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Legends of the North Shore

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Location: 500 E. North Ave., North Side. 412-321-8000
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Prices: Starters $7-9; pasta $10; entrées $14-22
Fare: Traditional Italian, plus pizza and sandwiches
Atmosphere: Family-run and family-friendly
Liquor: BYOB

Franco, Terry, The Chief … and now The Bus and, maybe, Big Ben. Those were the Legends of the North Shore we had in mind as we headed to the restaurant by that name a few days before Super Sunday. Sure enough, as we stepped inside the tidy corner storefront, we were greeted by staff attired in black and gold, a Pens game on the TV in the background.

In the foreground, however, were a few things we weren't expecting. Along with pictures of famous games and players on the walls, we saw prints of Italian landmarks. Over the sound of the hockey game, we heard diner-esque music. If this was an establishment devoted to sports-hero worship, we asked ourselves, where were the wings? Where were the fries? Where was the Iron on tap? And who put all this sleekly modern furniture in here?

We soon discovered that, despite its name, Legends of the North Shore is no sports bar and grill. Instead, it is something much more interesting: a family-friendly restaurant with a local -- particular, even -- flavor. The name is a reference to the North Shore's legends on the field, yes, but also to Legends of the Green, the Upper St. Clair restaurant where chef Dan Bartow previously worked, and to local legends, even those who have not yet had their parade. Tuesday night is "Northsiders Night," when you can earn a 50 percent discount on appetizers by telling a North Side story.

The menu is exclusively Italian except for a fried-fish sandwich -- this is Pittsburgh, fer cryin' out loud. Offerings include classics such as gnocchi Bolognese and penne in vodka sauce, as well as more distinctive specialties such as filet saltimbocca. The bread basket gave us a tasty portent of things to come, with fingers of pillowy focaccia cut from big sheet pans, sprinkled with garlic, parmesan, sea salt and rosemary, and served toasty warm.

Beans and greens is Angelique's favorite Italian appetizer, and as such, she has had a lot of it. Still, it didn't take long for her to add Legends' to her mental menu of the best. The fresh greens and toothsome beans were not overcooked, so that they added plenty of flavor and texture to a creamy medium which made the dish seem as indulgent as mac and cheese.

Jason's polenta appetizer made a beautiful impression and tasted as good as it looked. Colorful toppings of roasted red peppers, parmigiano cheese, wilted spinach and pesto "drizzle" were stacked on top of fried wedges of polenta; these had a crispy crust and almost creamy interior. The vegetables, by turns sweet and earthy, were well balanced with notes of nutty cheese and tart vinegar.

His entrée of veal and shrimp was somewhat less satisfying. The tender scallopini was perfect, but the meatiness of the large shrimp overshadowed the excellent sauce, whose rich, creamy mushroom base was subtly lightened with champagne. The accompanying vegetables were tender-crisp, the way we both prefer, but the Parmesan mashed potatoes were dry, lacking enough fat to carry the flavor of the cheese.

Angelique had no such qualms with her entrée of spinach ravioli. Now, Angelique is an avid consumer of spinach, and many a so-called spinach ravioli has disappointed her with a filling of bland ricotta only faintly flecked with green. Not so Legends'. This was a real spinach-lover's ravioli, packed with shredded leaves. The pasta was cooked perfectly al dente, and the tomato-basil cream sauce provided a complementary balance of rich and astringent flavors. All this was gracefully topped by a sliver of fresh mozzarella and a generous grating of parmigiano.

You know what they say about baseball and apple pie. And let's just say that, like the Pirates, Legends' apple pie was not quite World Series-caliber. Though flaky of crust and large of portion, it was marred by a too-soft filling of overcooked apples.

But as even a winning season includes a few losses, so a few fumbles could not keep our meal at Legends of the North Shore from being a championship performance. Dan Bartow and his crew convinced us that it is possible to meld sports and dining in a way that transcends the finger-food imperatives of pub grub. Beyond that, their winning attitude -- that every local character is a legend in his or her own right -- sets the table for a neighborhood restaurant with the best the North Shore has to offer.

Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3.5 stars

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