuffed between two enormous pieces of soft and sturdy bread. It was divine. Upon first look at the sandwich, I was impressed by how big it was. Instead of melted mozzarella, it was filled out and largely supported on large, soft chunks of the creamy cheese. The red peppers added a bit extra oil, the tomatoes were fresh and juicy, but manageable, and the balsamic was applied with restraint. The true test of a sandwich like this is if you can split the bread apart and enjoy the open slice topped by the filling, and the cheese and tomato panini passed the test. It was almost more enjoyable that way, as I didn’t have to open my mouth to an extraordinary degree to get a bite of the whole thing.
By the end of the meal, as I was picking at the last bits of my panini bread, the three of them decided to try dessert. While I settled in with a coffee (and Yigit with his espresso), they sampled some of the house dessert specials. From the top: Cannoli, with chocolate and pistachio, chocolate cake with peanut butter icing and peanut topping, and tiramisu. They were all kind enough to give me bites of their selections, so I can say that while the chocolate cake was as good one can hope restaurant chocolate cake can be (very good, not extraordinary), and while the tiramisu was appropriately moist and abundant in the richness of its coffee flavors and espresso powder topping, the cannoli really stole my heart.
First, the outer shell, crunchy and with its own sweetness, then the filling, accented by orange zest, which perfectly met with the pistachio and chocolate on the outsides of the pastry. If Jackie had left her plate unattended for more than a moment, I might have eaten whatever remained and licked the plate to boot. It reminded me of the cannoli you can only get in the best little Italian groceries, handmade by little old women who barely have to think about the process as they seem to remember the recipe through their fingertips.
Osteria 2350 may not have convinced me to try every Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh, but it at least showed me that a restaurant could be quality, economical, and comfortable while staying true to a tradition of Italian cuisine. With such a significant amount of dining having been had, we were shocked to see that our bill hadn’t even reached $100. As good as the bill was, it was the atmosphere that really sold us on the experience. The leisurely environment of the restaurant encouraged us to finish our food and drinks slowly, and we did, enjoying the last remnants of our meal and the final strains of our conversations. It was easy and relaxed, it was pleasant, and it was without strings of formality or the fear of being subtly pushed and prodded into leaving. We were left to savor the last minutes of our night at Osteria.