Pizza is a standard-bearer for many cities. Naples. Sicily. New York. Chicago. The texture of the crust, the type and order of toppings—heck, even in Los Angeles, Wolfgang Puck’s nouveau smoked salmon pizza at Spago acted as cultural shorthand for the personality of an entire metropolis.
While the unconventionally topped, crunchy-crusted pizzas at Dinette will likely never replace Primanti’s sandwiches or Heinz ketchup as Pittsburgh’s edible landmarks (and I’m not suggesting they should), the restaurant’s ingredients-driven philosophy, casual approach to first-class food, and independent, sustainable ethos are hugely indicative of the culinary tide that’s been rising steadily throughout the Three Rivers area over the past few years.
Dinette ideologically fits right into East Liberty’s speedily gentrifying Penn Circle micro-‘hood, down the block from beloved diner-slash-community incubator The Waffle Shop. Instead of one of the coffee shop-style eateries that take up first floor residence in many of the neighborhood brownstones and brick storefronts, Dinette more resembles a Design Within Reach vision of what a high-end pizzeria should be. A sea of tomato-red chairs and Jetsons-reflective metal tables gleam against cool white walls. No reservations and no sound buffers means the place fills up—and gets loud—not long after the doors open at 6:00 pm.
Chef/owner Sonja Finn, a born-and-bred Pittsburgher who did stints at seasonally-focused stalwarts Magnolia Grill, in Durham, NC, and San Francisco’s justly-lauded Zuni Cafe, brings the “let’s eat what’s coming out of the ground right now” way of thinking back to the ‘Burgh and its supportive regional farms. Simple plates, salads, soups, and pizzas are listed on a menu that changes daily—easy enough to read, harder than hell to decide what to eat.
The in-season ingredients get a worthy palette to play with on the restaurant’s signature pizzas—the only entrée-ish items on the menu. A classic margherita is luxuriously dotted with gobs of fresh ricotta; a bitter, salty, and juicily rich chicory- and bagna cauda-laced pie is powerful but not overwhelming. Sweet corn pairs with garlic scapes in early July, then shifts its kernel companions to rooftop rosemary and sage by September. Chewy-crispy crust gets the requisite blistered char of a Neopolitan-style brick oven pizza mixed with subtle yeasty, malty inflections.
One pizza per person will do it, but there are enough nibbles and plates to pick at if a pie ain’t your thing (and why, why would you not be a pizza fan if you’re not gluten-averse?). A changing roster of fritto misto (sometimes cod, sometimes squid, sometimes with cauliflower and other veg), grilled shishitos, tomato salad when the garden gods are feeling generous, and romesco chicken wings with a tingly slow-build burn.
Dinette doesn’t trumpet it, but elements of sustainability sneak their way into more than just the local ingredients on the plate. Instead of imported fizzy water, diners get reusable bottles of filtered, carbonated Sodastream seltzer brought to the table, and stainless steel straws pop jauntily out of soda glasses. (The Coca-Cola, by the way, is the real-sugar Mexican kind.)
And a rooftop garden—something so de rigueur in New York City that it’s verging on cliché—run by the chef’s father puts out an ample load of tomatoes, arugula and herbs, enough to supply the kitchen for almost half the year. It might be a small step, but every little bit helps, a sentiment echoed by Chef Finn on the restaurant’s blog: “Using local products and running a sustainable business should by now be the rule, not the exception,” she writes. “Expect it of all the businesses you solicit. Be disappointed when they aren’t socially and environmentally responsible?maybe satisfied, but not impressed when they are.”
Apart from a stomach-teasing wait during prime dining hours, there’s really nothing to be disappointed with at Dinette, and so much to be impressed with. Go early, go often, and eat up.
Dinette, 5996 Penn Circle South, Pittsburgh. 412-362-0202. No reservations. Closed Sundays and Mondays.