Hours: Tue.-Sat. 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Prices: Dinners $12-19
Fare: Homemade Italian
Atmosphere: Family-run, family-friendly
Liquor: Full bar
It's so easy, so tempting, so flattering to compare Pittsburgh to Venice -- all those bridges, you know. Of course, Venice is best known for its canals, but few locals know about our own famous canal. Back before the railroad, this city of rivers relied on the commonwealth-spanning Main Line Canal for barge transport. A few vestiges of this massive public works project survive along the Allegheny's north shore, including a couple of Canal Streets.
The one in Sharpsburg lends its name, in turn, to Gran Canal Caffé. Located in one of downtown Sharpsburg's most handsome buildings, a white terra cotta edifice that gleams brighter than a toothpaste commercial, the establishment features a wall-sized mural of its European namesake in one of its cozy, family-friendly dining rooms.
Gran Canal is owned by Michael and Antoinette Bonaventura. Born in Puglia, Italy, and experienced as a chef around the world, Michael brings to his Sharpsburg kitchen an appreciation for the fresh, simple, homemade foods of his Italian childhood. Gran Canal's menu is classic coastal Mediterranean. Even the dishes we've never seen at other Italian restaurants -- such as snails and penne stuffed with seafood -- are traditional rather than made up to satisfy eclectic contemporary tastes.
We began with bresaola and shrimp San Marco. The former consisted of paper-thin slices of dried cured beef topped with parmiggiano reggiano cheese and limoncella (lemon and olive oil) dressing. The beef was tender, and had it not been quite so salty, this dish might have delivered a lovely balance of tart, smooth and hearty flavors; as it was, the taste of the salt curing was by far the dominant note.
The shrimp were plump, succulent and not the least bit greasy, for, unlike their batter-fried brethren elsewhere, they were baked in a dry, delicately crispy coating of breadcrumbs and cracked pepper. A light lemon mayonnaise, offering both creamy and citrusy flavors, was the ideal condiment for these savory morsels. A scattering of fresh parsley and coarsely grated cheese finished the dish.
Angelique was in the mood for pesto, which she ordered over cheese ravioli. The ravioli were pillowy-soft and plumped with a pleasantly sweet-salty filling, while the pesto was pureed to a liquid consistency and topped with whole pine nuts. Though Angelique personally prefers a more textured, rustic approach to pesto, she appreciated the taste of Gran Canal's, which was mellow on the basil, big on the salt and garlic.
At home, cannelloni is a laborious but rewarding process involving delicate leaves of pasta, rich, creamy béchamel and just enough hearty filling to give the teeth something to sink into. Restaurant versions are rarely so refined, but here Bonaventura's commitment to home-style cooking really shines. We are not exaggerating when we say that the pasta wrapper is so tender, it literally melts in your mouth. The veal filling is finely ground and subtly savory, and the combination of béchamel and marinara sauces is a stroke of culinary brilliance, beautifully balancing sweet, rich and astringent notes. This dish alone merits a visit to Gran Canal.
At Italian restaurants, we never pass up a chance to order tiramisu for dessert. This classic confection may be ubiquitous, but the variation from one kitchen to the next suggests that there is no single standard for the perfect version. Gran Canal's stands out as one of the more unusual we've had, dominated by a thick, rich custard surrounding spongy ladyfingers, with only hints of the cocoa and coffee liqueur flavors that often take the cake, so to speak.
Gran Canal Caffé is in some ways the ultimate in old-school Italian cooking. Its mix of classic and distinctive antipasti and secondi offer a taste of an ancient cuisine unfettered by flashy new ingredients or needlessly innovative preparations. If -- as is looking increasingly likely -- we don't make it to Venice before it slides into the sea, at least we'll have been to Gran Canal Caffé.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3 stars