After dining out in this city for years, we're accustomed to walking into a new restaurant in a space we last patronized as a previous establishment. After all, dining spots come and go. Other times, successful kitchens branch out, and we get to visit a new venture by a chef or owner who has built a reputation on an earlier flagship venue.
But our visit to Io may mark the first time we've been to two restaurants in the same space that are also run by the same person. At Iovino's Cafe, Jimmy Iovino took a relaxed approach to a modern, sophisticated menu of seafood and pasta, emphasizing European and Asian preparations. Five years later, Iovino has modified the name, the concept and the storefront on Mount Lebanon's Beverly Road. The decor is still minimalist, but strikes a slightly warmer note than before, and the simplified menu now suggests casual dining without giving in to simplistic preparations.
Even better, the new menu seemed to us a near-perfect distillation of tasty, trendy and traditional. Some dishes were sophisticated classics, like pan-seared flounder with fresh tomato and asparagus. (Normally we'd question tomatoes in winter, but what came on the burger we ordered was top-notch; Io selects its purveyors with care.) Others are ever-popular workhorses like the BLT, and a few are intriguing reinventions. Into this last category falls "city chicken," Pittsburgh's inexplicable heritage of pork on a stick, mimicking drumsticks. We will never understand how pigs could be more accessible to urbanites than chickens, but no matter: Io does this homey dish up, convincingly, as a fancy entrée.
We figured we couldn't go wrong with a house specialty, so we started with an appetizer simply called Iovino. With fresh mozzarella balls and balsamic-marinated tomatoes, it's a clever update of a Caprese salad. Or perhaps it's meant to evoke a delicious sandwich, with sweet sausage and cheese fried in tempura batter, so that its texture mimics that of toast or a crouton. The grape tomatoes absorbed plenty of kick from their balsamic-vinegar marinade, thus deepening what can be a one-dimensional sweetness.
The flavors in a so-called, but not really, "spicy" Thai curry empanada didn't come together quite as well, held back mostly by a too-thick crust. It wasn't bad, but the crust hid the subtle flavors of mixed vegetables, red curry and coconut milk within.
It would be tempting to chalk the empanada's flaws to its origins in two cuisines far afield of Iovino's core strength in Italy, except that the fish tacos were so very good. In some aspects, Io's was a classic version of this Californian dish, with shreds of Napa cabbage, sweet red pepper and onion flavored by a spicy, creamy sauce. But the fried flounder, a roasted chili pepper and a few shoestring fries alongside — in a nod to local tastes — set it apart. These innovations succeeded, largely thanks to the excellent spicy mayo, but also to good proportions and a nice job crisping the fish without smothering its mild native flavor.
City chicken was more straightforward. It was served as a full meal with creamy mashed potatoes, perfectly tender-crisp green beans and a simple tomato sauce that functioned almost like a relish, brightening without drowning the other components. The meat itself was superb, consisting of what appeared to be country-style boneless ribs, with their signature mix of lighter and darker meat and extraordinary tenderness: It's not often that pieces of meat more than an inch-and-half thick don't require a knife.
A buffalo blue-cheese burger, alas, did not deliver the bold flavors promised by its name. While the patty was big and beefy, a house-made topping that combined buffalo sauce and blue cheese managed to mute the strong, distinctive flavors of both its main ingredients. And then, most of the sauce smooshed out of the sandwich when the top bun was applied to the patty, depleting even further its ability to spice up any given bite. A tomato-basil soup served alongside was excellent, however, deriving depth and complexity from a simple combination of sweet tomatoes and peppery herbs.
Beer or wine are the traditional accompaniments to most of the dishes Io serves, but Io also offers alcohol-spiked ice-cream floats and shakes that double as dessert for the over-21 set. We can vouch for them as very satisfying alternatives to more traditional cakes and compotes.
The presence of these shakes is indicative of Io's curiously successful blend of casual and sophisticated. While Io has a more relaxed vibe than Iovino's did, and its menu appears more inspired by home cooking than by Continental cuisine, it isn't a gastro-diner. Io has more to offer than an updating of a regressive menu of sandwiches and spiked milkshakes. We enjoyed thoughtfully conceived, well-prepared dishes that excited our palates without necessarily testing our intellects; even those that erred on the mild side were competently prepared. Iovino's is no more; long live Io!