Goodfellas, a restaurant and tavern in Swissvale, is a modern throwback. Though it opened only last year, its nondescript, single-story building, spacious suburban parking lot and sprawling interior, with bar, dining room and anachronistic smoking room — not to mention its mobster-inspired name — took us back to the 1970s.
Not that the ’70s had a lock on organized crime, but something about the first two Godfather movies being made in that era has forged a link in our cultural memories, which Goodfellas plays up with a wall-size mural of Hollywood-style mafiosos. The mafia association also suggests Italian food and a dark, vaguely dangerous-though-decorous atmosphere. Freshly painted with a proverb about family and love on another wall, Goodfellas’ decor appeared inhospitable to vice; even the brightly lit bar looked squeaky-clean.
The menu has plenty of traditional pub grub and Italian-American food, which, in Pittsburgh, are categories already heavily fused: burgers, fried finger foods and pieorgies don’t come from Italy, but they’re perfectly at home on a menu with wedding soup, Italian hoagie and, of course, pizza, which is so assimilated it’s hardly even Italian anymore. Goodfellas also offers a handful of decidedly health-conscious, post-Little Italy updates, such as a quinoa veggie burger, as well as pasta and parm (as in chicken or eggplant) entrees that push the menu toward the restaurant more than the tavern experience.
Fresh-cut chips struck us as a good place to start: updated, fundamental tavern fare, yet harder to get right than their simplicity implies. Goodfellas’ were excellent, falling just a couple not-quite-crisp chips short of perfection. We tried them with the GoldFella sauce, a take on honey mustard with cider-vinegar undertones that really set it apart from more typical, overly sweet preparations.
Beans and greens was made with spinach in place of the traditional escarole, but this cooked up mushy instead of tender, and there weren’t enough beans to provide the creamy texture that distinguishes the best versions of this dish. For seasoning, this one seemed to rely mainly on salt.
We loved the idea and execution of the antipasto roll, like a pepperoni roll but filled to bursting with ham, salami, onions, banana peppers and olives. The pale gold crust could have used a bit more substance and browning, but the only real shortcoming was the olives. Canned black slices didn’t add much flavor, but somehow there were still too many of them. The accompanying cup of marinara was a saving grace, with big chunks of tomato and just a hint of sweetness to balance all those peppers and salty meat. A slightly tweaked version of this would be a huge success, and though it is on the appetizer menu, it is big enough for a meal.
If the antipasto roll was a touch underbaked, Goodfellas’ pizza crust was as pale as a February suntan. This could be forgiven had the dough been hearty enough, but it lacked any of the characteristics of a great pizza crust: little chew, no crustiness, no yeasty depth, no olive-oil richness. Beyond that, the sauce was bit scant, the cheese and toppings unremarkable.
Goodfellas’ burger, served on a nice bun with a bit of chew, was extraordinarily juicy, not only in the sense of running juices, but in that the meat itself was plump and pleasing. But it was bland: If there was salt, we couldn’t detect it. Especially on a thick patty like this, at the table is too late for seasoning. Fries on the side looked great, a russet brown, but they leaned toward too soft and not crisp enough.
The meatball hoagie was well adorned with marinara and melted provolone, but here the meat was far too salty. This was a shame, because the texture was nicely balanced between tender and meaty, and the first bite revealed pleasing herbal and cheese elements. But there was no denying the sodium building with each subsequent bite.
A pasta special — cheese tortellini with spinach in creamy alfredo sauce — sounded great but wasn’t. An excess of bland sauce broke up on the plate, leaving an oily slick on the bottom while the grainy-textured cream pooled atop and amid the tortellini.
At its best, Goodfellas delivers well-prepared contemporary tavern fare that could pass at a more ambitious gastropub. It just wasn’t at its best quite often enough.