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Best European Restaurant: Mallorca

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The fire-truck red lobster tail took up nearly the entire diameter of the cast-iron pan Mallorca's signature paella came in.

For many years, Mallorca has been recognized as the city's best Spanish restaurant by the readers of various local publications. But this year this gem, tucked away far from the madding crowd, on the 2200 block of East Carson Street, has conquered not just a country, but nearly an entire continent. It was voted the best European restaurant (there are separate categories for Italian and Irish restaurants) in the city.

No small feat for this South Side mainstay, considering that an Eastern European culinary heritage runs deep in the blood of many Pittsburghers, who chow down on pierogies by the ton. (Even I, a transplant raised on my mother's Cantonese Chinese homecooking, have been converted to the comfort-food pleasure of stuffed cabbage.)

Mallorca's recipe for success: fresh ingredients and great service.

"What makes it is our stuff and our professionals," says owner and manager Antonio Pereira. "To make it authentic you need the service. It's about putting everything together."

Sixteen years ago, Pereira moved from New York to Pittsburgh to open the city's first Spanish restaurant. Last year, he expanded his enterprise, establishing Ibiza, a tapas and wine bar which was voted Best Tapas Selection this year by CP readers, a few doors down. As a result, we now have, on a single city block, some of the finest culinary offerings from the Iberian peninsula. In fact, Pereira says he imports some of his ingredients directly from Spain.

What marks Mallorca as a unique European restaurant is also the ambience: It's full of

Old World charm, with a touch of hipness. In one dining room, the carved wooden fixtures, decorated with hanging potted plants, simulate the terrace setting that characterizes many restaurants in the Continent. In another, the Latin pop tunes of Enrique Iglesias were piped in.

And speaking of charm ... when my dining companion and I were seated on a recent visit, our main server, Raúl, described one of the appetizer specials -- oxtails in a red-wine sauce -- by tantalizingly rolling his tongue and pronouncing the "r" the Spanish way. Besides Raúl, five other servers also attended to our needs.

Ever since a trip to Barcelona a few years ago, I've developed a craving for paella, the traditional rice dish. So I naturally jumped at the opportunity to taste Mallorca's signature Paella Valenciana. When the dish arrived, at first I thought I was served a lobster instead. The fire-truck red lobster tail took up nearly the entire diameter of the cast-iron pan the dish came in. It turned out to be a meaty extravaganza, laden with seafood and also with chicken and chorizo, the Spanish sausage. Mallorca's paella beats even the yummiest memories I had of those I had tasted on Las Ramblas, Barcelona's teeming tourist strip, and certain white-cloth restaurants in the heart of that city.

Meanwhile, the oxtails -- braised for more than two hours with garlic, bay leaf, parsley, red pepper, fresh tomato, virgin olive oil, and of course, red wine -- were so tender that the meat barely needed any chewing. And over dessert, my companion extolled the crème brûlée as the best she's ever tasted. (This from a certified foodie for some 30 years).

The occasionally raucous conviviality in the room may be more American than European. And when we were finishing up our desserts, we saw the fifth birthday celebration of the night. Which seemed curious, but it turns out there's a reason so many patrons were celebrating at Mallorca: When you go there for your birthday, the cake is on the house. Says Pereira, "Every day someone has a birthday; it's a good promotion for me."

And that too, no doubt, is quintessentially American.

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