Located only a 20 minute drive away from Pittsburgh, Cenacolo is an authentic, high-quality Italian restaurant focusing primarily on fresh, homemade pastas. I recently met some friends for an incredible meal and while we ordered quite a bit, the leftovers made for a wonderful reminder of the lovely meal we shared. An outstanding find just a small jaunt away from the city, Cenacolo is the restaurant-front for Fede Artisan Pasta. A beautifully curated menu with something for everyone, Cenacolo is a can’t miss pasta experience rivaling the best of what the city has to offer. Huge portions, affordable prices, and outstanding service, Cenacolo is absolutely worth the drive out of town to the usually-barren surrounding suburbs.
We decided to share quite a few appetizers while we drank and talked, so it was only natural to start with the Truffle Popcorn. Expecting a small cup or two, this was an overflowing bowl of freshly popped popcorn, covered liberally with drizzled melted butter and truffle salt. The crunchy popcorn was softened only slightly by the butter and exploded with the earthy, unctuous truffle flavor. This was not a simple, mindless movie snack, this was prepared to stand up and demand to be recognized. This was a good sign for the bold flavors and smart seasoning that was intended to last the entire meal.
Two of the shared appetizers that we ordered were the Carciofini Fritti (left) and Stracciatella (right). The fried artichokes were sprinkled with freshly shaved parmigiano-reggiano and served with a chiffonade of basil and half of a grilled lemon. Lightly battered, far from greasy, perfectly golden-brown and crunchy, the artichokes were all of the best parts of a fritti.The pairing of the cooked and prepared lemon was an excellent move, elevating the simple addition of citrus with deeper flavors from the char.
The Stracciatella was more like a dessert than I’d expected, with the sweet prosciutto, the golden buttery toasted bread, and the smooth, creamy cheese topped with honey and sliced almonds. Combining all of the elements created a truly decadent bite. The stracciatella itself was like the more rustic cousin of a burrata but with more body and more forward creamy, dairy notes. The prosciutto only enhanced that deep milk flavor with its buttery, creamy fat and salty pork. An excellently composed and unique dish.
I’d be hard-pressed to overlook a good cheese board opportunity and our visit to Cenacolo was no different. We opted for the Seven Selection Assortment (of their daily choices of 10 meats and cheeses), choosing the Scamorza, Gouda, Truffle Cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, Hot Sopressata, and Speck (guanciale). Unfortunately, we were informed that they were out of the Gouda, so we opted for a double-order of the Truffle Cheddar. All of the cheese options were excellent, beautiful crumbly salty parmigiano, creamy aged cheddar, and earthy and smooth truffle cheddar. The scamorza I was less familiar with, but nonetheless impressed by its mild, nutty texture almost like that of a young, dried mozzarella. The hot sopressata was excellent and peppery and the speck provided a gorgeous strong flavor of cured pork that can only come from a long time investment. Again, those buttery-rich slices of toasted bread were perfectly crispy and crunchy around the outside and golden delicious inside, the perfect vehicle for any topping or alone.
All entrees came with a house arugula salad, liberally dressed with slices of provolone, halved grape tomatoes, and a house-made sweet balsamic reduction. The peppery blast of the arugula was balanced beautifully by the sharp salt bite of the cheese, the tart acidity of the tomatoes, and the sweet sour balsamic vinegar. A really nice and light step up into the main course.
I chose the Lobster Agnolotti, lovely half-moons of squid-ink pasta shells stuffed with a chopped and blended spinach lobster mixture served with grape tomatoes roasted until they’d burst, and an outrageously rich cheddar truffle cream sauce. Cenacolo is, at its heart, a pasta restaurant and they take it and run with it to the moon. Perfectly portioned shells, cooked to a perfect al dente, gorgeously enveloped in a rich cream sauce. Many times the inclusion of roasted tomatoes and spinach can lead a dish to contain a watery run-off, especially if the pasta isn’t drained and dried properly, causing a battle between the sauce and water. This is so far from the case at Cenacolo, with the truffle cream sauce holding it all together. From the sweet and savory lobster stuffing, to the acid sweetness of the baby tomatoes, to the earthy cheesy goodness that was the cheddar truffle cream sauce, everything was perfectly balanced and seasoned, allowing the entire dish to come together in cohesive glory.
We finished the meal with a shared dessert, coffees as well as a salted caramel fudge brownie custard. A beautiful vanilla sabayon, thick and creamy, studded with pieces of fudge brownie, layers of homemade whipped cream, salted caramel sauce, and shaved chocolate. Rich and decadent, but actually balanced nicely with the custard, it was a wonderful ending to an extravagant feast.
Complimentary hazelnut cookies and a shot of house-made limoncello came out for the final bite of the evening, but unfortunately I didn’t get a shot of it before they were disseminated and devoured. It was an excellent meal from beginning to end and even quite affordable for the sheer amount of food that was shared amongst the group. I’m hard-pressed to think of a restaurant anywhere that does pasta as well as Cenacolo does, let alone just in Pittsburgh, but in most of my travels. Even better, they sell their fresh pasta and gnocchi by the pound so you can take it and enjoy it fresh, made in the comfort of your own home. If you’re in the mood for pasta and not afraid of driving an extra 25 minutes out of your way, I can’t recommend Cenacolo highly enough; just make sure to bring along a big group of friends to help you eat it all.