Fifteen years ago, chef and owner Joseph "Pino" Mico opened a Point Breeze pizzeria, and soon began to upgrade. First, his tiny storefront began offering more and better entrees, then Pino's morphed into an upscale, BYOB place in Squirrel Hill. Then it moved back to Point Breeze, this time to a larger space with his wife, business partner and front-of-house manager, Jennifer, across from the original location on Reynolds Street. What's been enjoyable about the Micos' journey over the years is that they've never rested on their laurels. A couple of years back, the restaurant was completely redone and complemented by a liquor license, and the result — serving wines selected by Jennifer Pino to complement Joe's menu — is the best Pino's yet.
Previously, this space — a former market — was done up in bright colors, with an open kitchen and a friendly, noisy ambience. The space has taken a leap forward in sophistication, well lit but toned down, with rich avocado walls and plenty of cherry-colored wood; there's a modest-sized bar right by the entrance, perfect for meeting friends from the neighborhood. The handsome wood-and-glass storefront can fold open to let the restaurant spill out onto the sidewalk in good weather.
Pino's has always hewed to Joe Mico's Italian heritage, but this menu feels like the best distillation yet of his point of view as a chef. Offerings span seamlessly from sandwiches that hearken back to the pizzeria days, through pastas of varying sophistication, to entrees as inventive as any at our city's most buzzed-about restaurants. Sometimes the approach is simple, almost austere, as with the diver scallops, each on a little round of tomato and topped with a sliver of preserved lemon and a drizzle of basil-infused oil. Other dishes pull out the stops, including seafood Newburg lasagna and veal with artichokes, peppers, olives and wild mushrooms over risotto.
Not only does Pino's explore a broad range of Italian cuisine (plus a few wild cards, including fish tacos), but it excels across that range. Of the half-dozen dishes we sampled, only one fell short, and even that was more flawed than failed.
Our first dish was the aforementioned scallops, simply seared and not overcooked, despite being moderate in size, rather than jumbo. The preserved lemon provided all the brightness of lemon juice with none of the bitterness or tang, which made the slight astringency of the tomato — lightly roasted to release all the flavor from this wintry produce — all the more rewarding.
Jason found a spinach-gruyere soufflé a touch bland, missing the characteristic, almost bitter nuttiness of Swiss cheese. But Angelique, who prefers spinach to gruyere, found it perfect, with the just-wilted spinach within a creamy interior whose top was deliciously browned.
Pino's pizzas have been succeeded by flatbreads, thinner and crisper than takeout fare, and offering a number of gourmet options. Even our doubts about smoked gouda couldn't deter us from one made with prosciutto and sweet-pea pesto, a brilliant sauce that mellowed the ham, while caramelized onions added sweetness and translucently thin slices — not shreds — of the gouda rounded out the flavors.
From the pasta menu, Angelique ordered arrabbiata, a rich and spicy red sauce seldom seen in local Italian restaurants, over linguini. Small chunks of chicken plus larger ones of sausage created a lively interplay in a sauce enriched by burgundy wine and heated by banana peppers, while the tomatoes added fruity counterpoint.
Unfortunately, Jason's barolo-braised short ribs were disappointing on a couple of fronts. The meat wasn't nearly as fall-apart tender as short ribs usually are, and a couple of bites were downright chewy. But the sauce was the dish's real downfall: Barolo is a hearty red wine, but the deep brown sauce seemed heavy rather than rich, while mushroom risotto beneath had an off texture that tended toward gumminess. However, after snagging bites of a companion's pork osso bucco, we can report that the kitchen can handle slow-cooked meats just fine. The pork was perfectly fork-tender, the sauce was like an enriched jus, and sides of sweet-potato spaetzle and fennel sauerkraut were winning innovations, harmonious rather than merely clever.
At the latest incarnation of Pino's, the atmosphere is welcoming, the menu exciting but not exhausting, and the food generally excellent. It makes us wonder if the Micos have even more up their sleeve for Pino's. We'll stay tuned to find out.