A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I decided to try a new place that I’d read a lot about, Spork located between Garfield and Lawrenceville on Penn Avenue. Not to be confused with Spoon (another excellent restaurant in Pittsburgh), Spork offers a dynamic menu comprised primarily of small plates, an outstanding cocktail program, and top-notch service. This is a place I am so excited to see thrive in Pittsburgh and I cannot wait to return.
On the left was my choice, the English Garden. A vodka cocktail, with nasturtium (the edible plant you see on top), and a whole lot of muddled cucumber and mint. It was like a far-more-refreshing mojito, bursting with refreshing cucumber and the sweet and tart mint. It was more than welcome on a hot, humid day. On the right is the house featured aperitif, the Cocchi Americano Bianco. A throwback style of apertif wine with Moscato steeped with cinchona (the source of quinine) and lots of citrus and herbs. Very drinkable, smooth and tart, the moscato’s sweetness was kept in balance by the woody cinchona and herbs. The perfect aperitif.
From the “Sharing” section, we chose the cured meats, as our waitress informed us that it contained many elements of other dishes we were interested in. The meats and olives are all cured in house, which was extremely impressive. The bread was crusty and lightly griddle toasted on the outside and wonderfully fresh and soft on the inside, the perfect bread for dipping and running across a board such as this. The pickled onions were devoid of any onion flavor at all and instead carried a wonderful aroma of caraway seeds and garlic. The bread and butter pickles weren’t particularly sweet but still had a nice buttery crunch and bite, which was a nice departure from the standard. The violet mustard was outstanding and complimented the bold flavors of the terrine beautifully. The spicy lomo wasn’t very spicy at all and almost indifferentiable from the pork belly brasciole. The terrine was my favorite of the meats, offering the most intense notes of meat and that porkiness that you get from a very well-cured cut. The other meats were acceptable and enjoyable, but not a high-note of an evening overwhelmingly filled with all-stars.
The arugula salad, with pancetta, pickled mushrooms, and the soft egg was an outstanding forway into the menu itself. Fresh greens, diced tomatoes, and crispy pancetta were all tossed in a nice and tart lemon vinaigrette. The dressing was unnecessary due to the gorgeous soft poached egg on top. The velvety golden yolk did more than its fare share coating the slightly wilted arugula and bacony pancetta. I can’t overstress the simple perfection of the combination of bacon and egg over a lightly dressed salad. What’s not to like?
An absolutely homerun for me, was the hummus (from the “Jars”) section of the menu. The still-chunky hummus was generously topped with dates, honey, and smoked almonds for a sweet garlicky crunchy dip that could have just as easily been offered on the dessert menu. The perfect consistency of smooth and soft blended hummus and tahini, dotted with those crunchy smokey nutty almonds and soft and sweet dates and honey made the jar into an outrageously magnificent spread for the incredible bread. I could eat a bathtub full of this stuff and still want more. Can’t miss.
From the “Bites” portion of the menu, we decided on the arancini. A lightly-fried risotto ball, filled with mushrooms, prosciutto, and provolone, it was outstandingly rich with a light crispy texture. The house-made tomato sauce dotted with freshly shaved parmigiano reggiano combined together sweet and salty, tart and earthy, to elevate the mushrooms and cheese within. An outstanding dish and the arancini we’d been hoping for since our meal at Wooden Nickel (not linked because that place is awful).
We enjoyed the chestnut gnocchi from the “pasta” section of the menu. The slices of prosciutto, crispy bits of kale, and wine reduction all carried the extremely dense and heavy chestnut gnocchi. Soft and dense, the gnocchi were far more substantial than I’ve seen in other dishes, but were welcomed alongside such strong flavor profiles as the bitter and tart kale, the red wine, and the salty and fatty prosciutto. A very filling and well-composed dish, I look forward to trying this again in the colder months ahead.
My pork cheeks unfortunately fell short of the mark. Overcooked and tough, the usually tender pork meat had a very strong bark on the outside and became my least favorite part of the dish, composed nicely with a crispy fried polenta cake that was light and delightful, and a sweet apple slaw. I wanted to like it more and it could have just been the cut or how it was sitting while our other plates were coming out, but I will definitely be trying other dishes from their “composed” section before returning to this one.
By this time, it was getting very late, so we decided to share a pot of their French Press Coffee (extremely affordable by the 10oz or 26oz serving) and a dessert. We decided on the affogato, a very strong espresso shot, poured over a ladylock and homemade sweet cream vanilla ice cream. I think my error was ordering and enjoying the coffee alongside this dessert. It just became a muddled mess of strong coffee bitterness without enough sweet. The cookie was beautifully light and airy, but easily dominated by the strong coffee. The ice cream, too, quickly admitted defeat and even more quickly melted to create a pool from which to spoon from. I’m confident this was error on my part and possibly not knowing what to expect from this classic Italian dessert.
The service was outstanding all night, with perfect pacing between plates, always full water glasses, and checking on us once we’d been able to dig into the plates delivered during that course. I was impressed by the whole front and back of house with their ability to work as one, cohesive, dynamic team. Service is one of those things that you don’t notice unless it’s absolutely awful or absolutely amazing. I was impressed the entire night. Again, as before with even some of the weaker dishes, the promise and skill of this menu keeps me excited to return and try an all-new variety of plates from all of the various sections (and of course more of that hummus!).