Steve Goda has had a long, quiet presence on the Pittsburgh restaurant scene. He's been involved in a number of upscale Italian restaurants, including Cioppino in the Strip District and Bistecca Steakhouse in Washington, PA. In June, he and his wife, Melissa, opened their own restaurant, Arpino Trattoria, in Scott. Arpino is smaller, simpler and more personal then the establishments where Mr. Goda previously worked. Its name refers to Melissa Goda's ancestral home in Italy, a small village in the province of Frosinone, where Mr. Goda also has relatives.
The one-room trattoria is tucked away on a patio at the back of a parking lot in a strip mall. There are other restaurants (>Max & Erma's and Duke's Rib's), but Arpino's immediate neighbors include a uniform store, a podiatrist and a pharmacy&emdash;an unexpectedly suitable assortment reminiscent of a village square. Mustard-colored walls are adorned with framed photos of Arpino street scenes and other images of Italian culture. Pendant lamps in the window cast a warm glow out onto the patio, newly decorated for fall.
Soon after we sat down, servers brought large bottles of tap water and plates of bread from Mediterra, neatly sliced and wrapped in wax paper, served with a small dish of olive oil. Brisk but friendly, they took orders efficiently, opened our wine and left us to enjoy our food and friends with minimal interruptions.
The menu consists of simple appetizers and salads, about a dozen pastas and slightly fewer traditional entrees. Portions were reasonable, and vegetables were easier to come by than at many similar Italian-American restaurants.
For a meal leaning Italian, start with the vegetable antipasti, a generous plate of olives, roasted red peppers, zucchini and eggplant, and marinated artichoke hearts and mushrooms ($8.50).
While all pastas and entrees at Arpino are served with a side salad of mixed greens, cherry tomatoes and thinly sliced arugula, the appetizer menu also includes several salads. Most restaurants solve this double-salad dilemma by allowing diners to upgrade their side salad for a surcharge. At Arpino, the option wasn't printed on the menu, and my server was uncertain about whether it was possible, but after consulting with the kitchen, she confirmed that I could indeed substitute the arugula salad with cherry tomatoes and Pecorino-Romano.
Roman-style rice balls, another good choice, came four to an order on a bed of bright, fresh marinara ($7.50). Bread-crumbed and crispy, they're made from proper risotto with a generous infusion of mozzarella and Pecorino-Romano. A small bowl of calamari, dusted in semolina flour and fried, was light and crispy; this too came with marinara for dipping ($8). While the marinara is tasty and shows up in various guises throughout the menu, the kitchen isn't limited to red sauce.
A spaghetti carbonara was the first dish to catch my eye. It was made in the traditional style with pancetta, egg and Pecorino-Romano, trickier and more rewarding than the cream-based version ($16). The spaghetti was perfectly cooked, textbook al dente, and gently coated in a smooth, rich sauce, an impressive amalgamation of cheese and egg, flavored with sauteed onions and bits of salty pancetta.
Linguine cacio e pepe has fewer ingredients but is equally tricky to execute ($15). This one used just the right proportion of pasta water, olive oil and cheese to form a sauce that was creamy but not heavy. Freshly grated black pepper added a balanced heat to each bite.
Less iconic but equally successful, linguine pomodoro was fresh and summery. The long strands of pasta were lightly coated in garlic and olive oil, finely sliced basil, shreds of fresh mozzarella and a handful of fresh cherry tomatoes, just wilted from the heat of the pasta. Adding on sautéed shrimp, sweet and garlicky, made for a more substantial dish ($17; $21 with four shrimp).
It's worth pointing out that these pastas are not particularly cheap, one consequence of using an artisinal pasta company such as Fede, which ensures a high quality but invariably seems to add a few dollars onto each plate. Some will certainly quibble at paying so much for something that could theoretically be made at home. But pasta made individually and to order, with this much attention to detail, is a fine form of comfort, one for which many will pay a premium.
Entrees were good enough, but didn't reach the heights of the pastas. Eggplant rollatini, a nice change from eggplant parmesan, consisted of thin slices of eggplant, breaded and pan-fried, then folded into a wrapper around a packet of prosciutto, fresh basil and a mix of fresh mozzarella and ricotta cheese ($17). Five small packets were arranged in a ring on a bed of rich gravy. There was a bit too much breading and too little eggplant, and the breading itself became a little soggy on its bed of sauce.
For chicken saltimbocca, a thinly sliced chicken breast was more lightly breaded, and served with the traditional tricolore of prosciutto, mozzarella and sage ($17). It was also blanketed by a less traditional marsala sauce enriched with sautéed mushrooms, the pale brown color slightly dampening the cheerful colors of the saltimbocca garnish. The components were well executed, and the combination of sweet and savory flavors was pleasant enough.
Tripe was an unexpected addition one evening, a regular Wednesday special, we learned. The honeycomb tripe was cooked in the house marinara, a wonderful combination of funky textures and bright, sweet tomato flavor. The tripe had been expertly cleaned and simmered until almost miraculously tender, excellent entry-level offal for those looking to branch out ($14).
Now that the restaurant has been open for a full season, Mr. Goda said he plans to add more entrees, so this portion of the menu may be worth exploring in the future.
For now, go straight from pasta to dessert. The very best was Mrs. Goda's tiramisu ($6). Moist, light and not too sweet, it was a reminder of why this dessert grew so popular in the first place. An olive oil cake from Mediterra was excellent on one visit, threaded with strips of lemon zest, and merely very good on another when the lemons seemed to have gone missing ($6). A whimsical take on the cannoli substituted pizzelles for the pastry shell ($6). Arpino doesn't serve espresso, a perfectly respectable decision, but slightly more elaborate coffee service, such as press-pots, would be a nice addition.
There's reason enough to linger over the meal, enjoying good food, company and a warm feeling of welcome. Mr. Goda is ever attentive, repeatedly greeting every table, joking with friends old and new, in a restaurant where he is very much at home.