Bloomfield may be Pittsburgh’s self-proclaimed Little Italy, but it doesn’t have a lock on the city’s best Italian dining. It did incubate what we considered, six years ago, to be Pittsburgh’s best Italian restaurant, Stagioni. That restaurant has since decamped to more spacious digs on East Carson Street, on the South Side. To be specific (and very Pittsburgh), Stagioni now occupies the elegant storefront that was long home to Le Pommier, the last of Pittsburgh’s fine French restaurants. We were eager to relive one of our most memorable Italian dining experiences in this setting, layered with other delicious memories.
Le Pommier’s small downstairs dining room and smaller bar were always some of the city’s most romantic locations, and Stagioni’s owners wisely left well enough alone. The décor has been updated with attractive new artwork and, as a reminder of the kitchen’s curiosity and range, a bookcase full of an eclectic array of cookbooks. The dining room can be a bit noisy — or you can choose to regard it as convivial, in which case it feels very authentically Italian.
Stagioni means “seasons” in Italian, and chef-owner Stephen Felder’s seasonal approach still governs the menu. Cold zucchini soup tasted of early summer, when quick-growing vegetables arrive in markets, but the full bounty of August remains ahead. A sort of tiny salad of crab, sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes and basil was arrayed on one side of the bowl, allowing diners to compose spoonfuls of “toppings” with soup as they wished, or to imbibe the pure vibrancy of the velvety, vivid-green liquid, deceptively light yet full flavored.
With more room to work in, the menu has also grown a bit, most notably to accommodate a section dedicated to polentas, with toppings ranging from elemental sautéed mushrooms to bravura olive-oil-poached octopus with romesco and grilled scallions. We ordered the latter, and were agog at the way in which it was served: Three plump tentacles were presented on a small wooden cutting board, and then, at the table, the polenta was poured directly from a saucepan onto the board, touching but not covering the octopus and its garnishes. For this to be effective, the polenta was relatively thin, like porridge, but the mouthfeel was heavier and richer, and it had a true corn taste. The octopus, too, was excellent thanks to a two-part cooking, braised in olive oil and then quickly grilled for color and smoke.
Another distinctive preparation was made-to-order mozzarella, in which a curd was warmed and worked by hand into a large, flat, elastic slab served, again, on a cutting board drizzled with olive oil and balsamic and topped with a few grains of gray salt. The pleasure in this dish was gradual exploration: pulling a nibble off the top for a pure, mild, still-warm taste, then scraping a little salt onto the next bite. Next, cutting all the way through for cheese dressed with oil and vinegar, before adding shaved prosciutto, diced roasted red pepper and a couple of cracked olives of each color from the mini-antipasti served alongside.
The half-dozen meat dishes ranged from steak and potatoes to soft-shell crab with purple cabbage, sea asparagus and croutons. We split the difference with a grilled pork chop served atop wild rice with roasted fennel, plus broccoli and pepperonata. The chop could have stood on its own — smoky, tender and deeply flavorful, although perhaps not perfectly succulent. The fennel threatened to overwhelm the meat, but the sweet pepperonata and crunchy-chewy rice balanced things out a bit, and the slightly blackened broccoli added color as well as another dimension.
An Italian meal would hardly be complete without pasta, and we tried two half-portions: pappardelle with lamb ragout, peas, mint and parmesan, and cavatelli with ramps, cured yolk and crispy pork. The former was surprisingly light, herbal and summery for having a stewed meat sauce. But the cavatelli stood out for sheer irresistibility: rich and savory, yet not exactly creamy like a traditional alfredo sauce. The yolks held the flavors close to each noodle, and we savored every one.
Returning to Stagioni in its new situation was like revisiting an old friend and finding them doing well, thriving even. The move across the river has allowed the kitchen to get better at everything it was already good at, while Stagioni’s decor and service — highlights of its Bloomfield presence, as well — easily rises to the occasion of the venerable space.