Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Enrico Biscotti Company, Pittsburgh, PA

If I had Italian grandparents, I imagine that visiting them would have been a lot like going to Enrico’s. The menu would be a surprise, but of course I would have my favorites. I would always leave with a full stomach, amazed by how good the seasonal food was, feeling not only warm and happy, but loved. There aren’t many restaurants that feel like family, but Enrico’s pulls it off.

Enrico’s is located in the heart of Pittsburgh’s strip district, a unique blend of food wholesalers, antique stores, street vendors, ethnic grocers, cafés, coffee shops, and such. Aside from tailgating at a Steelers game, spending a Saturday morning on the Strip is about as much fun as you can have in Pittsburgh, or really anywhere. Especially for those, like myself, motivated by great food experiences.

Originally only open for lunch on Saturday and one dinner a month, the café is now open from 6AM to 4PM every day except Sunday. Their only dinner service remains a fixed price five course meal on the first Friday of every month. The café at Enrico’s is visually and aromatically overshadowed by the adjacent bakery with its more visible storefront, larger crowds, and the wafting scent of baking biscotti drifting out onto the sidewalk. I obliviously walked by the café many times before I was tipped off by a friend of its existence. Nestled behind the bakery, the café is accessible through a wrought iron gate and down a narrow alley. Once you walk into the warm space, your eye is immediately drawn to the open kitchen and impressive wood-fired brick oven which dominates the room. Small tables simply clothed with butcher paper encircle the oven, leaving every diner comforted by its nearby presence.

The Saturday lunch menu varies slightly with the seasons, but you’re always sure to find a small selection of pizzas, and “sangweeches”, which are really margherita pizzas folder over and filled with items like fresh salad greens or ham to make a warm sandwich. Pizza this good is hard to come by, especially in Pittsburgh, so I rarely stray from it at lunchtime. The single-serving pizzas are stretched and topped to order, and proficiently fired in Enrico’s wood-burning brick oven, only long enough to perfectly char the crusty bottom, and get the top to bubble up in a tantalizing way. Their crust is so good that the toppings are kept minimal to let the base be the well-deserved star. I love the simplicity of the margherita, topped only with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and torn basil. A friend will always order a simple pizza topped with dried cranberries, blue cheese, olive oil, and salt. Even when it’s not on the menu, the ingredients are always on hand and the kitchen throws it together without a fuss.

Other lunch options are Italian, with some Southern and Cajun items mixed in, highlighting the chef’s skills. Shrimp and grits, rice and beans, beans and greens, and hearty salads are often available alongside plates of rabbit ragu or other seasonal pastas or salads.

Nowadays, a Saturday morning shopping trip to the strip isn’t complete without stopping by the café for lunch. However, Enrico’s really shines at their First Friday dinners. The menu is always a mystery, but will reliably begin with antipasti, move to a salad, followed by pasta, an entrée, and dessert. The pace of the evening is relaxed, spread out over two or three hours to allow the diner to relax, savor the experience with their tablemates, and let the anticipation build between courses.

On a Good Friday meal, the menu was prepared to accommodate anyone who may have been observing lent. The star of that particular show was the single plump scallop which began the meal, encrusted in biscotti crumbs from the adjacent bakery, seared and served in a curry cream sauce. But the pasta that evening was also excellent: linguini cooked al dente, lightly tossed with an unobtrusive sauce of shredded lobster and a hint of vanilla.

On two fall dinners a year apart, the first course ranged from the simple (a slice of prosciutto, some wedges of Italian cheeses, a fire-roasted heirloom tomato, and a chunk of fresh homemade bread to mop it all up with) to the complex (a farinata topped with caramelized onions and a homemade lamb-fig sausage).

Roast pork was served as the entrée at both fall meals, and it was always expertly cooked and paired with seasonal veggies. The deserts tend to be modest and light, and the best I experienced was a sweetened crème fraîche topped with a whole fig and a few fresh berries, haphazardously drizzled with honey. The fig was so ripe that the skin could be broken with the gentlest spoon stroke, allowing the juicy flesh to be scooped up with some of the sweet and sour cream and floral honey.

The salads tend to be made from only a few ingredients, with excellent results. My spring meal featured roasted asperagus and cherry tomatoes, topped with a few wedges of parmesan, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. One memorable fall salad featured the ripest Pennsylvania tomatoes and peaches, cut into similarly sized wedges, tossed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, and some freshly torn basil. Both of these dishes have since become staples in my kitchen, and are always met with rave reviews when served.

Enrico’s is B.Y.O.B., so the diner is encouraged to bring a bottle or two to enjoy with the meal. If you put yourself on the mailing list, you will be notified about special seasonal events hosted in the café. Enrico’s is now Pittsburgh’s only wine producer, and a few weekends a year, they look for volunteers to help with the grape crushing and bottling processes. They also occasionally host tasting nights where loyal customers can come in and hear owner Larry Laguttata educate on ingredients like olive oil or honey, with a few simple dishes prepared to highlight the evening's theme. The joy Larry has running this establishment is apparent. He treats his customers like his best friends, and in return, his restaurant feels like home.

Lunch will cost you $10-15 per person. Dinner is $45 for the fixed price menu. The Enrico Biscotti Company is located at 2022 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA; Call (412) 281-2602 for information or reservations. Due to high demand, reservations for First Friday dinners must often be made several months in advance.

On the web:

Many thanks to Leonardo Reyes-Gonzalez for the excellent fisheye shot of the café entrance. You can see more of his photography on his Flickr page.

Friday, November 21, 2008

I hope you're hungry

Welcome to my blog, the musings of a hungry Canuck living south of the border in Pittsburgh, PA.

By day, I'm a graduate student at a relatively respectful institute of higher learning. My job is fine. I'm not bad at it. However, one of my passions is food. In the evenings, I can't wait to get home, get in the kitchen, and turn good ingredients into great meals. Or, when the situation calls for it, disappear into a local restaurant with friends or loved ones until everyone is deeply satisfied.

The relative lack of responsibility induced by my never-ending student lifestyle also allows for plenty of chances to travel. I was first motivated to start this blog to share memorable eating experiences from around the world. The act of visiting a market, or sharing a meal with people from other countries, other cultures, or even other neighbourhoods can be a profoundly moving one. In these posts, I will describe my favorite eating experiences from Pittsburgh, from my hometown of Montreal, and from the places I am lucky enough to visit in my travels. I will attempt to move beyond restaurant reviews and capture the almost spiritual feeling that a perfect meal can leave you with.

If I'm cooking something particularly interesting, I may also try to capture its essence and post it here. Or, if I'm excited about my tomato crop or something else in my garden, you may hear all about it. Last season's tomatoes were spectacularly delicious.

And pretty.