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Review: All in la famiglia

| Sunday, June 17, 2012, 3:02 a.m.

The owner of the small Shadyside Italian eatery Girasole goes by "Jimmy Pie," but it's not for the reason lots of people think.

Pizza is not on the menu, which instead features risotto, polenta and a handful of creative pasta dishes.

Jimmy Gerasole's people came from Calabria, the toe of Italy's boot. Patti Gerasole, also of Italian heritage, explains that her husband's nickname is short for "paisano" -- basically Italian for "buddy."

"We all grew up around food being the main event for a family gathering. I always prepared huge family means," she says.

Patti Gerasole shyly rebuffed her husband's repeated attempts to persuade her to start a restaurant, and for many years she ran a children's clothing business. So seven years ago, he talked their son, Gino, into the idea.

It worked out well -- especially for Gino, who married executive chef Jennifer Hagar. And the family doesn't stop there. Gino's brother Vito is a manager at Girasole, and his wife, Vicki, is a server Friday nights.

"It's always lively and spirited and interesting, let's put it that way," says Patti, who does the books. "I think a lot of the customers enjoy seeing the family dynamic."

Shoehorned into a brick-walled, basement-level former coffeeshop just off Walnut Street, Girasole often is packed so tightly that the servers walk sideways.

The dinner menu is small. Meat, chicken and fish dishes -- one of each -- change daily, and other specialties are seasonal.

Appetizers include a fresh Soup of the Day ($3.45), Escarole and Beans ($6.95) and Bruschetta ($7.95) with ricotta cheese and tomatoes.

The choicest part of the Antipasto ($13.95) is a jumble of prosciutto sliced tissue thin, which lasts on your tongue barely long enough to chew. Salami, cubed fontina, sliced provolone and a marinated medley of pitted black and green olives, artichoke hearts, and roasted red peppers and tomatoes surround a pile of garbanzo spread. That's ideal for the Italian bread, which otherwise comes with butter packets.

Polpette di Vitello ($9.95) are very tender veal meatballs, served in a mild sauce of oregano, pine nuts and tomato. It's not a marinara, so the taste of the veal dominates the dish.

When the waitress told me there are only two shrimp in the Gamberi con Finoccio ($13.95), I assumed this appetizer was overpriced. But the shrimp, grilled with fennel to give them a bright flavor hinting of anise, are each literally the size of half a banana. The pair is laid over a mix of wilted Swiss chard and roasted garbanzos.

Dinners all come with a big salad well supplied with gorgonzola and the restaurant's signature sunflower vinaigrette -- "girasole" means sunflower, though Jimmy's family changed its spelling way back when.

Two standards always on the dinner menu are Baked Polenta ($14.95), served with fresh mozzarella and escarole and beans on top, and Potato Gnocchi ($14.95) in marinara sauce with mozzarella. A third is Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli ($15.95) in a tomato cream sauce, which Patti says is the place's most popular dish.

Until spring arrives, you can also find Crimini and Fontina Ravioli ($16.95). The rich, savory mushroom stuffing held up well to a very thick parmesan cream sauce, and the salty slices of prosciutto mixed in helped cut through the cream, too.

Modern and creative twists include Caserccia ($18.95) with crabmeat in a tomato sauce with prosecco, and Sweet Potato Gnocchi ($18.95) with sliced duck and baby spinach.

I wasn't as excited by the Risotto ai Cavolfiore ($18.95). The cauliflower, leeks, currants and pine nuts made for a pleasant mix, but as a main dish, it was far too sparse with the crispy pancetta. Maybe it's a guy thing, but don't lead me on when it comes to bacon.

Our specials for the day included Lamb Kebabs ($25.95) with a demiglace and a sticky mint risotto, and Sauteed Chicken Breasts ($22.95) in marsala cream over mashed potatoes. Both were fine, but the pasta choices were superior and a lot cheaper.

Girasole bakes its desserts ($6) on Tuesdays, so weekday diners get the best selection. We had a choice of three cakes -- Chocolate Mousse, Coconut Creme and Italian Rum . All were fluffy and light, and the coconut creme had a surprise kick of almond liqueur. The jiggly Chocolate Panna Cotta was the richest, but brace yourself for the cherries, which are so heavily brandied I guessed it was grappa.

If you make a reservation, keep your phone with you. We arrived five minutes late on a Saturday, and our table was gone. They had another for us in 10 minutes or so, but until then we had to stand in between tables dodging the staff.

Ticket restaurant reviewers visit restaurants anonymously. They pay in full for all food, wines and services. Interviews are done only after meals and services have been appraised.

Additional Information:

Girasole

Cuisine: Modern Italian

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4-9 p.m. Sundays, closed Mondays

Entree price range: $12.95-$25.95

Notes: No smoking. Major credit cards accepted. Lunch menu with panini and salads. Full cocktail and wine list.

Address: 733 Copeland St., Shadyside

Details: 412-682-2130 or www.girasolepgh.com

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