3-15-17 / Cenacolo / Irwin, PA

Lobster Agnolotti, spinach, tomatoes, in a cheddar truffle cream sauce

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.

Truffle Popcorn
Truffle Popcorn (Complimenti) from Cenacolo

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.

Selection of 4 cheeses (Scamorza, Truffle Cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Cabot Clothbound Cheddar) and 2 meats (Speck and Hot Sopressata)
Affettato y Formaggi

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.

House arugula salad with shaved aged provolone, grape tomatoes, and a sweet balsamic glaze dressing
House Arugula Salad

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.

Lobster Agnolotti, spinach, tomatoes, in a cheddar truffle cream sauce
Lobster Agnolotti

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.

Fudge Brownie, salted caramel sabayon custard, whipped cream, shaved chocolate
Salted Caramel Brownie Sabayon

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.

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6-4-16 / Mezzo (2nd Floor of Sienna Mercato) / Pittsburgh, PA

A couple of weekends ago, my wife and I were Downtown to see a show Saturday night at the Arcade Comedy Theater. We decided it’d be ideal to head to a restaurant and utilize their valet service rather than trying to negotiate the ballet that is parking, enjoying dinner, and seeing a show Downtown. We had previously enjoyed Emporio and found it quite competent in style/substance, so we decided to head up the steps to their “showcase of gourmet Italian fare” upstairs at Mezzo. While it certainly was Italian, I can guarantee that, I found many of the dishes, elements, and concepts to be muddled or under-executed.

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For cocktails, my wife went with the Bella Ragazza (Sobieski, Brachetto, Lime, and Orange, the tall red glass on the left) and I went with the Words Once Spoken (Meletti, Lemon, Apricot Liqueur, and Maraschino). Sobieski (the Polish Vodka, not the 90s actress) was very strong in terms of an alcoholic kick and easily overpowered the light strawberry finishes of the Brachetto and citrus notes. It was strong and tart, but not much else. My drink, in addition to being far more dramatically titled, was a far better cocktail. The light aromatic Meletti Amaro blended with the tart sweetness of the apricot, maraschino, and lemon to form a very smooth and sweetly sour drink. Very similar to an Italian sour, I was impressed and would have ordered a second if I’d had the chance.

We decided to take advantage of their premiere offerings and went with the Cheese Board (when presented with the option between “local” and “Italian” we chose “Italian”) and the Castelvetrano Olives. Easily the best part of the charcuterie board, the Castelvetrano Olives were meaty, fresh, and had that perfect, almost-mushroom texture of the beautiful olives. The cheeses fared far less successfully. A combination of 2 identical aged cow’s milk (Reggiano Parmesan and Grana Padano), 2 identical soft sheep’s-milk (Robiola and Taleggio), and a forgettable and overly mild Mountain Gorgonzola. The spiced and sugared walnuts, as well as the prune jam added nice elements to an otherwise mild and bland cheese plate. I admittedly had my expectations set very high before even ordering, as Mezzo advertises themselves as a locale for Charcuterie, Italian Charcuterie specifically. Perhaps it was an off-night, maybe they’d run out of better options earlier in the night (we were there at 7:30 on a Saturday) or perhaps there was a mix-up in the kitchen. Whatever it was, I felt very let down by the lackluster offerings.

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The hits kept coming with my entree, the Pork “Cut of the Day” (in this case the boneless loin), with horseradish whipped potatoes, roasted broccoli, and rosemary jus. We’d also ordered a side of Shishito Peppers as well as a side of the Charred Broccoli (served with Parmesan), but the waitress came over and asked if we’d rather substitute the Spaghetti Squash for the broccoli since I was already receiving broccoli with my pork. We opted for the substitution and the broccoli was delivered only on my plate, sans parmesan, which is desperately needed. The pork, especially for being the special cut of the day, was dry and overcooked. The chef recommended Medium and while I usually go for Medium Rare, I always trust in the chef’s recommended temperature when it comes to lamb/pork. The jus was necessary to provide some kind of flavor to a tough piece of pork. The plate found itself with a vegetable that had long since been forgotten in the oven to go beyond roasting and approach burnt, and a potato whipped beyond any hope of retaining any of the spicy bite of the horseradish or literal chew of the potato that comes from homemade whipped potatoes.

The two Contorni (side dishes) as mentioned above were the Shishito Peppers on the left and the Spaghetti Squash on the right. I had such fond memories of the Shishito Peppers from Las Vegas at Carnevino that I had to order them to see if that magic could be captured again. Gone were the smokey, soft, charred, roasty flavor of grilled peppers and instead they seemed to be tossed in just a little too much olive oil and topped with a little too much parmesan (there are vegetables under there, I swear!). The red onion and cherry tomatoes didn’t add much, especially after you roast them until they’re soft and limp. The spaghetti squash, shaved and served with a heavy hand of black pepper truffle honey, fared the best out of all of the dishes. Just slightly undercooked, the noodles of hashbrown-like squash were tossed with the thick sauce, creating almost a truffled alfredo of sorts. It was the pasta course I never asked for, but accepted wholeheartedly nonetheless.

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My wife, opting for something unique from the wildly uneven menu, went with the Homemade Sausage Panini. I don’t know what the goal was, or even what the vision was, but I have to assume it missed the mark. Accurately described as being served with mozzarella, there certainly was a lot of the heavy, gooey cheese. Also described as being served with a peppernota, but it instead seemed to have a handful of greasy onions and yellow peppers instead. Finally, in the strangest move of all, the “homemade sausage” was, hand-to-God, some kind of bologna. Tasting of garlic and not much else, the pink, meat loaf was cut in slices far more akin to a spam or caseless hot dog. To be 100% fair, bologna is a traditional Italian sausage, but I would have much rather it be advertised as a fried bologna sandwich instead.

 

All in all, we either severely ordered incorrectly or they missed their mark. I feel like a lot of the issues I had can be attributed to an attitude that comes along with being an established restaurant downtown. They know their clientele (happy hour crowds, bachelorette parties [we saw 4]), they can deliver at a price point with a wine/cocktail list large enough to keep them drinking long enough to serve mediocre food and come away looking like a far better restaurant than they are. Stick with the first floor and the meatballs. I don’t think I’ll be venturing up to Il Tetto (their rooftop beer garden), mostly out of a fear that the further I get from the street, the further I get from good food.