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Passion brings fine results at Alla Famiglia in Allentown

| Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, 9:12 p.m.
Alla Famiglia restaurant along East Warrington Ave., in Allentown section of Pittsburgh.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Alla Famiglia restaurant along East Warrington Ave., in Allentown section of Pittsburgh.
Alla Famiglia restaurant along East Warrington Ave., in Allentown section of Pittsburgh.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Alla Famiglia restaurant along East Warrington Ave., in Allentown section of Pittsburgh.
Alla Famiglia restaurant along East Warrington Ave., in Allentown section of Pittsburgh.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Alla Famiglia restaurant along East Warrington Ave., in Allentown section of Pittsburgh.

In my experience, great restaurants don't need flash. They don't need expensive marketing campaigns or celebrity chefs. They don't need trendy decor or menus. They need quality ingredients. They need hard work. They need passion. And Jonathan Vlasic, executive chef and owner of Alla Famiglia in Allentown, has that passion and more.

Alla Famiglia celebrated 10 years this past May, largely thanks to Vlasic's drive to be the best. Over those years, the space has grown, the menu has evolved, and its popularity has skyrocketed. “I used to prep the line for zero people some nights,” Vlasic says with a chuckle. “Maybe six people if we were lucky.” But his passion and hard work has paid off, turning Alla Famiglia into a top destination for fine dining.

Whether celebrating an anniversary or a Tuesday, make a reservation. Be sure to ask to sit in the cozy front dining room. The five or so white tablecloth tables peer directly into the open kitchen, so, not only do you get to see the chef team prepare your meal, you get to experience the heavenly smells.

Once seated, you'll notice your table is already filled with spreads and dips. Banana pepper-infused oil, seasoned garbanzo beans with three kinds of cheese and a soft goat cheese and olive oil spread are neatly arranged. While all are tasty when smeared on the accompanying warm bread, don't be too distracted by their allure. You have several courses coming up. And I promise, you won't leave Alla Famiglia hungry.

The menu, printed daily, frequently changes with many of the featured ingredients sourced from Vlasic's farm. The farm happens to be the rustic setting where he hosts a handful of private dinners during warmer months. While menu preparations differ slightly day-to-day depending on seasonality, pasta, veal, pork, and seafood options are always a major part of the menu.

To start, get the meatball. It's the size of a softball and delicious. Stuffed with fresh mozzarella and swimming in a sweet marinara sauce, the meatball is cut and served tableside. Other starters include hand-pulled mozzarella, the Carciofi Ghiotta with imported artichoke hearts, raisins, capers and pine nuts. And the impressive, off-menu cacio e pepe pulls together cheese, pasta, salt and pepper, expertly twirled in the middle of a well-worn wheel of pecorino.

Again, only as a gentle reminder: Pace yourself — there is so much more food to come.

Next up is a house salad with gorgonzola, golden raisins and candied walnuts dressed with red-wine vinaigrette and enough pasta alla vodka to feed everyone at your table, twice. Both are served with every entrée.

Now on to the main event and its star, the veal chop. The double-cut rib chop is enormous and available in three preparations: milanese (pounded slightly, coated with bread crumbs and pan-fried in clarified butter, served with lemon, pine nuts and jumbo lump crab); pizzaiola (lightly braised in marinara sauce and served with hot and sweet peppers, sausage and onions); and griglia (the chop is stuffed with ham, provolone and sage, then grilled and finished with roasted vegetables).

Another secondi option is the veal cutlet. Pounded thin to order, the tender cutlet is available with six preparation variations. Try the tartufo, wild mushrooms, black truffles and grilled asparagus or the traditionally prepared parmigiana doused in red sauce and smothered with cheese.

If you want pasta as your main course, opt for a dish that features the tagliatelle. The long, flat noodles are made in-house and are especially good if topped with a bolognese sauce.

For dessert, try the house specialty — toasted almond raspberry tiramisu. It's airy, delicate, and sinfully rich, a perfect ending to an over-the-top meal. Other regular desserts include cannoli and cheesecake.

The bar program at Alla Famiglia has also grown over the years. Most impressive is the wine selection, going far beyond familiar Italian restaurant selections. Signature cocktails, beer, after-dinner drinks like coffee, digestifs and cordials are available.

Chef Vlasic will soon be expanding service from 80 seats to 138 seats with a major renovation that will include a larger dining room, a 24-foot open kitchen and banquet room. The cause: Passion and a desire to get better. With more space, Vlasic and team will be able to can and pickle more produce to incorporate into dishes, start making the bread he serves and be able to tinker with both the entree and dessert menus to keep pushing the restaurant forward.

Julia Gongaware is one of the food-savvy ladies of, who contribute a weekly Dining Out column to Trib Total Media.

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