Sienna Sulla Piazza along Market Square, Downtown, offers rustic and familiar fare
Two years ago, executive chef Matthew Porco was doing well by any standard of local culinary success. He operated a restaurant, the upscale Mio in his hometown of Aspinwall. And, Pittsburgh magazine named him Chef of the Year.
But the pace at Mio was intense, and the economy continued its way south. Porco decided to sell Mio, tone down the intensity a notch and give diners a less-expensive alternative by joining Sienna Sulla Piazza, an Italian restaurant owned by Susan and Tom Certo that opened in April on Market Square.
“I built a name for myself, but Pittsburgh has all of these really cool neighborhoods,” Porco says. “Our Downtown market is how Pittsburgh is represented on a national level. I felt Pittsburgh needed another destination restaurant.”
Instead of helming a special-occasion restaurant, Porco liked the idea of “an open-air restaurant with food that would bring you back — food you could have once a week.” The goal of Sienna Sulla Piazza, he says, is to provide diners with “an unpretentious, casual, fun, energetic” experience.
The energy is palpable on the revitalized Market Square, where Sienna Sulla Piazza joins a host of new and existing eateries. The restaurant scoops in the energy by raising its elegant oak-and-glass garage door wall on warm days, providing an awning for diners near the open-air plaza and opening the interior to the fresh air.
Inside, the restaurant evokes a Manhattan atmosphere, with exposed brick walls lining a long, narrow dining room that seats 45 at wooden tables and banquettes upholstered in burnt-sienna leather, and another 12 at the full bar. Another 20 diners can sit outside. Management plans to add theaters to extend the al-fresco experience into fall. Reservations are a must, especially on weekends.
Market Square provided the owners with inspiration for the restaurant's name. The square reminded them of the huge and picturesque Piazza del Campo, the market square in Siena, Italy, which is considered one of the world's greatest medieval plazas. Sienna Sulla Piazza means “Sienna on the Plaza.” Sienna is the British form of the name of the Tuscan city, which has a single “n.”
The restaurant might have a medieval-era inspiration, but is contemporary not only in its cuisine but also its operations. Sienna Sulla Piazza has a two-star certification from the Green Restaurant Association, which it earned by meeting criteria regarding water efficiency, waste recycling and energy efficiency. Only four restaurants in Western Pennsylvania have a Green Restaurant Association certification.
“We knew we loved Italian food made with the best ingredients and great execution,” Porco says. “We wanted a lot of antipasti, salads and flatbread dishes.”
Those contemporary, rustic Italian dishes range from Greens & Beans with house-made sausage for $7 to Beet Salad for $9 to Prosciutto & Arugula Flatbread for $12. Entrees include pastas, meat dishes and fish.
Among the entrees are Sweet Corn & Lobster Risotto for $22 and Blue Marlin with house-made sausage for $20.
The restaurant makes its sausage. As time goes on, Porco would like to cure his own meats. Side dishes include Orzo Mac 'N Cheese with Mascarpone and Parmesan cheeses for $5.
A five-course Chef-Tasting Menu for $45 is also available, as are optional wine pairings.
Porco, 35, an Aspinwall native, started cooking at 16 in his family's pizza shop, and worked at bars and restaurants his father and uncle owned on Market Square.
He later trained at the now-closed Pennsylvania Culinary Institute and worked at restaurants in New York City, South Carolina and Pittsburgh before opening Mio.
While he is of half-Italian descent on his father's side — “the good half,” he says jokingly — Porco says his Italian-American relatives “would tell me I had my grandmother in me” in terms of his cooking skills.
Having embraced his culinary heritage, he also embraces the Downtown lifestyle in a loft in the same city neighborhood.
“It's an exciting time to be Downtown,” Porco says.
Sandra Fischione Donovan is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.
Matthew Porco, executive chef at Sienna Sulla Piazza, created the recipes on the Market Square restaurant's menu.
His culinary aim is to create tasty but unpretentious dishes, among them Rigatoni and Shrimp, which is simple to prepare, but elegant enough for a special occasion.
The blend of contrasting ingredients in the sauce — piquant pesto, zesty garlic and mellow cream — creates a pleasing setting for the main ingredients of shrimp and pasta.
An added bonus: The dish is quick and easy to prepare, if using purchased pesto even during a busy week.
For the pesto:
2 cups fresh basil
2 medium-size cloves garlic
¼ cup toasted pine nuts
2⁄3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
½ cup grated Parmesan-Reggiano cheese
For the rigatoni and shrimp
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon or less, extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup heavy cream
4 shrimp (size 16-20)
6 tablespoons pesto (see recipe)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 ounces rigatoni
¼ cup diced tomato
Grated Parmesan-Reggiano cheese, for garnish
Basil, chopped, for garnish
1 tablespoon toasted pine nuts, for garnish
To prepare the pesto: Combine the basil, garlic and nuts in a food processor and pulse until chopped. Add the olive oil and process until fully incorporated and smooth. Add the cheese and process again until smooth.
To prepare the rigatoni and shrimp: Place a stockpot of water on to boil for the pasta. When the water comes to a boil, place a skillet on medium heat. Place the garlic in the pan to sauté briefly (do not burn) in a small amount of the olive oil. Pour in the cream and simmer; add the shrimp (See Photo 1) and pesto. Season with salt and pepper. Place the pasta in the boiling water of the stockpot (Photo 2) and cook for 3 to 4 minutes for fresh pasta, 6 to 7 minutes for dry pasta. While the pasta is cooking, add the tomatoes to the shrimp-cream sauce (Photo 3) and toss to blend, or stir with a wooden spoon. Reduce the cream sauce by about half, for about 3 minutes. Drain the pasta; add to the sauce (Photo 4).
Place the rigatoni on a dish with the shrimp on top. Garnish with grated Parmesan-Reggiano cheese (Photo 5), chopped basil and toasted pine nuts.
Makes 1 hearty or 2 light dinners.