Yyou are probably familiarwith a large group of burrito restaurants. Pittsburgh's most famous restaurant umbrella was founded in 1993 by Tom Baron and Juno Yoon with Mad Mex in Oakland; a year later they opened Kaya, and then current president and corporate chef Bill Fuller came on board as sous chef. The next decade brought Casbah, Soba, Umi and Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, four now-shuttered restaurants, a prominent restaurateur and several Mad Mex locations (currently 11).
After a 15-year hiatus from new concepts, the large Burrito Alta Via opened in O'Hara in 2019. The property toyed with offering pizza as part of the mix, but scrapped the idea before opening the restaurant. Instead, a spin-off was on the horizon:Pizzeria Main Street, an affordable, full-service but casual restaurant that the group opened in March in Bakery Square. The new concept focuses on pizza, along with a diverse menu of Alta Vía-style dishes such as salads and grilled vegetables, as well as some sandwiches.
In a different time period, Bakery Square's owners, Walnut Capital, may have relied on trendy national chains like Sweetgreen, Piada Italian Street Food and Bonefish Grill as cornerstones when they renovated Larimer Square. While there are some big markets like Starbucks and Jimmy John's (with an upscale ice cream chain, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, on the way), the best spots downtown are full of Pittsburgh restaurants like Galley Bakery Square and Taco Torta. (with another Japanese-inspired concept from Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group slated for later this year).
AVP, while far from perfect, is my favorite so far.
KOK EXECUTIVE DARREN LAYRE
The restaurant group had the organizational capacity to implement it. Big Burrito's parent company, Whole Enchilada, received a significant amount of federal aid for the pandemic: $7.63 million in two PPP loans and a $10 million grant from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. The funds were spent on 18 restaurants (all reopened, though not yet at pre-pandemic times), catering and nearly 1,000 employees, leaving them in a stronger position than many restaurant owners in the region. Although a version of AVP for Lower Lawrenceville was already in the works in 2020 (that project was shelved due to the pandemic), the funding certainly helped Big Burrito build, hire and launch this business.
Executive Chef Darren Layre, an avid baker and former Alta Via sous chef, offers two types of pies at AVP: a 14-inch round pizza and a six-slice rectangular. Both are known for their delicious crusts that take a long time to rise, but round cakes tend to have more structure.
These pies are prepared in the New American Bakery style of pizza that became popular in San Francisco and was made possible to a greater extent by the PizzaMaster, an electric oven currently in vogue for its ease of flexibility and temperature range. control: features you won't find in the traditional wood or gas ovens that have dominated pizza in America since the late 1940s. You get a hybrid style that has a raised eggshell that transitions to a thinner interior with a gentle pull as you eat it. AVP's version is one of the best round pizza crusts in Pittsburgh.
CLASSIC ROUND PASTEL
When pan pizzas work as intended, they infuse the best qualities of grandma's crispness and puffiness, Detroit-style with a fried crust, without any of the latter's typical greasiness. However, the batter is often too thick to fully enjoy. As for the fries, the caramelized cheese on the outside brings an addictive salty umami, but since AVP's flatbreads are less tall than a typical Detroit pizza, it becomes overwhelming halfway through the second slice.
There are many custom ones available for both types of cakes. They look pretty good on paper, but aren't always executed as well as they should be. And that's a shame, because the perfect pizza is based on balance, and when there's no harmony, the pie doesn't sing the way it should. Again, round cakes were usually baked better, but not always. What should have been a delicious white tart with sausage, roasted cherry tomatoes, red onion and rosemary, Juliet had twice as much cheese as it needed, leaving an undercooked center and our team's palates yearning for what could have been.
Surprisingly, the most balanced pie I've ever had, other than a good classic margarita, was the Mad Mex Wing-O. It's not for me, but I can appreciate how a great taste experience is created with thin slices of well-done chicken that someone obviously paid attention to during cooking (as opposed to the pre-sliced, frozen and reheated chicken you'd find at the chain) and that's all. ranch dressing and wing sauce to make it shine.
Most of the cakes I tried felt like they were made by a guest who might have snuck into the kitchen after drinking too much of the restaurant's excellent bar program (except for the Bicicleta cocktail, which brought back memories of flat, sad wine). On one visit, my friends and I shared a cake called Flora; some sections were packed with green asparagus and bubble tomatoes, while others were empty spaces of white sauce. Similarly, AVP's Classic Pepperoni had mounds of (lovely) pepperoni on some squares, rafts of pickled banana peppers on others, and just cheese on one.
The rest of AVP's relatively extensive menu is generally fun, and it doesn't take much to fine-tune the items that can use it. A rotating selection of six vegetable dishes selected from Alta Via's must-have menu, especially the artichokes and broccoli. Both are grilled over smoky charcoal and plated just right with just enough toppings to make them shine. And while you'll almost certainly get pizza at AVP, consider the burrata piadina as an alternative (or heck, get both). It comes with a slice of creamy, slightly spicy homemade mozzarella and a salad of quality prosciutto, arugula and cherry tomatoes. The accompanying flatbread, made from the same dough as the round cake, is light, stretchy and just a little crispy around the edges.
I don't think there needs to be a burger on a menu that otherwise leans towards Mediterranean and pizzeria toppings (like the spicy meatball, which complements the Amoroso roll, but draws attention to the gooey meatballs and oversized meatballs that seem pre-made). However, they actually have one, and the AVP Burger is everything you want a skinny, double-layered burger to be, with nice touches like punctuation, red onion balsamic, and bitter arugula.
BURRATA PIADINA Y MAD MEX WING-O PIZZA
Other dishes miss the mark, but not by much. A grain salad with lentils, farro, lacinato kale, radishes, carrots, citrus, pine nuts, and a lemon vinaigrette is the kind of food you might crave after a workout at nearby LA Fitness, but it needs a lot more acid and a few dashes out to be a star in its own right . Grits Crusted Zucchini is a clever twist on Pittsburgh's favorite zucchini boards, but not if they're cut like fries. The real ones were sweet, but most of them were overcooked or undercooked, and not pleasant to scoop up and dip into sticky red or ranch sauce. You can use a fork, but that's a weird way to share right now. A wider cut would be sufficient here.
Be sure to get the soft serve ice cream for dessert. It's thicker than typical soft serve (closer to a frozen custard consistency) and just what you want at the end of a meal at AVP. Slightly nutty and not overly sweet, pistachio is a nearly perfect version of the ice cream flavor that almost everyone else confuses. And it's even better with the addition of toasted hazelnuts, one of the complimentary extras offered with every serving. Consider yourself lucky if it's offered when you visit (but feel free to ask for the chocolate vanilla swirl or flavor of the day if it's not).
Big Burrito has long been and remains a testing ground for the Pittsburgh restaurant industry. This is quite evident in AVP's young but enthusiastic, super knowledgeable and well trained servers, which makes me optimistic about the future of front desk staff in Pittsburgh. On each visit my friends and I felt our time was valued with check-ins and updates delivered in a way that didn't feel rushed. AVP is also very good with smooth details. In a town where you almost always get something the size of a coaster when you order a sharing plate, I appreciated how each table was set with the right size plates when you sat down. Families with young children will appreciate that the establishment offers pizza-themed coloring books and crayons to keep the kids entertained.
AVP COCKTAIL PROGRAM IS BEAUTIFUL
Gran Burrito hired Karen Heroldstudio k creativein Chicago for a great visual design (he also worked for Alta Vía) of a warm and welcoming interior. Baron divided the room into zones that divide the space but maintain the flow of energy. The restaurant is very lively. During all my visits, the place was filled with multi-generational family gatherings, after-hours riots, guys watching sports at the bar, and couples who were clearly on nice dates. And besides the music, every time I went it was a different style, from the nightclub in 2008, songs that only your uncle likes to dance to at a bar mitzvah, and pop tunes that you'll never hear again, it's a great place to hang out for a few hours.
There is a glazed terrace with an open feel (in a few months it will be a beautiful conservatory). You can grab a pizza at the take-out counter and take it home or enjoy it on the giant screen in the Bakery Square courtyard.
AVP sits in a good niche between fast casual and exclusive. Big Burrito's next big thing is a second Alta Via location slated to open in Market Square later this year, and the restaurant group could also expand the concept to more locations.
6425 Penn Ave., Larimer
This article appears inJuly 2022issue of Pittsburgh magazine.
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