Location: 809 Fifth Ave., Coraopolis. 412-264-9721
Hours: Wed.-Fri. lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner 4-8:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. 3-8:30 p.m. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Fare: Just like your Italian-American grandmother used to make
Atmosphere: Just as it was in 1952
Liquor: BYOB; no corkage
Smoking: None permitted
There's nothing like having a doting Italian grandmother ... or so we hear, at least. Those so blessed have assured us that the clichés about always having a tray of lasagna at the ready and pinching young cheeks to a rosy sheen are all true.
For the rest of us, there's Rose Lo Bello.
The proprietor, cook, dishwasher and general force of nature behind Lo Bello's Fifth Avenue Spaghetti House in Coraopolis, Rose started working at her father's restaurant in the same location when she was 14. She tells stories about her father's sternness, but she never tried to escape her fate: In the 63 years since she first carried a plate there, the Spaghetti House has been the center of her life. She still cooks all the food from scratch, washes the dishes, and, most importantly, revels in the company of her customers.
It's that last bit that makes the journey out to Coraopolis worthwhile. Not that the food isn't reason enough -- more on that later -- but Rose herself is the main attraction. She's a dynamo. Two years ago, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette feature on her led to a resurgence of business, but coincided with a serious health scare that might have led other septuagenarians to think about slowing down. Not Rose. She made gnocchi and sauce for her nurses in the hospital and was soon back on her feet in the restaurant, now with extended hours and enough business to hire a server.
Not that Rose would stay out of sight. Server or no, she's still the face of Lo Bello's. When she wasn't cooking our meal, she was standing at our table, cooing over our daughter (who is eligible for a kids-eat-free deal on Wednesdays) and regaling us with stories about her loyal customers, many of whose names are carved into wooden booths as old as she is. As soon as we sat down, Rose handed Jason a scratch awl so he would be sure to continue the tradition.
Lo Bello's menu is simple. Like the interior of the restaurant itself, it is a time capsule of dining out in the days before seared ahi tuna was a staple at every neighborhood grill. Pizza and a few dinner specials, such as shrimp parmigiana and chicken cacciatore, update the original list of homemade pastas, which include ravioli, fettuccine, gnocchi, lasagna, spaghetti, rigatoni and angel hair. Dinners are accompanied by a basket of Italian bread and butter and old-school salads of iceberg lettuce piled in stainless steel goblets the size of small bowls, the likes of which we've never seen before.
On the night we were there, it happened that vodka sauce, Angelique's favorite, was an off-menu special. She paired it with cheese ravioli, which were plump, firm and tender, packed with a dense mixture of cheese and herbs. A dollop of cream, not too much, added richness to the sauce, which was a perfect vehicle for showcasing the end of tomato season's bounty. Textured with tiny bits of tomato pulp and skin, Rose's vodka sauce was irresistible.
Sometimes ordering the sampler platter seems like cheating -- wouldn't it be better to savor a whole dish? -- but when the samples included fettuccine, meatballs and ravioli (all homemade), Jason was persuaded. Gnocchi were also supposed to be included, but Rose was out of them that night; she compensated with a slightly spicy, finely ground sausage. The traditional red sauce was predictable, but with bright, fresh tomato flavor. The meatballs were extraordinarily tender and richly flavored. Best of all were the rustic-style noodles, thick but not chewy, with a texture reminiscent of Japanese udon.
We had thought that only the lucky few have an Italian grandmother, but maybe that's not true.