There’s no shortage of Italian dining in the Pittsburgh region. Even discounting pizzerias, options range from old-school red-sauce restaurants serving Uncle Vinny’s eggplant parm to upscale trattorias showcasing the regional traditions of Tuscany, Sicily or Abruzzo. There’s no one formula for success in this crowded field, but whether the menu features wedding soup or house-made bucatini, the only way to stand out is for the food to be good, really good.
The other night we revisited an Italian restaurant, Nancetta’s, that has shifted its approach in pursuit of its niche. Located in the strip of O’Hara Township between Aspinwall and Blawnox, Nancetta’s has candle-lit dining rooms with pretty copper-topped tables, a sweet little patio and a decor that splits the difference between modern and traditional. That much hasn’t changed. But its new menu offers a very different dining experience than the one we had five years ago. The owner, who greeted us himself when we arrived, put it this way:
“The old menu was Pittsburgh Italian; this menu is Italian.”
And so it is. The new Nancetta’s doesn’t utterly shun local favorites — hello, veal parmesan — but we found the overall tilt to be much more Continental, with fresh pastas, shellfish and game, such as wild boar and rabbit, along with the usual poultry and market meats. Daily lasagna and ravioli specials keep these Italian-menu standards interesting from visit to visit. With so many temptations before us, our decision to return was looking sound, and the first dishes to arrive confirmed our hunch that Nancetta’s had seriously upped its game.
A unique salad from the day’s lengthy specials list combined sweet roasted peppers, briny chopped olives and peppery arugula to compose a bed for grilled lobster claw, prawn, tentacles and clams. Such bold antipasti flavors could have overwhelmed the more timid seafood, but grilling brought out their meatiness. Slices of lemon, served on the forks, were more than impressive presentation; the citrus was essential to this dish’s carefully calibrated balance.
Chestnut-asiago ravioli in balsamic reduction might be too sweet and intensely flavored to be an entrée, so Nancetta’s wisely offers them as a starter. At the beginning of our meal, as our palates were becoming acclimated to the kitchen’s new approach, we were delighted by the interplay of smooth, earthy chestnuts, nutty cheese and syrupy sauce within perfectly al dente wrappers.
Pizza dough was not the standard, cracker-like flatbread, but more like Neapolitan-style Margherita crust — chewy, yeasty and only a little bit crisp.
We ordered the “classic” with chicken, and it came layered with bright red tomato sauce, only lightly accentuated with fresh mozzarella, and with slices of tender chicken breast on each slice. The restraint in assembling this pizza was part of what made it so good. Next time we’ll try the pie with red-wine-marinated figs with goat cheese and caramelized onions.
Pasta dishes are all made with fresh house-made noodles, a difference of tender texture as well as taste. Tuscan-style Bolognese was not so much a sauce with ingredients as a lush molten-togetherness of vegetables, meat, olive oil and dairy. Pancetta provided salty high notes, and red wine lent deep, dark burgundy undertones. For $10 extra, this dish can be served with short rib on the bone; we highly recommend the splurge for an extra-hearty, meat-lover’s Bolognese.
At the other end of the spectrum was spaghetti with mussels — a generous portion — and a light lemon-saffron cream sauce. Lighter than traditional Alfredo sauce but not insubstantial, this firmly but ineffably bound the succulent shellfish together with the tender skein of pasta.
Wild-boar medallions, two of them, were butterflied and grilled, their texture chewy in a way that said “game” without veering into tough territory. The boar was served in a mild, creamy reduction sauce plentiful with shiitake and oyster mushrooms. While the sauce was perfect for the robust boar, it didn’t do much for the steamed cauliflower on the side. The vegetable was well cooked, but a bit bland without something stronger to prop it up.
Off the beaten path, and frankly nondescript from the outside, Nancetta’s inside has what it takes to be a destination for Italian dining. In a region with so many options, Nancetta’s has skillfully refocused its kitchen on authentic, upscale specialties that set it apart from its competition.