A friend of mine, Gary, who’s originally from Oakland, had been telling me for a little while about a new restaurant that had opened in lower Lawrenceville, Alida’s Woodfired Cucina. It’s owned by people he knew and one of the partners had also grown up in Oakland. Interested, I spoke with one of my lunch friends, John, about trying Alida’s. He gave it a thumbs up and we were soon off and running.
Alida’s has a comfortable contemporary design feel to it, seats about 80 people in the dining area and another 25 at the bar. We perused the menu and chose an assortment of dishes. The first, calamari, soon arrived. Offered either sauteed or fried, we chose sauteed. The appetizer was also served with a ramekin of marinara sauce. The generous portion of rings and tentacles was cooked just right and accompanied by a little parmesan and lemon.
An Old Favorite
For my main I chose to recreate a pasta dish that I enjoyed when I worked as a bartender and manager for Giannetti’s (a sister restaurant in Shadyside to the noted Pasta Piatto) for a period while earning my marketing M.B.A. at Pitt. On Giannetti’s menu it was gamberi e pesto (shrimp with pesto). On Alida’s menu I recreated it from the Build Your Own Pasta offerings of pasta, sauce, and protein. I chose linguini as the pasta. It was a beautiful sight when it arrived tableside: a good-sized serving of linguini with the greenish tint of pesto and adorned by four grilled shrimp. It was delizioso and brought back fond memories of working at the Italian restaurant in Shadyside.
I hadn’t really noticed what John had ordered, although I knew it was a salad of some sort. When it arrived I was wowed. What is that I asked? John responded “the Alida’s salad.” It was a beautiful cold plate with marinated mushrooms, olives, artichokes, roasted peppers, and mozzarella all beautifully arranged on field greens. He said he thoroughly enjoyed it.
We shared an Autunno Bianca wood-fired pizza with spinach, garlic, mozzarella, extra virgin olive oil, and hot or sweet sausage. We chose the hot sausage. It was a pleasing combination of ingredients that is not often found elsewhere. The pizza crust was cooked to a crisp finish with several good char marks. We wanted to save whatever room we had left for dessert so we put most of the pizza aside for a to-go box.
It was very smart of us to save room for desserts as they were excellent. The tiramisu was a delectably creamy treat with mascarpone cheese, espresso, and lady fingers. John ordered the Pittsburgh classic, pecan ball, and said it was very good. He thought it was made to order and not sitting in a freezer hard as a rock until someone ordered it. John would know; his grandfather was noted Pittsburgh restaurateur Frank Blandi, who owned the legendary Park Schenley restaurant in Oakland for many years and is credited with inventing the pecan ball.
A subsequent visit with another friend, Don, gave additional insights into Alida’s. We kicked off our lunch meal with an order of fried zucchini. It was served with marinara and lemon wedges. The breading was not too heavy and gave a good crunch when bitten into. This trip I ordered another favorite of mine, veal parmigiana. It was a lightly breaded piece of veal sauteed to a perfect crispness, draped with melted mozzarella cheese, marinara sauce, and nestled on a bed of spaghetti. It was a classic Italian dish done properly. The marinara sauce tasted fresh, simple, and not cluttered up with a lot of extra ingredients. For a slight additional charge I ordered escarole and beans as my side. They are superb, with a savory broth at the bottom and some hot pepper flakes sprinkled sparingly throughout for a little extra spark.
Don ordered the Italian panini which featured an impressive selection of soppressata, Genoa salami, prosciutto, Peruvian pepper relish, lettuce, tomato, onion, and extra virgin olive oil. It was served on a large grilled piece of flatbread that was folded over and cut in half. Don said his sandwich was very good, but would have benefited from being made on a slightly smaller piece of flatbread.
We split the Margharita pizza. It was prepared with a simple San Marzano tomato pizza sauce with some small chunks of tomato visible, mozzarella cheese, Romano cheese, garlic, and basil. It was a beautiful sight to behold and wonderful to consume. Take-out boxes were again employed in order to enjoy dessert.
Don and I are both known cannoli aficionados. Alida’s cannoli has a crisply baked outer pastry shell with a sweet filling of ricotta cheese with chopped nuts on each end. It was sprinkled with powdered sugar, drizzled with chocolate sauce, and the plate decorated with a few strawberry halves. Note: Just recently Alida’s discontinued lunch service in order to focus more fully on dinner. The items mentioned in the lunch portion of this review are also available on the dinner menu except for panini.
The Forming of a Great Team
There was a fair amount of serendipity involved in how the partners of Alida’s came together. Partner Eugene DePasquale (son of the late Pittsburgh City Council President Eugene “Jeep” DePasquale) owned the Panther Hollow Inn on Forbes Avenue in Oakland. The owner of the building was selling it and DePasquale was forced to close his business. He said “I didn’t want to open another bar. My plan was to open a restaurant in Lawrenceville. So I paid the fee to place my liquor license on hold. I needed a chef, a manager, and a location. I had patience; if I couldn’t find the right opportunity I would sell the license.”
He started talking to a few people he knew from the restaurant business. He also spoke with his cousin Mark Diulus who grew up in Squirrel Hill and owned an electrical services business. “Mark had the idea and everything else including a chef and manager. All the pieces came together. Mark had been planning on opening a restaurant for years without anyone knowing it,” DePasquale said. Mark’s son Albert Diulus did know, however, as he said it was his dad’s dream for the two of them to open an Italian restaurant together.
DePasquale said ”Mark befriended many chefs and restaurant owners over the years and they were kind enough to give him recipes. Those recipes continued to evolve under Mark’s further crafting of them.” Albert said “My dad grew up in an Italian family where there was great cooking. He wanted to get Alida’s pizza sauce and pasta sauces spot-on perfect, because he comes from an Italian family that made great pizza and pasta sauces.” Alida’s linguini with clams is one of the family’s recipes.The restaurant is named after Mark’s parents Al and Ida (Albert’s grandparents) and is pronounced “Aleedas.” The Gamberale pizza is named after the family’s ancestral home of Gamberale, Italy. Alida’s opened the day after Thanksgiving 2017. Unfortunately, Mark Diulus died this past January, but saw his dream realized.
Both Albert and Eugene say they have a top notch culinary team at Alida’s. Chef Al Romagna is a master of traditional Italian cuisine and has over 40 years of cooking experience. He’s worked at many noted restaurants including Luke Wholey’s Wild Alaskan Grille and Bella Vista in Mt. Washington. Romagna even had his own place, River and Trails Cafe in Saltsburg.
Chef Zane is a rising star chef who has worked at the New Orleans fine dining restaurant Gautreau’s and the city’s National World War II Museum. In Pittsburgh he’s worked at Or, The Whale and Harris Grill. Zane puts a more contemporary, modern touch on certain items including some of the featured pasta dishes such as the Black Pepper Tagliatelle.
The old adage is “Too many cooks spoil the broth”—is that a problem at Alida’s? I asked Eugene and Albert how the two chefs get along and they said they both have a lot of respect for one another and collaborate well.
Also on the culinary team is talented pizza maker Ferdnando Talone who owned Sorrento’s Pizza in Oakland for many years. He is very skilled at getting the pies cooked perfectly in Alida’s wood-fired pizza oven.
Dinner with Friends
Gary, who had originally put me in the know about Alida’s, invited me to join our mutual friends Terri and Guy for dinner there. We kicked it off with a shared stack of fried zucchini and marinara which was again very good. For an entree I chose the lamb, which was served with rapini (broccoli raab), parmesan pancakes, and a saba sauce. The lamb (from New Zealand) is prepared as two double-cut chops grilled with garlic and rosemary. I requested mine be cooked to medium temp, and it was done just right, juicy and flavorful. The chops were positioned on top of the rapini and the triangular-cut pancakes, which were good for sopping up the saba sauce.
Cooked rapini was a nice touch as it’s a vegetable not seen very much on restaurant menus. The saba (grape must sauce) was slightly reminiscent of a little sweeter balsamic reduction sauce. I paired my meal with the Martini Limoncello cocktail (Tito’s vodka, limoncello, and lemon). It was a well-balanced combination of tart and sweet.
Terri offered a piece of her lasagna, and I gladly accepted. It was very tasty with its requisite layers of flat noodles, cheeses, and sauce. It was a little different experience for me as I normally have lasagna with meat sauce. Alida’s serves theirs with marinara. They don’t have Bolognese (meat) sauce on the menu currently, but may offer it again in the future. They do however have fantastic meatballs as I discovered with the Bocce Balls appetizer. It’s two meatballs, each about as big as, well, a bocce ball, served atop a bed of marinara sauce with fried banana peppers. The meatballs are made from ground pork, fresh Italian bread, and seasonings.
At Alida’s just about everything is house made—pasta, sauces, pizza dough, bread, and desserts. Alida’s savory food reflects the difference that is made by having high quality ingredients, skilled chefs, and first rate recipes.
Alida’s menu offers soup, salads, appetizers, a selection of entrees, pastas, and specialty pastas. There are seven featured wood-fired pizzas on the menu, but patrons can customize those with a large selection of additional toppings to get their own custom-made pizza. The pizzas are 12 inches in diameter.
All menu items come in good-sized servings at a reasonable cost, thus delivering solid value. Dinner main dishes range from $16 to $25 and include a side of soup or salad. There are a few items for kids. One could also make a fun meal sharing apps and a pizza and a glass or bottle of wine. The service is attentive and friendly and General Manager Maureen McNally glides through the dining room stopping by tables as well, to make sure everyone is happy and has what they need. And if you want to eat a savory dinner but there’s also a game on that you want to catch, don’t worry: Alida’s has several flat-screen TVs strategically placed around the dining room. The one at the bar has the sound on.
On the beverage side Alida’s offers over 15 beers on tap, and about the same amount of bottled beers. The selection consists of craft brews and some national/international names too. The wine list features an interesting assortment of mainly Italian wines by the bottle and glass. Alida’s makes some fun signature drinks including the Milano Mule, Rossellini, and a Doughboy Sour (they are very close to Lawrenceville’s Doughboy statue, in the Shoppes at Doughboy). Espresso, cappuccino, Gaudianello bottled water, Red Ribbon Sodas, and more are available too.
Alida’s Woodfired Cucina offers a winning combination of exceptional food, great service, sizable portions, and reasonable prices. The restaurant deserves to have a spot in your dining rotation.
Watch master pizza maker Ferdando Talone cook pizza in Alida’s wood-fired oven:
Alida’s Woodfired Cucina
3345 Penn Ave., Lawrenceville
Tuesday through Thursday: 3 – 9 p.m.
Friday & Saturday: 3 – 10 p.m.
Sunday: 3 – 9 p.m.
There is free parking for Alida’s customers in the Shoppes at Doughboy parking lot next to EngineHouse 25 Wines.
Story and photos by Rick Handler, executive producer of Entertainment Central.