We’ll be judging our five places on a five-point scale, using one-two-three-four-five criteria:
1) Presentation — how well is the charcuterie arranged?
2) Taste Bud Balance — how distinctly, and in what proportion, do we get sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami flavors?
3) Dipping Options — basically, what sorts of jellies, purees, and sauces make a showing?
4) Variety — what animals do the cheeses and meats come from? What are their textures? From where did they originate?
5) Personality — sort of a freestyle category; what unique touches or flare does the restaurant offer with regard to the charcuterie?
So, without further ado, let’s dig in to the first spot on our 2015 Charcuterie Face-Off: Vallozzi’s Pittsburgh.
Located downtown, we decided to come here first because of how prominent the charcuterie program is within the restaurant. The plates are all prepared by their chef de cuisine, Steve Lanzilotti, at the restaurant’s mozzarella bar.
After much deliberation, we decided to start with an Italian Cheese Tasting, the West Loop Salumeria Plate, and an order of the Caprese.
The Italian Cheese Tasting consisted of verde capra, taleggio, and Parmigiana-Reggiano cheeses, with an arugula pistachio pesto and some roasted red pepper. The verde capra paired smashingly with the red pepper. Both had a moderate flavor (surprisingly so for a bleu cheese), with neither overpowering the other. The Parmigiana-Reggiano went nicely with the pesto; the cutting sharpness of the cheese needed something to mellow it a touch, and the sweet pistachio did just that, with the arugula chiming in with a little extra touch of complexity. Very nicely done. As for the taleggio — it was creamy and had a nice slight fruitiness to it. It came to life with just a little crust of bread to spread it on.
The West Loop Salumeria Plate included lardo on crostini, guanciale-wrapped arugula, sweet sopressata infused with Lambrusco, and coppa dolce (aka, sweet capicola). The lardo was delicious, but the true star for me was the guanciale — its savory, salty flavor was very effectively tempered by the sprig of bitter arugula. It was a really smart combination.
The Caprese had buffalo mozzarella, tomato, basil, and extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic. The sweet mozzarella complimented the tart balsamic, but to be honest, we felt that the acidity of the tomatoes at times overpowered the delicate cheese.
After that round of dishes ended, we decided that we could go a little further and ordered two more plates.
First we jumped into fish-land and got the Hamachi, which was topped with creamy lobster salad, balsamic caviar, and chili oil. The chili oil was a really nice touch; it cut back the fishiness of the hamachi and allowed the lobster salad and the caviar to shine.
Our final dish of the night was the Bresaola. It was composed of cured beef tenderloin, arugula, more of the Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a touch of truffle oil. I always get a little wary when I see truffle oil in an ingredient list, but I was happy to find that the oil was expertly applied, with just the lightest of drizzlings to enhance the flavor of the beef — and not so much that it lingered for an hour on your palate, the way misapplied truffle oil can.
So, obviously we enjoyed ourselves and found a whole lot to like. So where does Vallozzi’s fall on the five-point scale?
1) Presentation: 0.9 out of a possible 1.0. Watching each dish be prepared, we could see the care going into each arrangement, and we were duly impressed. The only exception for me was the Bresaola; the oil could make the thinly shaved cheese sort of disappear into the plate, and made it hard to know where to start in breaking the dish into bites.
2) Taste Bud Balance: another 0.9. Every part of the tongue got lit up with the various flavor combinations, with the sole black mark being on the Caprese, where the tomatoes tended to swallow up the flavor of the mozzarella.
3) Dipping Options: 0.7. While the ricotta for our bread was delicious, and the pistachio arugula pesto was a delightful surprise, there wasn’t much going on beyond the cheeses and the meats.
4) Variety: 0.8. The meats/fish had a lot going on in terms of variety, but the cheese menu is, not surprisingly, largely zoned-in on mozzarellas. Not a bad thing, but we do like more cheeses/locales to choose from.
5) Personality: We loved being able to see the production of our plates, and the special bar for mozzarella/charcuterie really shows how seriously this place takes its craft. And while we docked some tenths for variety, the notion of a mozzarella bar is so novel to us that it convinced us to up the score here to a perfect, full point.
Final score for Vallozzi’s: a 4.3 out of 5. Definitely recommended (especially on a Monday night, when things aren’t crazy crowded)!