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Mantini's Woodfired

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Location: 601 East Carson St., South Side. 412-488-1960
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thu. 5:30-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5:30-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers and salads $5-9; entrees $15-30
Fare: The name says it all
Atmosphere: Cozy, cheerful bar and upscale grill
Liquor: Full Bar

As restaurant trends go, the wood-fired grill brings out the skeptic in us. Our doubts have nothing to do with the concept of cooking over a wood-fueled flame or the distinctive smoky flavor that imparts; on the contrary, we think this is a marvelous recipe for meat, seafood, even vegetables. It's just that we've been let down before. So many restaurants have boasted about their hardwood grills, only to produce meals that barely betrayed their acquaintance with smoke and flame. To protect ourselves from further disappointment, we stopped taking the phrase "wood-fired" very seriously.

Then we got a whiff of Mantini's Woodfired, a new bar and grill on the South Side. With food that fairly sizzles with the aromatic essence of wood smoke, Mantini's knows -- and shows -- how wood-fired is done.

Mantini's is the latest occupant of a century-old corner tavern space punctuating the no-man's land between Station Square and the main East Carson Street business district. We passed through the spacious bar into a series of dining rooms, all painted flame orange -- no accident, to be sure. Tables topped with linen and butcher paper convey an atmosphere of proper congeniality, suggesting that you can expect food several notches above pub grub, but if you should happen to spill it -- hey, no problem! Service, similarly, is professional with a smile.

The menu offers something for everyone from vegetarians to bone-gnawers. Daily specials keep things interesting, and we found the wood-fired theme interpreted in both obvious and not-so-obvious ways. On the night we were there, for instance, one of the specials was a good old rack of barbecued pork ribs; another was an intriguing polenta with caramelized onions and mushroom chili.

We started with the equally appetizing smoked-pork quesadilla. Unlike traditional pulled pork, whose moist cooking method leads to a uniformly tender result, the quesadilla's filling included delicious chewy bits of char intermingled with softer strands. The strong, savory flavor of fruitwood smoke wafted through dollops of cheese, salsa and sour cream.

Angelique fell in love with a salad of mixed spring greens with caramelized spicy pecans and chevre. A heap of fresh greens was dressed with a tart balsamic vinaigrette and generously sprinkled with bite-size bits of mildly tangy goat cheese and, best of all, cracked pecan pieces which were not so much spicy as brown-sugar sweet with hints of clove, nutmeg and other aromatic flavors. The salad was so sizable and substantial, it could have been a light meal in itself.

Then there were our entrees. Never mind one dinner; each of the enormous plates put before us ended up feeding us for three meals in all. Jason could not resist the aforementioned rack of ribs special. Beyond falling off the bone, the meat fairly jumped into his hungry maw. As with the pulled pork, a charred surface balanced the tender interior, and the vinegary, slightly sweet house-made barbecue sauce complemented the pork's own smoky, meaty flavor. Jason often wishes that rib joints would leave off with cloying sauces and let the ribs stand for themselves, but Mantini's served up the best of both worlds.

Angelique ordered a bowl of angel-hair pasta in vodka sauce -- her favorite -- with grilled scallops. Here the shellfish were tough from overcooking, with the charcoal from the grill overwhelming the delicate taste of the seafood. The pasta, though, was superb, with an unexpectedly chunky sauce full of pungent tomatoes and onions and a lacy layer of melted grated cheese on top.

Side dishes at Mantini's are as appealing as the main courses. There was plenty of garlic in the garlic spinach, and if it was not sautéed quite into submission, that was OK with us. Cheddar smashed potatoes were more mashed-smooth than smashed-chunky, but thoroughly redeemed by the bacon bits within.

Having barely made a dent in our gigantic dinners, we had a hard time justifying dessert, but how could we resist apple cobbler? Answer: We couldn't. Less a Southern-style biscuit over fruit than a personal pie, the fresh-from-the-oven (no wood smoke here) dessert was sweet, not too heavy and well matched to the big scoops of vanilla ice cream alongside.

It may be a bit off the beaten track, but as a grill restaurant that lives up to the promise of its name, Mantini's Woodfired deserves to be a destination.

Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 3 stars

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