Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Emilia Romagna (Strip District)

Update (8/27/2012):  The former Emilia Romagna/Bar ER space will become Taverna 19, a Mediterranean restaurant, bar, and night club.

Update (8/23/2012):  It was announced on Facebook that the bar is also closed (no word yet on the lounge).  However, it appears the same owners are planning something new for the space.  Stay tuned.

Update (8/21/2012): Emilia Romagna announces on Facebook that the dining room is now closed, but cocktails and lounge are still happening.

Would you believe me if I told you that some of the best sushi in Pittsburgh can be found at an Italian restaurant?

Don't believe me? Head to the new Emilia Romagna in the Strip District.

Emilia Romagna is the latest venture of Jonathan and Brandy Vlasic, who also own Alla Famiglia and Arlecchino Ristorante in town.  I have not been to either of their other restaurants, but expect Emilia Romagna to be different from your typical Italian restaurant.  Vastly different.

I guess I already tipped you off with the little tidbit about the sushi.  Here's the scoop: Emilia Romagna occupies a sizable space on 19th Street, between Smallman St and Penn Ave.  The north side houses the cozy dining room, and that is where you'll find the more traditional Italian menu.  The south side is a tremendous cocktail bar along with a sushi bar headed by Chef Matthew Kemp, formerly of Tamari.  Upstairs is a nightclub (V Ultra Lounge), and there is a gorgeous patio out back that extends all the way to 18th Street, complete with a water fountain and beach cabanas.  A very unique setup, to be sure.

I had the pleasure of dining at Emilia Romagna on an invitation a few weeks ago, during their soft opening.  I was back again last week when the same dining buddies suggested a return trip because we were so impressed with the cocktails and food there.  On our first visit, Chefs Cory Hughes and Matthew Kemp offered us a tasting menu consisting of both Italian fare and a sushi sampler.  Among the dishes we had were mussels with haricot vert and sunchoke puree; scallops with a Mediterranean citrus salad and local corn zabaglione; oysters with watermelon, basil mignonette, and hot sauce; lamb chop atop cavatelli, with English pea and mint puree, and lamb neck patted down and served with natural jus; and wood-fired prosciutto and arugula pizza with a perfectly soft, thin dough.  Just as they sound, every dish was an interesting and mouthwatering combination of flavors.  We also split two delicious desserts: A traditionally Italian blackberry crostata and a fluffy cheesecake served with peach sauce.

Our second visit leaned more sushi-heavy.  We asked Chef Matt to give us a tasting of his choice, and these were not the standard (read: boring) sushi you get anywhere else.  Each fish was garnished with a spice or sauce that provided a distinct contrast and brought out the flavor of the fish in a whole new way.  The Zuke or marinated lean tuna, for example, was topped with salmon scale and Thai chili; the Maguro or big eye tuna was served in two different ways - once marinated and served with herbs from their own patio, and once with hazelnut, porchini mushroom powder, hazelnut oil, and fleur de sel; the Salmon sushi was topped with shaved bonito (a type of tuna).  I'm not usually a big fan of rolls, because they tend to be rather bland, but I was pleasantly surprised by the unique ER Kitchen Roll, made with tuna, avocado, kampachi, spicy emulsion, Japanese green onion, dried smoked tuna, flying fish roe, and sesame.  The evening's special was Aji (a Japanese horse mackerel), a very strong-flavored fish, but nicely balanced by the lemony yuzukoshō.

The cocktail menu at Emilia Romagna is extensive, and we enjoyed a fair amount of libation on both visits.  The Bellini (seasonal fruit and prosecco), Dirty Blond (vodka, jalapeno and pineapple olive brine, granny smith apple and blue cheese stuffed olives), Ruby T (vodka, campari, grapefruit juice, grapefruit peel/tarragon/prosecco simple syrup), Banana & Basil (bananas liqueur, fresh basil, honey, water), Gin Gin Mule (bluecoat American gin, fresh lime juice, agave nectar, ginger beer, mint smash), and Cucumber Mint (bluecoat American gin, midori, mint cucumber juice, salt, cucumber wheel) were all very potent and very amazing.  This is a great spot for after-work happy hour.

Needless to say, I snapped my share of photos, some of which I showcase here.  The entire set can be found here.  The lighting (and hence, quality) varies because I lost the benefit of natural lighting sometime mid-meal, and the dining room was quite dimly-lit. Regardless, I hope I was able to do the food some justice.

Chef Cory Hughes of Emilia Romagna
Chef Cory Hughes

Emilia Romagna
Sushi bar, starring Chef Matthew Kemp

Mussels at Emilia Romagna

Sushi Platter at Emilia Romagna
Sushi Platter

Oysters at Emilia Romagna

Mushroom Pizza at Emilia Romagna
Mushroom Pizza

Japanese Snapper at Emilia Romagna
Japanese Snapper sushi atop kombu leaves (giant kelp)

Sashimi Sampler at Emilia Romagna
Sashimi platter

Bigeye Tuna at Emilia Romagna
Big Eye Tuna

Bigeye Tuna at Emilia Romagna
Big Eye Tuna

Kampachi and Salmon Sushi at Emilia Romagna
Kampachi and Salmon sushi

Gin Gin Mule at Emilia Romagna
Gin Gin Mule

Cucumber Melon at Emilia Romagna
Cucumber Mint

During our visits, we had the opportunity to speak with the owner, the manager, the chefs, and the cocktail mixologist.  Every single one of them showed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for their new venture, and hearing them speak so excitedly and passionately about their food and drinks makes you want to embrace the restaurant even more - as though the terrific food didn't already speak for itself!  Emilia Romagna is still fairly new, having just officially opened, and the ristorante-cocktails-sushi-lounge-cabana-bar concept is extremely ambitious.  As such, there are still a few kinks to be worked out, especially in terms of speed of service.  But do give Emilia Romagna a chance, and your belly will thank you.

As a matter of full disclosure, our first meal was complimentary, but we returned as paying patrons for our second meal.  As per my policy, there was no promise of a positive review.

Restaurant info:
Emilia Romagna
108 19th St, Pittsburgh, PA 15222

On the web: http://emiliaromagnapgh.com/
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EmiliaRomagnaPGH
On Twitter: http://twitter.com/er_pgh

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