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Our culinary heritage

When it comes to Pittsburgh foods, many of our favorite dishes are covered or smothered or dunked in red sauce. That’s in part because of who we are: Pennsylvania follows New York and New Jersey with the highest percentage of Italian-Americans, with over 1.4 million residents boasting Italian heritage, according to the National Italian-American Foundation.

For this, we can thank immigrants mostly from Calabria, Abruzzi and Sicily who came to this region in the late 1800s as mill workers, masons and bricklayers. As the community took root, Italian families needed Italian markets, Italian taverns and Italian restaurants. And some of those restaurants have had remarkable staying power, feeding hundreds of customers at a time, in some cases, for generations.

But those restaurants weren’t necessarily serving dishes you’d see on menus in Palermo or Naples. Instead, they made a mark offering their takes on Italian-American dishes for which red sauce is vital, such as chicken Parmesan — blanketed with red sauce. Or lasagna — layered with red sauce. And even fried zucchini — served with red sauce on the side.

Today, we’re celebrating these Italian-American dishes and the restaurants that serve them with a series: The Pittsburgh Red Sauce Project, with a focus on family-run, Italian-American spots that have been around for a decade or more.

Years into the restaurant boom, many of these mainstays can seem like throwbacks, whether or not their tables are dressed in checkered cloths and wicker-wrapped Chianti bottles. But the dishes they’re serving are part of our identity. And their ubiquity in the region reminds us that red sauce flows through our veins — and that’s why we love them.

As we continue with the series, we want to hear from you. Nominate your favorite Italian-American dishes and tell us why they're great. Reminisce about family-owned places that you love, as well as those that you’ve lost. Send emails to redsauceproject@post-gazette.com and hashtag #redsauceproject on Instagram.

From white-tablecloth stalwarts to updated classics, neighborhood BYOBs to wine-pairing destinations, there’s an Italian-American restaurant for every craving. 

--Melissa McCart

(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)
(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Alla Famiglia

The most decadent Italian-American spot in the city comes with the most fanfare — such as a free Mercedes van pickup within 5 miles of the restaurant, or tableside cooking at one of the trolleys stationed around the restaurant. And while a 24-ounce veal chop Milanese at $72 may seem quite decadent — and it is — there’s plenty to take home or to share.

804 E. Warrington Ave., Allentown
412-488-1440

(Courtesy of Calabria’s)
(Courtesy of Calabria’s)
Sundried tomatoes and gulf shrimp linguine. (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)
Sundried tomatoes and gulf shrimp linguine. (Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette)

Gran Canal Caffe

Open since 1995, Michael and Antoinette Bonaventura’s place is a favorite of folks who want a nice meal that won’t break the bank. Expect warm service and full pours of wines that complement handmade veal cannelloni or chicken marsala. And don’t skip starters such as the artichokes alla Romana or Italian-style escargot.

1021 N. Canal St., Sharpsburg
412-781-2546

Veal osso buco. (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette)
Veal osso buco. (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette)

Girasole

Tucked in a basement that feels like a wine cave, this neighborhood haunt offers all things Italian-American, from spaghetti and meatballs to orecchiette with rapini and sausage. “The success is there is always a family member present,” says Jennifer Gerasole (yes, her name is spelled differently from the restaurant name). Don’t miss the veal osso buco Milanese served with saffron risotto and basil gremolata — served only on the last weekend of the month. It’s $38 and comes with soup, salad and bread.

733 Copeland St., Shadyside
412-682-2130

(Ralph Musthaler/Post-Gazette)
(Ralph Musthaler/Post-Gazette)

Joseph Tambellini Restaurant

More than a decade ago, Joseph Tambellini and his wife, Melissa, opened this spot in the former home of Laforet on Bryant Street. It was one of eight restaurants run by different owners that bore the family name. Today, it’s the last Tambellini restaurant within city limits. You won’t see framed family photos. What you will find is a white tablecloth, family-run spot delivering top-notch service and satisfying fare. Get the meatballs, because they are simple and delicious, soft and luxurious.

5701 Bryant St., Highland Park
412-665-9000

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(left to right) Dolce amore, pasta sorrentino (foreground), veal scarpariella (background) and dolce cannoli (dessert on far right). (Andy Starnes/Post-Gazette)
(left to right) Dolce amore, pasta sorrentino (foreground), veal scarpariella (background) and dolce cannoli (dessert on far right). (Andy Starnes/Post-Gazette)

La Tavola Italiana

The Giaramitas will celebrate the restaurant’s 25th anniversary next year — and they’ve made several changes to the menu over the years as customers’ tastes have changed. But pasta is still the go-to dish at this folksy destination, where there are still white tablecloths and decidedly unpretentious service. Consider the pasta Carmela with banana peppers, tomato and garlic — or for more casual mood, one of the pizzas. Regulars tend to order the specials, such as jumbo sea scallops with a rack of lamb, La Tavola’s take on surf and turf.

1 Boggs Ave., Mount Washington
412-481-6627

(Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)
(Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

Legends Eatery

Over half the clientele is regulars says chef-owner Dan Bartow. His down-to-earth spot next to Allegheny General Hospital steals hearts with greens and beans, penne alla vodka, veal Parm and chicken Romano. While taking over a big table is a soulful substitute for those who don’t have a Nonna cooking Sunday supper, the seats at the bar with a view of the kitchen are pretty great, too. Consider Mr. Bartow’s specials and save room for his wife Zoe’s desserts.

500 E. North Ave., North Side
412-321-8000

(Courtesy of Lombardozzi)
(Courtesy of Lombardozzi)

Lombardozzi

Open since 1973, this stalwart has maintained its reputation with its lunch buffet — chicken, meatballs, sausage, pasta, appetizers, salad, soup and dessert, for $10.95 Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. or so. Tony Sr. and Tony Jr. still run the place.

4786 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield
412-682-5785

(Adam Milliron for Piccolo Forno)
(Adam Milliron for Piccolo Forno)

Piccolo Forno

The late Antonio Branduzzi and his wife, Carla, opened Piccolo Forno in the Strip District before their son Domenic’s debut of the Lawrenceville location in 2005. Today, the Branduzzi name remains among the most beloved in Pittsburgh Italian restaurants, because of the family’s warm hospitality and its rustic Italian cuisine. Even as Dom has expanded his restaurant group, Piccolo Forno remains BYOB — so bring a bottle that pairs well with lasagna Toscana, layered with beef ragu and bechamel.

3801 Butler St., Lawrenceville
412-622-0111

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(Melissa McCart/Post-Gazette)
(Melissa McCart/Post-Gazette)

Pleasure Bar

Pleasure Bar has been around since 1941, under three different family owners, although little has changed regarding the retro decor and the giant portions of pasta for a budget-friendly price. Get the Italian Medley of eggplant Parm, stuffed manicotti, soup, salad and a side of pasta for $15.

4729 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield
412-682-9603

(Courtesy of Rizzo’s Malabar Inn)
(Courtesy of Rizzo’s Malabar Inn)

Rizzo’s Malabar Inn

It’s an old-fashioned Italian-American restaurant that’s so vast that, at 450 seats, it seems like it could feed the whole Westmoreland County town of Crabtree. The restaurant has been around since 1935 when Jerry DeFabo’s grandparents opened a bar and company store on the first floor of their house and called it Malabar Inn. By 1954, Rezero — Rizzo — added his moniker to the name. Four generations of the family have run the place. Consider a trip out here for polenta as a starter, veal Parm, beef braciole, housemade pasta and desserts. Don’t miss the house Montepulciano wine.

126 Rizzo Road, Crabtree
724-836-4323

The entrance to Sarafino’s in Crafton displays portraits of the founders. (Melissa McCart/Post-Gazette)
The entrance to Sarafino’s in Crafton displays portraits of the founders. (Melissa McCart/Post-Gazette)

Sarafino’s

This family-run spot features the Caliguire portraits by the entrance and a model train overhead in a charismatic worn-in dining room with big windows that look out to the street. It’s BYOB at this spaghetti-and-meatballs spot, served briskly with a giant salad and bread. Be sure to ask for specials, too.

40 E. Crafton Ave., Crafton
412-922-8911

Bucatini carbonara. (Courtesy of Christina Emilie Photography)
Bucatini carbonara. (Courtesy of Christina Emilie Photography)

Vallozzi’s Greensburg

Matriarch Helen Vallozzi opened Vallozzi’s in 1955 with her son Ernie, and grandsons Dante and Julian taking the helm over the years. Today, chef Josiah Henry oversees the kitchen here and at the Downtown Pittsburgh location that opened in 2012, where he turns out homemade pasta in particular. Don’t miss his rendition of Helen’s gnocchi with sausage, cherry tomato ragout and broccoli rabe.

855 Georges Station Road, Greensburg
724-836-7663

Design: Dan Marsula | Development: Laura Malt Schneiderman

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