If Monroeville has become synonymous with shopping malls and national chains, that's partly because its main drag is all that most of us ever see. Hop off the Miracle Mile to Monroeville's original artery — the Old William Penn Highway — though, and you'll find hidden gems of neighborhood businesses, just like in any other old Western Pennsylvania town. Gia Visto, in a tiny strip mall, is such a discovery. More than just a restaurant, it pairs fresh, locally sourced Italian cuisine with a busy schedule of community activities such as kids' cooking classes, wine dinners and, on the night we visited, a painting-class-slash-wine-party. Add in the family birthday celebration at the adjacent table, and we felt that we were in the heart of the Monroeville community.
The menu, by executive chef Eric Delliquadri, spans from simple classics to elegant inventions, with attention to detail every step of the way. For example, in an appetizer of grilled asparagus, roasted tomatoes, creamy mozzarella and 25-year-old balsamic vinegar, each element was well handled, and the whole — from sweet, intense tomatoes to charred but still bright asparagus — harmonized beautifully; the plating was lovely as well.
And speaking of tomatoes, pasta sauce is a ubiquitous outcome of late summer's bounty, but Gia Visto's was exceptional. The balance of tomato base and basil seasoning was sweet and fresh-tasting, yet enriched and rounded from its time on the stove. Whether Delliquadri has found the best canned tomatoes on earth, or the secret's in the technique, this sauce raised every item it graced to new levels of lusciousness.
In our case, that meant two dishes: a starter of arancini — fried balls of risotto — and meatballs with penne. Like most arancini we've tried, these were a bit dense as a result of the compacted rice filling, but the flavor was excellent, capturing risotto's creamy lushness. The meatball was surprisingly reminiscent of a ravioli filling, with a mild yet rich flavor, like veal or Romano cheese, and a texture more delicate than a typical fried or baked lump.
In another penne dish, this one with sausage and roasted-pepper cream, the sauce had a more tentative, less robust flavor than the tomato sauce, which deferred appropriately to thin-sliced sausages that suggested, but didn't quite offer heat. The beauty of this approach was a dish that offered gusto without wearying the palate.
A chunky, hearty lamb ragu and fresh bruco pasta — a pleated noodle whose name means, literally, "caterpillar" — distinguished Gia Visto's Bolognese from the standard, beef-based version. Fresh rosemary and other herbs lent the sauce a robust flavor, if one that didn't quite rise to the menu's appellation of "spicy."
Wild salmon on a bed of vegetables and beans showed that the kitchen was up to a bit more than just very good versions of classic Italian food. The salmon appeared to be of excellent quality, and pan-roasting it resulted in a crisp skin, a slight crust on top and juiciness within. But what really stood out was underneath. The flavor of the bed was classically Mediterranean, with olive oil and lemon, but the vegetables worked together extraordinarily. Instead of providing a bunch of distinct flavors united by a single sauce, they actually took on the character of the oil and lemon, subordinating their individual flavors and instead offering up their textures: ethereal napa cabbage, tender slices of fingerling potato, nearly juicy roasted tomato and firm (almost too firm) cranberry beans; this mélange defined the dish as much as the fish. In a way, it was almost like a stir-fry, but with a flavor and aroma that were all Italy.
Finally, from the list of house-made desserts, chocolate banana-bread pudding satisfied our table's collective sweet tooth as much as our entrees had satiated our savory cravings. Molten chunks of dark chocolate were marbled through the moist, sticky bowl of bread custard, while the sweetness of mashed and baked bananas brilliantly offset the chocolate's bittersweet notes.
Service, too, was excellent at Gia Visto. Our only quibble was with the timing of our dishes: After waiting a seemingly long time for our entrees, the pastas arrived quite a bit less hot than the fish, suggesting that this dish's preparation (those cranberry beans?) might have held up the meal. Nevertheless, it was a meal worth waiting for, in a warm and welcoming setting where food is not only prepared but celebrated, in the Italian tradition, as an integral part of life's enjoyment.