- Pasta Milanese
Location: 3102 Smallman St., Strip District. 412-586-4833
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 4:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Prices: Breakfast: $2.50-6; lunch: $4-7; dinner: $6-7
Fare: Classic diner
Atmosphere: Classic diner
We love diners and greasy spoons, but all too often we end up feeling as if we could have done as well (or better) using the same basic ingredients at home. Those hopped-up lemon meringue pies spinning in the dessert cabinet are a throwback to the days when diners were proud of their homestyle cooking -- back when home cooking meant from scratch, not from the freezer.
So we were pretty excited when we noticed a new diner called Our Place, where sandwiches are served on homemade bread, and even more excited to walk in and see homemade cakes sitting on the counter. The imperfectly poured raspberry syrup on one of them was endearing: just like Mama used to make.
Our Place is in The Strip, but not in the bustling, boutiquey blocks of Penn Avenue, where antique storefronts mingle amiably with groceries and street snacks. No, Our Place is a concrete-block structure hunkered below the 31st Street Bridge near the grittier end of Smallman. But be it ever so humble, the inside has been made as homey as possible by owner Lucy Warych's personal touches: mirrors, bud vases of flowers (of the non-wilting, non-fading imitation variety) and seasonal decorations. (On the spring afternoon we strolled in, little Easter bunny figurines were on every table.)
Alas, we were too late for eggs and hotcakes -- the lone grill's need to operate at different temperatures for breakfast and lunch makes all-day breakfast service a practically impossible ideal. Instead, we loaded up on sandwiches. Quite happily, as it turned out.
Like any diner worth its salt, Our Place specializes in burgers and hot sandwiches, and like any right-minded restaurant in Pittsburgh, its menu shows its true colors: black and gold, of course. The black-and-gold burger is an otherwise straightforward cheeseburger topped with a homemade cheddar blend. The patty itself was thicker than a typical diner burger, juicy and with good, beefy flavor and, true to Our Place's reputation, enhanced by a hearty roll.
For Angelique, the diner atmosphere just activates a craving for tuna melts. Our Place's featured tuna salad was tuna-riffically tasty, but so wet it kept falling out of the sandwich in gloppy chunks, even as drips of fishy mayonnaise ran down her arms. Getting the balance of tuna and mayo right is the elusive art of tuna-salad creation, and one that, if Our Place perfected it, might just result in the perfect tuna melt. Fortunately, the marble rye -- a much appreciated innovation -- was sturdy and well toasted, so at least the bread resisted that other bane of tuna sandwiches: sogginess.
A dining companion's grilled cheese gave us a chance to try one breakfast staple: The sandwich was loaded with good, smoky, salty bacon, neither underfried nor overcrisp, but meatily satisfying in texture. Homemade white bread, sliced into Texas-toast proportions, conspired to make this sandwich a winner.
Meanwhile, Jason's mouth was watering for his all-time diner favorite: hot meatloaf sandwich. At most places, this is served open-face, but Our Place presented a massive slice of meatloaf between two thick slices of that homemade white bread. Where a slab of meat plus gravy turns most white bread into paste, Our Place's held up admirably, with the almost-hearty crust providing welcome textural contrast. Meanwhile, the loaf, studded with peppers and onions, was tender despite a hearty character. The gravy was almost pudding-thick and full of good beef flavor. Jason enjoyed it on the fries, which were crisp and light, with the textured exterior of battered fries.
Last came a slice of that chocolate-raspberry cake. The owner described the icing as "whipped" and not too sweet, and while it did have a pleasingly fluffy texture, it was more than sweet enough for us. Meanwhile, the cake itself was, sad to say, a disappointment, with a flat chocolate flavor and bouncy, almost plasticky texture.
Well, homemade doesn't always equal great. But if Our Place falls short of greatness, it's definitely a notch above typical diner fare, and its best dishes are something special.