Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-midnight; Fri. -Sat. 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun. 10 a.m.-midnight
Prices: Starters $5-9; sandwiches $7-8; entrées $9-14
Fare: Casual American fare
Atmosphere: Informal family dining
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Designated Sections
Once, when Angelique was growing up, a family friend confided her dining fantasy: to order dessert first. She would have loved Gullifty's, a restaurant so well known for its desserts that lots of people go there for nothing else. Indeed, we used to get the feeling that the main reason to order a meal there was to lay down a base layer for the decadent main event.
That's not so anymore (if it ever was). Recently, Gullifty's spiced up its dining experience by adding barbecue and live jazz to the mix, and it seemed like a good time to check back in with this Squirrel Hill landmark.
Though the menu and the music are new, the space, carved out of an old movie theater, is the same as it ever was. The main dining room is high-ceilinged and ringed by balconies at various elevations, all lit by skylights during the day. At night, lighting is more mellow, with some areas dim enough for a romantic feel. A two-story exposed brick wall forms the backdrop for the stage, where a big jazz combo was firing up just as we departed.
The menu is still straightforward, emphasizing sandwiches, pizza, pasta and "entrée salads" (doubtless popular as low-cal precursors to the meal's inevitable high-calorie coda). Appetizers are standard fare except for two standouts: oven-roasted garlic, a year-round reminder of Gullifty's annual garlic festival, and pulled-pork nachos featuring Jessie's Lip Smackin' BBQ Sauce. More about that in a minute.
First, we seized on the roasted garlic, a whole head mellowed by a hot oven. Soft and crusty foccacia blanketed with melty cheese provided a luxurious base for the sweet, spreadable cloves. On the side, a chunky marinara offered astringent contrast.
Garlic made another appearance in a chicken soup that played many of the same notes, topped with melted Gruyere and tasting more of garlic than chicken -- not that there's anything wrong with that. Copious croutons studded the creamy broth, their toothsome texture making up somewhat for the scant poultry content.
For her entrée, Angelique succumbed to the lure of tortellini Florentine a la vodka, tricolor pasta pockets in a "spicy" tomato-cream sauce. Though the portion was mountainous and the basic appeal of pasta, tomatoes and cheese unassailable, Angelique was underwhelmed. The spinach was a fine addition to this classic Italian combination of flavors, but the sauce was, disappointingly, neither creamy nor spicy.
The lip-smackin' barbecue was another story, and what a story indeed! The short version includes an archetypal blues man from North Carolina (that would be Jessie) and celeb chef Emeril, who named it the best barbecue sauce in the country. The man who brought the sauce to Pittsburgh, Dave Papale, ran a BBQ-and-blues place on Long Island before returning to his hometown and helping Gullifty's transform itself.
The menu includes several ways to enjoy this prized elixir, including ribs, wings, pulled pork and beef "cowboy tips," but blue-crusted pork chops sounded the most intriguing. Three thick, boneless chops arrived, grilled, breaded and smothered with bleu cheese. Beneath all those flavors, the meat itself was moist and tender, with a flavor reminiscent of ribs. The chops were stacked high as a wedding cake atop big chunks of moist but light cornbread (another Emeril contest-winner) studded with corn kernels, all topped with crisp shoestring fries.
And as for the famous sauce? The style was traditional -- smoky, dark and thick -- a complex mingling of notes not unlike the jazz it accompanied.
Of course, we ordered dessert, and of course, it was excellent. But if dessert was not the highlight of our meal, it is no reflection on the pastry chef; rather, it is a sign that Gullifty's has grown up to appeal to more than our sweet tooth.