Somewhat like Nied’s, Zarra’s Italian Restaurant is a place that’s On The Way. That is to say, you may have noticed it, like we did, while headed elsewhere. In the past few years, we’ve driven past the place at least a hundred times; it’s On The Way on our favorite route between Lawrenceville and Squirrel Hill, right on Bigelow Boulevard where it veers right toward the Pitt campus.
What is this neon-signed little place? Fox and I would wonder as we drove by. A bit of research showed that it was an Italian restaurant. A little further research (which I literally just did) showed that it was an Italian restaurant established on the site of former Pittsburgh punk rock/new wave venue, the Electric Banana — with both incarnations owned by the same owners. The Banana closed in ’99 (right about the time I had begun going to punk, rock, and hip hop shows in the area), and reopened two months later as Zarra’s, which it has remained ever since.
This actually explains quite a bit for me.
Zarra’s is much bigger on the inside than the storefront would indicate. And nearly every inch of every wall is decorated with some sort of quirky stuff. For example (and we sadly don’t have a picture because it would have required a walking tour and many other-tabular dinner interruptions), every few feet on each wall hangs some sort of decorative weaponry. There are greatswords (plus full suit of armor), battle axes, flintlock pistols, a samurai sword (odd for an Italian joint, not so odd for a punk-rock-venue-turned-Italian-joint)…and two glass cases of switchblades in the corner! We didn’t photo the switchblades, but here is what sits below the switchblades:
It also explains (for me, anyhow), the one-footed mannequin who was pretending to read, but also possibly plotting my death if only the room weren’t so full. (I really was skeeved out by the guy. I gave him no less than 35 glances rightward during our 90 minute meal, at a rate that only increased as other dinner guests filed out.)
We started off with the Calamari Antipasto, which was fresh calamari steamed and served chilled, with balsamic vinaigrette, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, kalamata olives, diced almonds, and dried cranberries. This was an top-shelf app. It was light and flavorful, and the hint of sweetness from the cranberries was an inspired touch, leavening the acidity and tanginess of the balsamic just enough. It was also great for…
Our entrees each came with salad, with an option to add on bleu cheese and/or anchovies. I had the bleu cheese, while Fox got both (pictured here). The salads were surprisingly huge, and the beets were super tender and tasty with the cheese. The dressing that came on the salad was also very light.
Which was a good thing, because from then on the meal got heavy. Fox’s entree was a massive order of Pollo Romano, which was breaded and fried chicken breast with a little bit of grated romano cheese, along with sautéed mushrooms, penne with marinara, and sautéed spinach. The chicken here was cooked to the right tenderness, but the flavor didn’t really stand out (it could have used more cheese and maybe some more seasoning in the breading itself), and the sautéed veggies didn’t really cohere with the rest of the dish.
I opted to get a little bit of everything with the Zarra’s Sampler. It came with lasagna, eggplant romano, sautéed spinach, a meatball and a sausage. The meatball and sausage both had that awesome, cooked-all-day texture and flavor; it really took on the characteristics of what was a pretty darn good red sauce. The eggplant romano had a soft, almost mushy texture that indicated it might have been overcooked a little, but the lasagna was totally delicious, with the sweet ricotta really balancing well with the zesty sauce. Speaking of sauce…as you can tell, there was a metric ton of it on the plate, which is where that second basket of bread became quite important.
We ate about half of our entrees and got the rest boxed in order to save room for dessert. We decided to go with the Tiramisu, which had a little bit different presentation than we were used to. For me, the dessert was my least favorite part of the meal. The chocolate and cherry sauces on top of the dish were just too heavy and overwhelming. Fox didn’t mind it so much, but I think what irked me most about it was that the tiramisu itself was actually really good, if you could get a bite without sauce on it. But those were hard to come by. The sauce was just unnecessary.
So…I hate ending on a negative note like that; here’s my final takeaway. I’d definitely go to Zarra’s again. The lasagna is really good (and makes for a great leftover, too), the calamari antipasto is flat-out excellent, and the overall feel is undeniably unique. I’d just wrap up with a simple scoop of ice cream at the end of the meal instead.