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ALLA FAMIGLIA

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Alla Famiglia must be Pittsburgh's worst-kept secret. Despite only the teeniest line in the phone book, everybody I mentioned the restaurant to had already been there -- though most of these East Enders couldn't quite recall exactly where it was. It really couldn't be simpler to find: Go through the Liberty Tubes, take a right onto Route 51, then the next right on Warrington, and up the hill into Allentown.

Behind a narrow storefront is the cozy Alla Famiglia, where a half-dozen small tables sit alongside a counter-style kitchen dominated by a shiny copper stove hood. (There's a small dining area in the back, but lively cooking action -- controlled flames and all -- is up front.) The counter is tiled, the other wall is exposed brick and the ceiling is pressed tin: It's all very charming.

Though the regular menu items sounded wonderful, the specials had been talked up with such loving detail that we were both smitten. (Many of the dishes here incorporate seafood -- either grilled simply or with sauces ranging from the tarragon-scented lobster sauce or a mustard cream to the "wrathful tomato sauce" with roasted hot pepper seeds.) Most of the entrees are in the $20-30 range; this is not a place where you'll eat cheap for dinner (smaller and less expensive fare is offered at lunch). But you will get plenty of wonderful food: Entrees include the meat dish, salad, fresh bread and a side of pasta.

A basket of bread arrived -- "fresh baked from the oven" -- with five spreads and toppings: virgin olive oil, deeply infused with basil; goat cheese and olive spread; creamy clam dip; a bowl of finely grated hard cheese; and a savory mixture of fresh oregano, beans, olive oil and three cubed cheeses. The bean mixture was like a stand-alone antipasto, and was quite delicious simply on a fork without any bread involved.

Next came a salad of mixed greens tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette with many extras: roasted red peppers, green and black olives, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts, pine nuts and golden currants. There was perhaps too much dressing toward the bottom of the bowl, but this reserve also proved excellent as the sixth possible thing to dip one's bread in.

In such a small venue, the service is immediate and cordial, though we were encouraged at all stages to take our time and enjoy. An ample portion of the side pasta arrived next: curlicued macaroni with a marinara sauce that had a subtle peppery bite. A towering veal chop was being served to the next table, so I left most of my pasta on reserve for the next day's lunch. However generously proportioned these starters were, I had to save room for what would clearly be a large entree.

I had ordered one of the veal specials -- veal pounded thin, breaded and fried in butter. The three filets (each wider than a hand) were a crispy golden-brown on top (underneath, of course, they were soaking up the butter), and were topped with toasted pine nuts, scallions, parsley -- and big chunks of lump crab meat. Crunchy pine nuts, sweet butter, succulent crabmeat, tender veal encased in a slight crisp -- it was a wonderful combination of textures and tastes.

My companion opted for the tuna -- a sushi-grade tuna that the patron had recommended I order cooked rare. (I had watched the chef prepare this dish, and the tuna was such a beautiful rich pinkish-red hue that it did seem a shame to cook the color away.) But this dish wasn't just a significant slab of beautiful tuna: Surrounding the meat were large shrimp, tiny clams and mussels, all bathed in fresh tomato sauce accented with fresh herbs, celery, roasted red peppers and plenty of garlic.

"It's a good thing we didn't have an appetizer," I remarked, knowing too that, sadly, there'd be little room for desert. As if on cue, that night's dessert creation floated by our table on its way to the adjacent diners: It was the size of a small brick but looked as light as air. It was announced: "A coconut-pineapple tiramisu." I looked to my companion questioningly, but his actions spoke volumes: He was busy navigating pounds of leftovers into doggie boxes.

Really, as we descended down the back of Mount Washington past the T yards in a deeply satisfied food haze, I could understand how sated diners might lose track of where they'd been. * * *

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