Cajun Meets Italian-Pittsburgh Post Gazette Woodene Merriman

cajunmeetsWoodene Merriman, Weekend Mag – April, 1999

In a perfect world, the chef would have tossed my salad just before serving, I wouldn’t have ordered the roasted garlic, and the man at the next table would shut up.

But it isn’t a perfect world. And that guy’s droing on and on about his trip to Italy, many years ago. Everybody at his table looks bored, and so are we. What if His Honor wants to whisper sweet nothings into my ear? I’d never hear them.

For a few minutes, when the loud talker pauses to go to the rest room, Angelo’s has the happy hum of people chatting and laughing, and H.H. and I get to discuss the roasted elephant garlic. It needs something to make it more palatable – a little more olive oil, perhaps. The big roasted cloves are soft and spreadable, but not as sweet as we expected, and the toasted bread served with it is dry. Next time, we’ll go back to the Italian flatbread appetizer. It’s terrific.

And the poor salad: It has good ingredients – iceberg and other greens, olives, tomato, a little salami, a little cheese – but it was plated and held in the refrigerator. The salad lost some of its crispness in the chilling. Disappointing.

Angelo’s is a popular landmark in Washington. Originally it was the West Chestnut Spaghetti Inn, started in 1939 by Angelo and Giacomina Passalacqua. At first it was a tavern, then Giacomina started serving her spaghetti and meatballs, Italian bread and fried shrimp. Eventually son Silvio and daughter Carmelina, their spouses and other members of the family ran the restaurant, which has been called Angelo’s since 1958. Now grandson Michael Passalacqua is the third generation in charge, and they’re celebrating 60 years in business in the same spot.

Angelo’s menu today is a mix of traditional (veal saltimbocca, fettucine Alfredo, chicken marsala) and contemporary (Heart Smart dishes for the health concious, original creations, and several Cajun dishes).

L.A. pasta, for example, tastes more Cajun than Italian. It is a very spicy, dark linguine dish with boneless blackened chicken pieces, sweet peppers and mushrooms, Cajun spices and a clam sauce. L.A., by the way, stands for Louisiana.

My favorite entree is Pasta Lacqua, which was created by Michael’s sister Tonne when she was at the restaurant. Fresh green beans and tomatoes area sauteed with garlic, white wine and Romano cheese and tossed over imported green and white fettucine. It’s a simple dish with great flavor. Must be the wine, H.H. says. Tonight we’re having the veal roast, served in a sea of very peppery, very good portabello mushroom sauce, and citrus sea bass, which comes on a bed of lightly deep-fried spinach. The thick cut of sea bass, moist and glistening white, actually tastes better than it looks. It’s topped with slices of lemon and lime, blackened around the edges from the hot oven. We can detect no citrus flavor, but it’s a nice piece of fish, cooked just right so it is not dry. Michael Passalacqua calls the menu “inventive regional cuisine”. One of the inventions is Italian flatbread served as an appetizer, the restaurant’s most popular appetizer. It’s an Italian dough, rolled very thin and baked with olive oil, oregano, fresh basil and garlic, then topped with thin slices of red tomato and grated Romano cheese. There are variations – you canhave it with prosciutto, roasted peppers and mozzarella cheese, and couple of other ways – but we like it plain, with just tomato and cheese. Nothing interferes with the flavor of the crisp, fresh baked flatbread. George Ward created the flatbread when he worked at Angelo’s. Now he has a restaurant of his own, Cafe Georgio’s in Bethel Park, and flatbread is one of the specialties. Everyone who has worked in the kitchen has influenced the menu, Michael says. Tonne introduced more veal and seafood to the lineup; Mark “Red” Rayner, who was chef for a time in the early ’80s, introduced the Cajun flavors. Rayner went on to start Cafe Allegro, and now is about to become a medical doctor, like so many others in his family. He graduates from medical school this spring. A penne dish is topped with portobello mushrooms sauteed with spinach and fresh tomatoes. Spinach sauteed with garlic and spices and tossed over linguine is called Pasta Colonna. Jim Colonna has been the chef at Angelo’s for eight years.

Many of the specialties are also avaliable at lunch, at acaled down prices. Pasta Lacqua is $11.95 at dinner, $7.95 at lunch. And every day there are three or four specials not on the menu.

H.H. likes the wine list. It has some 14 reds and 15 whites by the glass, flights of Chardonnay, merlot and Italian whites, and bottles ranging from $16 to $56. A typical bottle in the 1996 Frog’s Leap Chardonnay for $29. “Served too cold, as usual,” H.H. says, licking his lips.

Michael Passalacqua says he knows of no other restaurant in Washington County with as many wine selections. Can anyone challenge that statement?

Yours truly likes the desserts, epecially the faria walnut torte with whipped cream topping and the cheesecake. Both are made at the restaurant, and are not always on the dessert tray, we’ve found. The farina walnut torte has a bit of a crunch, and not too much whipped cream – a nice balance of flavors and texture. The excellent cheesecake has a chocolate glaze on top.

No, it’s not a perfect world, and Angelo’s isn’t a perfect restaurant. But they do a good job. And come to think of it, we haven’t found a perfect restaurant yet.