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Atria's takes ballpark food to another level

| Monday, May 7, 2012, 11:09 p.m.

Ballpark food -- of the kind immortalized in story and song -- really is in a category all its own. Somehow, between the peanut shells dropped underfoot in the bleachers and the steaming gloop of glowing yellow "nacho" cheese, America has done it again, creating an entire cuisine out of next to nothing.

But it's not as universal as it used to be, which might be a good thing. I went to an Oakland A's game last week in Oakland, Calif. -- and was a bit surprised how it resembled the old concrete toilet bowl that was Three Rivers Stadium. The A's share it with the Raiders, so it's just as cavernous. The game was a snooze -- 4 to 1, A's over the pathetic Royals -- but the garlic fries and foot-long dogs were about as good as ballpark food gets.

But I heard rumors in the stands about the hated cross-bay San Francisco Giants, who supposedly serve sushi, wine and organic this and that. I don't know if this is true, but the jealous contempt of A's fans seemed real enough.

In the Bay Area, apparently you can have one kind of ballpark grub or the other, but not both. Now, Pittsburgh is more of an Oakland kind of town, with Oakland kinds of tastes. But in our gleaming new PNC Park, we've got quite a bit of both.

You can still get the peanuts and Crackerjacks. But on the outside near the Roberto Clemente Bridge, longtime local Italian/American mainstay Atria's has its most visible outpost. The original dates back to the 1930s in Mt. Lebanon, so this restaurant's local roots run deep. Skip the Outback Steakhouse, and get a sunny table outside Atria's for a ballpark lunch that holds a two-run lead in the ninth over the average 'burg's.

Inside, for some reason, the walls are a shrine to Johnny Angel and various "rockin' oldies" memorabilia. But don't let the Hard Rock Lite atmosphere dissuade you. The Salmon Tomato Vodka Florentine ($13.99) isn't subtle, but it is quite good. It's a char-grilled 6 oz. salmon served over fettucine and spinach, bathed in a light tomato sauce that's sparked with the familiar rich burn of vodka.

Enjoying a meal is sometimes all about context. Normally, Chicken Roma ($13.49) is a pretty standard dish. But at the ballpark, it seems like an epic feast. A large chicken breast is marinated and pan-seared, then accompanied with fresh Roma tomatoes and melted provolone. A curious drizzle of slightly sweet "honey balsamico" provides the distinctive touch, while angel hair pasta with marinara fills out the plate.

If you want to go the sandwich route, the unpretentious Hand Breaded Cod ($8.49) is pretty good, and will not leave room for cheezy nachos later at the game. The toasted fresh ciabatta bun is the best part, and stone-ground mustard works fine in lieu of tartar sauce.

If you just want something light before a sweltering day game (or work day), the House Sherry Crab Bisque ($2.29 to $4.29) should do nicely.

OK, there are a few major drawbacks to Atria's. First, there's not much for vegetarians -- they'll make you a pasta without meat, but it'll feel like it's missing something. Second, you can't eat here and watch the game. The restaurant is on the outside of the stadium, which makes it easy to eat lunch here on days that aren't game days, but tricky if you want to watch every inning.

And third, if you do go on game day, you've got to watch the Pirates, who are well into their usual post-All Star Game slide into oblivion.

Additional Information:

Atria's at PNC Park

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays through Saturdays; and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays

Address: 115 Federal St.

Phone: (412) 322-1850

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