North Huntingdon diners have a full plate of options
When Steve and Jen Salvi opened a restaurant in North Huntingdon last year, they considered the venture an opportunity to use the Italian specialties they love to cook to create a dining experience that didn’t require leaving town.
“We took a chance by opening in the Banco Business Park, which is not a typical location for a restaurant,” said Steve Salvi, who with his wife opened Cenacolo in 2013. “We don’t have a sign that can be seen from Route 30, and there’s no walk-in traffic here, so we’ve had to rely on word of mouth to build our business, which has worked well for us. We have customers who come here from all over the area, including Mt. Lebanon, Cranberry, Uniontown and Pittsburgh.”
Until a few years ago, going out for a meal in the Norwin area often came down to choosing between the handful of long-established restaurants and taverns, the spate of fast-food and chain eateries that populate the Route 30 strip or driving to another community.
Cenacolo is among the growing number of owner-operated sit-down and fine-dining restaurants that have opened in the past couple of years.
Last month, The Wooden Nickel Restaurant — which has operated in Monroeville since 1952 — opened a second location in Norwin Town Square in North Huntingdon.
Owner Jeff Ross said he long has thought there was a need for more restaurants in North Huntingdon featuring out-of-the-ordinary menus.
“I noticed that if you want to go out to a restaurant to celebrate a special occasion or for a dinner in a place that provides a nice atmosphere, you had to go out of North Huntingdon,” Ross said. “My feeling is that if you don’t accommodate your customer base, they will go somewhere else.”
As a resident of North Huntingdon, Ross said he also didn’t like that people “had to go outside the community to spend their money.
Sometime over the next several weeks, Amato’s Cucina — an 86-seat Italian restaurant — is scheduled to open in Pasquarelli Plaza on Route 30 in Irwin.
Owner Amato Pasquarelli, who has 30 years of restaurant experience, said he decided to open the restaurant because he thinks there aren’t enough restaurants in the Norwin area to meet the demand.
“This is a growing area, and there are not too many places to eat,” he said. “I already owned the property (in Irwin) and feel it’s a good location.”
While a moderately priced menu is planned for Amato’s, the building’s new exterior stonework and other touches create a more upscale look.
“I want it to be a nice-looking place that families can still afford to go out for dinner,” Pasquarelli said.
Other relatively recent additions to the local dining scene have brought ethnic flavors. A drive along Route 30 now presents options for cuisine from Indonesia — Kusaka, Greece — Andros, Mexico — Acapulco and Asia — Yummy Palace. And then there’s the long-established China Garden, which moved to Malts Lane when its old location was turned into parking for the Wooden Nickel.
Of course, as some restaurants open, others close. The iconic Norwin Diner gave way to Jioio’s, which in recent months closed and was replaced by Arena Sports Grill. Similarly, the Clay Pike building that used to house Pizza & Gyro Express now is home to the Brick House Tap and Grill.
But some constants remain. Restaurants such as Teddy’s, Fontana’s, the Colonial Grille and the Jacktown Ride and Hunt Club continue to draw diners, just as the area is drawing news restaurants.
According to census data, the Irwin 15642 ZIP code had 58 business in the food and lodging classification in 1998. In 2012 — the most recent year for which data is available — that number was up to 71.
“I believe the addition of more restaurants in the area goes hand-in-hand with the booming development that’s happening,” said Rosanne Barry Novotnak, president of the Norwin Chamber of Commerce. “And I think there’s room for more. It would be great to have a nice restaurant that specializes in seafood, as well as a steak house in the community.”
During the past decade, North Huntingdon has averaged slightly more than 100 new single-family homes a year, according to Andrew Blenko, the township’s director of planning.
“A common complaint we hear is that you need to drive to Hempfield or Greensburg to go out to eat,” Blenko said. “So we certainly welcome this growth of unique, locally owned restaurants.”
While the planning director said it is difficult to quantify commercial growth in terms of size, sales volume or the number of employees, local officials “are optimistic” that new commercial enterprises such as Express Scripts and the Hampton Inn & Suites being built near the turnpike entrance “will further drive the development of new restaurants in our area.”
The chamber president said the increasingly busy lifestyles many people lead also might be a contributing factor in the growth of the local restaurant scene.
“Whether its a couple with both people working long hours or families with kids involved in all sorts of after-school activities it can be hard to find time to prepare dinner,” Barry Novotnak said. “And the weekends are not always better. By the time you’re done with all the things you need to do, who wants to be bothered with cooking? I think this trend has led to a need for more restaurants of all types.”
Cost also might be less of a deterrent to dining out for many local residents.
According to Esri, an international mapping technology company, local residents have a median household income of $60,000, which is 20 percent higher than the county and state average.
Salvi said while restaurants operators are conscious about menu prices, he does not consider cost a primary concern for most diners.
“My theory on eating dinner out is that you don’t look at the bill unless the meal wasn’t that good,” he said. “But if dinner blows you away, the price typically won’t matter. So that’s what we strive to do.”
Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer.