The extensive reconstruction of Market Square was meant to create a European-style plaza, a curb-free zone where cars creep through, yielding to pedestrians who would converge there to commingle with their myriad agendas: coffee, meetings, lunch, errands, dinner, drinks. Improbably enough, the new square works pretty much as advertised, and has ushered in an astonishing profusion of new eateries, from fast food to fine dining.
And what would a European plaza be without at least one European-style eatery? Not just cuisine, but that inimitable feel of contemporary sensibility in a place that has sheltered generations. Sienna Sulla Piazza captures that feel for us, thanks partly to its moody lighting and decor that relies on the old bones of its space and the character of its furnishings, rather than on fine finishes or eye-catching fixtures.
Truthfully, the interior is largely unchanged from Sienna's predecessor, an Italian restaurant that, in opening near the beginning of the Square's reconstruction, was perhaps ahead of its time. But the menu by chef Matthew Porco (formerly of the excellent Mio in Aspinwall) captures the elegantly casual, Old World vibe, leaning toward small plates and starters without conceding an inch to American pub-grub conventions.
Perhaps nothing exemplified this better than the grilled octopus, a far cry from Pittsburgh's ubiquitous fried calamari. Tender, slightly smoky rings and chunks of tentacle were tossed with roasted red peppers and toasted garlic in a light yet flavorful sherry vinaigrette and served atop grilled crostini. The effect was refined, but not quite haute: Like the best restaurant in an ancient seaside village, it offered nothing flashy, just excellence by dint of well-chosen ingredients and expert preparation.
Beans and greens extended this rustic feel, adding tomatoes and a sauce deepened and enriched by browned, housemade sausage. The cannellini beans were rich and creamy, the escarole satisfyingly crunchy but not raw, while tomatoes contributed fruity notes to the otherwise stew-like dish, keeping it light and fresh.
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Flatbread has become almost inevitable on contemporary Italian menus, but Sienna's was far from perfunctory. An oblong disk of heartily crisp dough was substantial enough to hold toppings, but thin enough not to outweigh them. The classic combo of prosciutto and arugula was satisfying, but we were a bit surprised at the almost pizza-like proportions of tomato sauce and cheese beneath them, and the overall flavor was heavy on the salt.
The entrees upped the sophistication factor, even with something as seemingly simple as spaghetti and meatballs. Actually, the pasta on the menu for this dish is bucatini, but spaghetti was substituted the night we were there. No matter: The house-made noodles were top-notch, firmly al dente, resilient yet slightly chewy. The marinara sauce was chunky, brightly flavored with tomato and peppery with fresh basil, while a single, nearly baseball-sized veal meatball, stuffed with molten mozzarella, verged on the decadent.
Agnolotti, a kind of folded ravioli, were filled with ricotta and spinach and topped with a diced salad of smoky, house-cured pancetta, leeks, asparagus, tomato and arugula. The medium for all these flavors was an appropriately simple butter and white-wine emulsion. The effect was like spring on a plate: mild, delicate, and colorful.
Jason's beautifully roasted redtail bass was served on a modern-tasting bed of savoy cabbage lightly braised with bacon and cream, accompanied by crispy potato, and finished with port-wine butter. The fish itself was simple and succulent, lightly crusted from the oven, so that the rich yet subtle flavors of its accompaniments took the lead. Though the port-wine butter was refined, the spirit of the dish — simple fish served alongside cabbage enriched with smoked pork and cream — seemed grounded in country cooking.
By now our appetites were more than sated, but the temptations at Sienna Sulla Piazza don't end there. Our confidence in the kitchen leads us to predict we'll be enjoying future lunchtime sandwiches, such as grilled chicken with basil pesto aioli on focaccia, Sienna burger with tomato-basil jam, and even grilled cheese. There are more dinner entrees we'd like to try, as well — handmade gnocchi with braised lamb, red Swiss chard and pearl onions, for one; tagliatelle with rabbit, root vegetables, truffle and sweet peas, for another.
With understated style, Sienna Sulla Piazza merges ancient Mediterranean cuisine with contemporary trends to create perhaps the best Italian restaurant in Pittsburgh.