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Girasole, a long-time Shadyside gem, features approachable Italian dishes

| Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016, 1:18 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Outside dining at Girasole in Shadyside on Friday, Aug. 26, 2016.

I have a distinct memory of dining at Girasole for the first time. A little over seven years ago, I moved into my first Pittsburgh apartment right around the corner from the Italian restaurant. After unpacking, my parents and I settled in for a cozy meal. My bowl of gnocchi swimming in sauce and pockets of cheese was like a welcome hug for my new start.

Frequenting the spot fairly regularly during my stint as neighbor, I returned recently after a several-year hiatus. Girasole is still the pleasing neighborhood eatery that was my first bite of Pittsburgh.

Girasole, Italian for sunflower, bloomed nearly 17 years ago from an idea to open a restaurant by husband-and-wife team Jimmy and Patti Gerasole. The small, basement-level spot on Shadyside's Copeland Street made for the perfect location to start the family-run business. Their daughter-in-law Jennifer, wife of son Gino, serves as executive chef; son Vito manages the wine program; everyone is involved.

The familial emphasis extends to the customers.

“Here, we treat customers the way we would treat them in our own home,” Patti Gerasole says. “As if they were coming to dinner.”

Dinner is served in a tightly packed room featuring stone walls on which hang smiling photos of Sophia Loren and Italian scenery. Copper tables sit closely next to one another. Dining elbow to elbow with other guests might just be an element of necessity for space but also is reminiscent of a European cafe.

In the decade and a half of operation, Girasole has remained consistent in its offering of rustic and approachable Italian dishes. Not much has changed, making this spot a well-loved staple of the neighborhood's cuisine.

The short, curated menu features large plates of pasta and daily selections of fish, chicken and beef. Dishes on the menu change four times throughout the year to match the four seasons. But even with the change, there are three items that always remain to appease loyal customers: spinach and ricotta ravioli, potato gnocchi and polenta with escarole and beans.

The gnocchi is my personal favorite, in part because of the fond memories but mostly because the well-cooked plump dumplings match well with the slightly acidic marinara on top. It's also fun to discover the balls of melted mozzarella in the mix of gnocchi and sauce. The polenta arrives baked and covered in a generous helping of the greens and beans. The sauteed escarole and beans are the highlights here, which can be ordered as a starter with the addition of sausage on request.

The summer menu is in effect until Sept. 20 when autumn will take center stage and fan-favorite pumpkin ravioli makes a triumphant return. Until then, the spinach spaghetti gets the spotlight. Thick, green noodles are served room temperature with corn, tomatoes and mozzarella. This colorful plate is a nice dish for the warm nights of late summer as the noodles are absent of any heavy cream or tomato-based sauce.

On the lunch menu, try the breaded eggplant. Lasagna-like in presentation, eggplant is layered with ricotta. Not typically an eggplant lover, I found this thinly sliced version highly appealing.

Not quite as appealing was the salmon on olive bread. Grilled salmon rested on a thick cut of bread surrounded by cut asparagus. Separately, the elements were tasty, in particular the fresh and crisp asparagus, but the dish as a whole was difficult to eat together as the grilled bread was hard to cut.

Lemon cake for dessert is a must order. The moist cake features a cloud of pillowy, mousse-like topping. Every soft bite is a treat. It is — gasp — better than the chocolate mousse cake. And this is coming from a chocolate lover-lemon hater.

Truly, Girasole in itself is a treat. It isn't new or trendy or pretentious; it is a friendly and seasoned veteran of the food scene. It isn't perfect either (I'm looking at you, packaged butter served with the bread basket.), but that hardly matters. I find comfort knowing that almost 17 years strong, Girasole continues to thrive and give welcome hugs through food to a whole new crop of Pittsburghers.

Laura Zorch is one of the food-savvy ladies of eatPGH.com, who contribute a weekly Dining Out column to the Tribune-Review.

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