Arpino Trattoria offers taste and look of Italy
You'd never know this shopping center is near a busy throughway.
Tucked off Cochran Road on the Mt. Lebanon-Scott border, Manor Oak Village is fronted by a large parking lot, a chain restaurant and a sports-type bar-restaurant.
Step into the U-shape cluster of one-story shops at the back of the parcel, though, and be transformed.
It's relatively quiet back here, and the storefronts mostly are taken by mom-and-pop stores: a pharmacy, a florist, a place that embroiders school uniforms.
On a cool, early-fall day, with pots of mums scattered around the sidewalks running through the middle of this retail retreat, you can conjure small town America.
Or, perhaps Italy.
The village atmosphere seems a good fit for this tiny restaurant -- Arpino Trattoria -- opened in June by Steve Goda of Scott.
"It's really just simple food," says Goda, 39. "That's why I like working with Eric."
He refers to Eric Strafalace, 29, of Dormont, Arpino's chef.
"We have the same philosophy. (Food) doesn't have to be over the top" for it to be well-received, Goda says.
Arpino's menu features many dishes that are immediately recognizable: Beans and greens, wedding soup, spaghetti.
Goda and Strafalace use their freshly made pasta or artisanal pasta from Fede Pasta of North Huntingdon and stir up their own sauces.
On a recent visit to the restaurant, they had roasted cherry tomatoes going in the oven -- tomatoes, dried basil, olive oil, garlic and salt and pepper. They finish them under a salamander broiler.
"You just do it right," says Goda, who, despite the "a" on the end of his name, is half Czech.
His Italian influences, though, were strong, he says. Growing up in South Plainfield, N.J., he says he learned to cook from his mother's side, Sebatianis, and her parents, Otto and Catherine. The family had a summer kitchen in the basement of the house, where they made tripe and pasta served with freshly caught crab.
His grandfather, he says, "was the best cook I ever knew. He could cook circles around anyone."
Goda's wife, Melissa Rea Goda, is "100 percent Italian." The restaurant is named after her family's village, Arpino. The couple visited the town in 2007, in the Italian province of Friosione, when plans for a restaurant were bubbling.
It was "the most beautiful place I've ever been," says Goda, recalling that he thought, "This is perfect."
Pictures the couple took of the province decorate one wall of Arpino. Otherwise, the restaurant is modest: Tables and chairs for about 30 inside, outdoor dining when weather permits, a kitchen not much bigger than one in a modest home, with a rack of ladles and tongs on a wall near the industrial stoves.
Although not a culinary-school-trained chef, Goda has worked in the trade at various restaurants in the city, including Il Mercato and Cioppino. Most recently, he was operations manager for the PIPA Group, which runs, among other things, Bistecca Steakhouse & Wine Bar, Cafe Amante and the Clark Bar & Grill.
"They are the ones who really taught me the restaurant business," Goda says.
The major difference between home cooking and the restaurant biz?
"The prep that's done here versus home -- everything better be prepped" and ready in a commercial kitchen, he says.
"I sat behind a desk for a lot of years," says Goda, who once was an accountant. "Was I unhappy• No." But cooking and restaurants continue to call, and he knows his pursuit requires dedication. "Even when there's a lull, you've got to love it."
Strafalace similarly has worked his way into a cooking post. His background includes head chef at the Market Street Alehouse, head chef at Opus at the Renaissance Hotel, Downtown, and cook at Atria's at PNC Park, according to Arpino's website.
"I'm closer to him each day than I am to my wife," Goda jokes as the pair work around the kitchen.
As he talks, Goda tells stories about food -- a New Year's Eve cookfest he hosts with his friends, in which they make timpano, as in the movie "Big Night," about two Italian brothers who bust a gut to save their restaurant.
"You eat, and you fall asleep and you barely make midnight," he says, smiling.
Friends, food -- that's what it's all about, he says.Those connections, so far, have been boosting his restaurant.
"We've been blessed," he says.
Although this dish is called a rollatini, Steve Goda and chef Eric Strafalace of Arpino Trattoria assemble it as a packet, criss-crossing the zucchini slices and then, folding them over the filling.
A mandolin makes it easy to slice the zucchini thin, about 1⁄8-inch thick, Goda says. His years behind the scenes at restaurants taught him that prep is key. So, have the ingredients measured and ready, and make the marinara first.
Cured, fire-roasted tomatoes can be found in specialty stores, such as Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District or in ethnic sections of some grocery stores. Italian-seasoned bread crumbs readily are available in supermarkets. "The key thing here is to lightly bread the zucchini," Goda says. "If you have too much breading, you can't taste the zucchini."
Strafalace says he fries the zucchini "a little under, so we can finish it off in the oven."
When the rollatini emerges from baking, the cheese is melted and the zucchini packets are medium brown and crispy, which allows the vegetable's dainty softness to shine through.
For the marinara:
- 2-3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion, minced
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1 can (28-ounces) crushed San Marzano tomatoes
- 2 fresh basil leaves
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the zucchini:
- 24 thin slices unpeeled, medium-size zucchini
- 1 1⁄2 cups flour
- 5 large eggs
- Italian-seasoned bread crumbs
- Canola oil, for frying
- 8 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into 12 pieces
- 1 small container creamy ricotta cheese
- 12 small basil leaves
- 12 oil-cured, fire-roasted tomatoes
- Grated pecorino Romano cheese
To prepare the marinara: Heat the olive oil in a medium-size sauce pan and sweat the onion. About 3⁄4 of the way through, add the garlic and continue sweating. This should take about 8 to 10 minutes on low heat.
Add the crushed tomatoes and basil. Cook for about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Keep warm on stovetop.
To prepare the zucchini: Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Assemble three bowls large enough to dip the zucchini in them. Place flour in one; crack the eggs into a second bowl and beat until thoroughly mixed. Pour the bread crumbs into a third.
Dip the zucchini slices in the flour, making sure the slices are lightly dusted. Dip in the egg mixture, then, quickly into the bread crumbs, coating the slices lightly.
Place the slices on a parchment-lined baking sheet and set aside.
Put enough oil in a frying pan to reach a depth of 1-inch. Heat to 350 degrees. Gently slide each zucchini slice into the oil. Fry on each side until the zucchini is a light-golden brown.
As each slice is fried, place it on paper towels and pat the zucchini to remove excess oil.
When the slices are fried, being assembling packets.
To assemble the zucchini: Take two slices of the zucchini and make a cross. Place a piece of the mozzarella in the middle, top with a teaspoon of ricotta, then, a basil leaf and a fire-roasted tomato.
Fold the zucchini slices over to make a bundle. Return to the cookie sheet. Repeat until there are 12 bundles of zucchini.
Place in oven to heat through and slightly melt cheeses.
Lay out on four plates. Ladle the marina on each and place three zucchini bundles on each plate.
Top with pecorino Romano and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.Additional Information:
Cuisine: Homemade Italian
Entree price range: $6.50-$8.50 for lunch; $14-$20 for dinner
Notes: Major credit cards accepted. Seasonal outdoor dining available. Bring your own bottle.
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Dinner: 4-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 4-10 p.m. Fridays, 4-11 p.m. Saturdays. Closed Sundays.
Address: 910 Cochran Road, Scott
Details: 412-207-2765 or Arpinotrattoria.com