Less than a year ago, we had an amazing meal at David Racicot's Notion, in Oakmont. Six months later, Racicot shuttered Notion; word is he's now looking to reopen in that up-and-coming dining hot spot, East Liberty.
But he hasn't given up on his old space on Allegheny River Boulevard. Now called 314 Pasta & Prime, the intimate dining room has been given a shabby-chic makeover, with rusticized planks of wood, primitive rooster sculptures and, brilliantly, a low-mounted chalkboard — not for the menu, but for the amusement of his youngest clientele.
Notion, with its droplets of basil essence and balls of soy jelly, wasn't especially concerned with the buttered-noodles demographic, but Pasta & Prime is family-friendly. What it is absolutely not is condescending; we were very gratified when our server informed us that, in lieu of a kids' menu, the kitchen will happily halve the portion and price of any pasta dish for the little ones. In a culinary culture which still assumes that all children will eat is chicken "fingers" and grilled American cheese, this was music to our ears.
Truth be told, there's not a lot on the menu to intimidate kids anyway. There are gestures towards authentic Italian cooking, but for the most part the offerings are straight-up, assimilated Italian-American, from chicken Parmesan to spaghetti with meatballs. This isn't to say that the food is dumbed down, but that the goal is to prepare familiar, already beloved foods in their best guises rather than to push any boundaries.
That ubiquitous starter, fried calamari, was an excellent test of this approach, and Racicot passed with flying colors. The squid itself was very good, but what really made it stand apart from every other kitchen's version was the thick rings of pepperoncini tossed among the tentacles. The vegetal piquancy of these the pale-green hot peppers literally spiced up the seafood and breading, while a pair of dipping sauces diverged sharply. A bowl of marinara was perfectly modern in style, vibrant red, scarcely cooked and redolent of good, canned tomatoes. In contrast, the lemon aioli was as thick, rich and sweet as lemon-curd pastry filling. Where most lemon aiolis use citrus to brighten mildly flavored eggs and olive oil, this version put the lemon front and center, fattened up that lemon flavor with eggs (mostly yolks, we're betting), and then pushed it in a slightly savory direction with the olive oil. It was an extraordinary dip.
In contrast, an order of garlic bread was all too ordinary, topping grocery-grade Italian bread with garlic-infused oil and shaved slices of over-toasted garlic. The result was greasy, bitter and disappointing. It might have been acceptable in an establishment with typical prices, but Racicot has put the "prime" in Pasta and Prime: Most steaks start at $40, and the chicken dishes are above $20. This sets a certain level of expectation.
To be fair, the steak we tried was worth it. It was superbly tender and beefy, and a topping of rosemary, sea salt and garlic butter was both intense and subsidiary to the excellent, perfectly cooked 10-ounce New York strip.
Sustaining this high note, the fettucine Alfredo was perhaps the best we have ever had. Delicate noodles were just substantial enough to hold up under a luxurious, but not heavy, sauce, perfectly balanced between sharp cheese and rich cream. Perfection of something so simple is rarely achieved.
Another Italian classic, beans and greens, also distinguished itself. Sharp flavor notes from peppers and bright, almost tart ones from vinegar were just enough to enliven firm yet creamy beans and mild, but not insipid, spinach. Escarole is the more usual green in this dish, but Racicot's version was pleasing and satisfying.
Side salads were served family-style, on one large dish to which diners can helped themselves. We liked this because it allowed everyone to customize his or her own portion, and we liked the salads, too. A spinach salad derived sweetness from grapes, almost meaty substance from slivered almonds that clung to the leaves, and brightness from a barely honeyed honey-Dijon dressing. Caesar salad had an intriguing, slightly sweet variation on the classic dressing, but it was too mild to stand up to the intense flavor of olives, presumably added in place of anchovies.
Overall, the best dishes we had at Pasta & Prime were exemplary, bordering on perfection. But at these prices, we don't expect anything less.