- Heather Mull
- Pasta di casa with house-made sausage
Location: 4624 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. 412-918-1738
Hours: Tue.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, pizza, panini and salads $6-9; pasta $10-15
Atmosphere: Casual neighborhood cucina
Liquor: Full bar
It's tough for any new restaurant to carve out an identity, let alone a new Italian place in Pittsburgh's Little Italy. It seems there's always room for another high-end establishment proffering either traditional regional cuisine or modern-inflected seasonal offerings, but not every owner -- or chef -- aspires to that. The old fashioned, family-friendly, red-sauce Italian-American model is more accessible, but in a region that abounds with a 60-year surplus of such places, one might reasonably ask oneself whether there is a niche -- or a clientele -- for another.
Bloomfield's newest addition, Tucci's, has struck a remarkably salutary balance between the two extremes. With a bar in front and a dining room decorated with old black-and-white views of Bloomfield in the back, it's clearly going for a neighborhood-hangout rather than a haute-cuisine vibe. Yet its menu overlaps only briefly with the same-old list of Italian-American standards served at similarly casual establishments. Tucci's pasta dishes are traditional, but not clichéd, such as linguini Daniella: sautéed shrimp, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, sliced almonds and shaved fontinella cheese. Likewise, it serves pizzas and sandwiches in combinations, like turkey, prosciutto, roasted peppers and pesto on focaccia, that are certainly not by the book.
Our first starter, melanzane, was another case in point. At first glance, this appeared to be that old standby, eggplant Parmesan, in a gussied-up form. But it was not just its name and appearance that had been upgraded. The breading on the thinly sliced eggplant was crisp and light, adding substance and texture even as it let the vegetable's flavor shine through. The eggplant was layered with prosciutto for savor and, for a richer flavor than a mere cap of melted mozzarella, topped with a combination of ricotta and Romano cheeses. This was a deceptively simple dish that strongly suggested a kitchen with ambitions greater than repeating culinary clichés.
Having said that, Tucci's beans-and-greens was merely serviceable. Lacking sausage, which some recipes add for depth and complexity of flavor, its primary ingredients were left with only salt to unite their disparate characters. In the course of its braising, the escarole had passed the point of wilting to become mushy. Furthermore, because it had been inadequately chopped, it was hard to keep greens proportional to beans in each bite.
A plate of mafalda vittorio -- better known as pasta in vodka sauce -- righted the course of our meal. Diced onions in the pinkish-orange sauce shored up the sweetness of the tomatoes, while the vodka released their acidic, astringent notes and tempered the richness of the cream. The pasta, long, frilly pappardelle instead of the expected penne, had the exceptionally tender texture of homemade.
Next came a six-slice personal pizza bianca. Its crust was thin, chewy-crisp and flecked with herbs, while the top layer of fresh mozzarella cheese boasted browned spots that offered delicious caramelized flavor. Sweet, mild Romano, aromatic garlic-butter sauce and peppery basil rounded out the subtle but effective combination of toppings. This dish demonstrated how a well-made pizza can straddle the line between snacking and fine dining: simple and satisfying enough to accompany a beer while watching the game, yet thoughtfully prepared enough that it held up under sober scrutiny. Sure, there are fancier gourmet pizzas in town, but not many cost six bucks.
The menu lists several "panini," but those we ordered were served on hoagie rolls: well above-average ones, with dark, flavorful tops and a denser crumb than the typical Italian bread of supermarkets and old-fashioned bakeries. The Clemenza, then, was essentially a traditional meatball hoagie. But it was an excellent example -- with meatballs that tasted of herbs and spices as much as of ground beef, complemented by well-proportioned toppings of cheese and marinara sauce. The Tucci sandwich was filled with two pieces of rib-eye steak, thinly sliced but retaining a touch of pink in the middle, and tender despite the chewy fat deposits typical of this cut. Sautéed with a reprise of the aforementioned escarole (perhaps a bit too much), red pepper flakes and nutty fontinella cheese, the Tucci was a sandwich that merited its signature status.
In Pittsburgh's Little Italy, Tucci's is carving out a niche all to itself: inexpensive, classic Italian dining that sidesteps the clichés of the cuisine and elevates its casual setting with food that is, to put it simply, great.