Tony Pias is no stranger to the Pittsburgh food scene. With a plethora of endeavors under his belt, he has become as synonymous with our restaurant world as fries on sandwiches are with Primanti Bros.
Speaking of fries, you’ll find none of that at Pias’ Mediterranean eatery Cafe Zinho on Spahr Street in Shadyside.
What you will find may be reminiscent of a family gathering, folks thrown together into mismatched chairs, tucked into mismatched tables and uncorking bottles of wine they brought to enjoy with company. The BYOB joint charges a nominal corkage fee and welcomes you to sit back and relax. The intellectual conversation floats around the cozy room, bouncing off the dark gray walls and ceiling and creates a hum that serves as background music, not unlike the chatter at a dinner party. With that hum in place, you’d likely not even notice the lack of television or overwhelming music getting in the way of the human experience that floods Cafe Zinho.
Colorful, eclectic decor cheers up the gray garage and provides a fun, comfortable setting, and the warmth of the staff makes you feel right at home. Seated in the far corner atop a slipcovered side chair, I perused the limited menu at leisure while sneaking quick gazes out of the huge window in front of me.
Cafe Zinho offers a small menu but accompanies it with several specials including daily soup specials, appetizers and one-of-a-kind entrees.
The additions were hastily rattled off, and I knew immediately I had to try the vegetarian bean soup, which turned out to be more of a vegetable soup, guest-starring beans. A generous portion was served with a ramekin of freshly shaved parmesan cheese, the perfect accompaniment. The roasted tomato garlic bisque had an unbelievably rich taste but was surprisingly thin, begging to be sopped up by the Portuguese bread we received. While the corn bread isn’t made in-house, it provides a hearty, delicious alternative to slurping your broth off a spoon.
There was enough bread leftover to continue sopping up broth. This time it was the Asian pear sauce that our starter sat atop. A goat cheese-stuffed puff pastry made with pine nuts was floating on the pear sauce, light and fluffy. Timid flavors in the crust and sauce helped balance out the smooth taste of the goat cheese.
The Mediterranean/Portuguese menu has appetizer offerings from seafood to chicken livers and pheasant terrine. All starters are paired with well-thought-out herbs and garnishes, like the Clams Cataplana with White Wine Port, Tomato, Portuguese Sausage and Cilantro. Again, not a place you’ll find fries.
After several courses of generously portioned dishes, it was entree time. Seasonal options dotted the seafood and poultry-heavy menu. The Butternut Squash Ravioli with Pumpkin Coulis and the lamb burger with fontina and caramelized onions specifically called out to me, although the Porchetta with Apple Pie Bourbon BBQ Sauce and the Filet of Salmon with Molho Verde sauce were very serious contenders.
My taste buds had been treated so well through the first several courses that they were looking so forward to being blown away, unfortunately, my meal peaked with my soup and starter.
While both entree dishes were enjoyable, I was disappointed to find them bland and not as exciting as I had anticipated. The high quality of the lamb, paired with the medium grill, made for a tender burger, although the cheese and onions were no match for the meat and bun, losing the flavor game.
Scoops of potato salad and red cabbage slaw made an appearance and were a welcome change from fries usually served alongside a burger. The slightly grilled veggies atop the ravioli made for a colorful plate but didn’t contribute to the flavor in any real way.
I knew Cafe Zinho had a little more to give to me, so I settled in for one more course. I ordered a coffee, which promptly came, served in a glass mug. I could easily have ordered everything off of the dessert menu that was as hastily rattled off to me as the specials. After the recommendation from our server, another glass mug arrived at the table. This mug, however, was filled with beautiful layers of fresh raspberries, cream and Portuguese cookies. The spoon made several satisfying dives into the mug, scooping up dainty bites of each ingredient in equal parts. The recommendation was spot-on. It was a slightly sweet, light and refreshing way to end my meal.
Sandwiched between stellar starters and delightful desserts was a forgettable main course, forgiven in part by the sweet staff and the charming surroundings. I will not forget to come back to try some of Cafe Zinho’s other offerings, so long as they start with that corn bread and end with a cup of dessert!
Amanda McFadden is one of the food-savvy ladies of eatPGH.com, who contribute a weekly dining column to Trib Total Media.