Dining – Taverna 19 – Pittsburgh

Dining Review- Taverna 19                                                                                          By:  Suz Pisano

I love when a restaurant trusts me enough to actually invite Nightwire and the crew to sip, dine, photograph and enjoy, a mere 1 week after they open!  Our old friend Stephen Kowalczuk aka “The Cocktail Chef”, brings Greek culture to life in the perfect spot right in the heart of the Strip District.  He has spread his wings to Concept Developer and General Manager at Taverna 19 located on 19th Street between Smallman and Penn Avenue.  This restaurant transports you right to a taverna in Greece complete with great Mediterranean food and A-MAZING drinks.

Taverna 19 is brand new and right off the bat they have hit the ground running and are beginning to run like a well-oiled machine.  Do have patience, relax, and have a drink with a bite to eat & just sit back and enjoy, it’s all about the experience and freshly prepared high quality food takes time.  My first visit was this outing but I have to admit I’ve already been back WITH friends and just couldn’t seem to leave.  Taverna 19 is so friendly and casual that you’ll see what I mean the minute you find the outdoor courtyard.  Staff is extremely knowledgeable and very friendly.  My very favorite server Eric made both visits so easy and relaxing.  His service was top notch and I did notice the servers working together at Taverna 19 to ensure that all the guests have a stellar experience.  GM Stephen told us that part of his concept encourages enjoying your food and that plates weren’t to be cleared until they were empty.  Servers are extremely attentive but never rushing.  Taverna 19 is a gathering place and even though you might not know the folks at the table next to you, you’ll feel a sense of community through a shared experience.  That’s what I really want you to recognize about this recommendation- take time to enjoy the experience.  Belly dancers appear Weds, Thurs., Fri. & Sat with shows at 7:00 & 7:40 pm.  On our second visit- We watched as the first dancer was showered with napkins inside by the bar.  Outside we got a plate of rose petals to toss as the dancer entertained us in the outdoor courtyard.  While we were enjoying some wine & small plates, the entire floor became covered in rose petals adding to the authenticity of the taverna experience.  It was so festive and so much fun, like I said- we couldn’t leave! Dancers did a great job at encouraging others to join in the festivity and dance with them.  Of course- respectful tipping of the dancers is encouraged but not a necessity.  I predict that Taverna 19 will be THE place to see the regions best dancers as well as international touring acts.  “Dancing at Taverna 19 is a dream.  There are napkins and rose petals showering you.  The staff is like a big family and the customers get in on the fun by dancing with us. It is truly a Greek experience right here in Pittsburgh,” says Jemeena a beautiful local dancer & instructor.

Jeremy Strungis serves as Master Mixologist at Taverna 19, and believe me when I tell you- the Burgh is lucky to have him!  He was recently chosen as one of the Top 100 Mixologists actually landing in at #4 Trend Setting Mixologist in the Country!  With homemade infusions of everything from rum to tequila and some very interesting ingredients like cucumber juice, green tea and egg foam; Jeremy has managed to bring the “art of the cocktail” to Taverna 19.  Please don’t be intimidated by ordering an artfully created cocktail, part of the experience is watching and learning about the libation which often has layers of flavor or subtle notes of a fresh herb.  Call these “craft cocktails” if you will, they are always made individually by hand, no premade mixes here.  Remember-part of the taverna culture is eating AND drinking.  On the outside courtyard, a separate drink menu includes cocktails served in Mason jars and even sno cone cocktails.  My favorite sno cone cocktails were the Flashback- bubble gum vodka with infused with garden fresh peppermint syrup and the Dracula Bite – Super Cola Vodka with fresh cherry puree and sage syrup!  You have to try one.  Their signature house cocktail is OMG.. Let me tell you, one sip and you will understand the name of this cocktail.. it will have you saying “OMG!” Several types of Ouzo are offered and the wine list includes 20 for $20 wines in both reds & whites.  There’s definitely something for everyone and if you just can’t seem to land on a specific- ask Jeremy!  He’s eager to present his cocktails, describe the inspiration and the details.  He’s truly a cocktail artist, and as I always like to say “the love is in the details”!   House favorite is the Margarito, a Margarita & Mojito mix made with fresh herbs grown in the courtyard.

Now let’s get to the food!  Meze, or appetizer sized portions of traditional Greek cuisine include Fresh Dolmades ($8) grape leaves filled with rice, lentils & herbs; Tzatziki ($&) imported Greek yogurt with cucumber, fresh dill, olive oil & garlic; Hummus ($6), Red Feta ($7) & Melinzanosalata ($6) spreads accompanied with fresh grilled pita are just a few.  Hot Meze includes (my personal favorite) Flaming Saganaki ($8) served flaming & extinguished tableside is a must have!  Spanikopita ($6) filo dough stuffed with spinach and feta cheese;  Psites Piperies ($6) fire roasted bell peppers drizzled with olive oil; or Kolokithia Keftedes ($7) seasoned zucchini croquettes with red feta spread.  The art of Ouzo drinking includes eating enough to balance the alcohol content of the liquor so as to not be overwhelming.  Special Ouzo Meze are presented- Kalamarakia ($8) crispy seasoned calamari served with lemon aioli; Garides Saganaki ($9) jumbo shrimp with tomatoes, peppers & feta cheese; or something I’m dying to go back again & try- Midia Ke Ouzo ($11) mussels in Ouzo citrus broth served with grilled ciabatta. It just sounds so good.

Our friendly bartender Tom told us that the staff have had to master correct pronunciations, so don’t be afraid to point, attempt or ask about a menu item.   I’m a stickler for correct pronunciations, so I just have fun with no fear.  Actually, a really long time ago, a Greek friend took me to a Greek food festival and wouldn’t let me order any Greek desserts or pastries until I could pronounce them correctly!  Quick learner!

A fresh addition to your meal or table are the Salutes, traditional Greek salads or the Sides- Xorta ($8) seasoned wilted greens with olive oil and lemon juice; Patates Tiganita ($8) Greek fries seasoned with salt, oregano, shaved kefelograveria cheese with a truffle mayo on the side.  If you like a good french fry, I’m just sayin’, this is a great french fry!  The final traditional side is Briam ($7) zucchini, squash, tomatoes, garlic confit, potatoes, herbs & spices which would make a nice addition to the grilled meat or traditional dish offerings.

Lamb chops, Cowboy Cut Rib eye, Angus beef, marinated lamb, shredded slow roasted lamb or stuffed bell peppers make up the entrée portion of the menu.  Most grilled meats are marinated in Latholemono, a traditional marinade of fresh lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, Greek oregano. Sea salt & cracked pepper.  Family style portions are offered and priced per person, just ask your server for details.  We didn’t sample any entrée options as our party enjoyed the flow of food and cocktails much more than a serious meal.  I’m looking forward to returning for a pop-up lamb roast.  The evening we were last there, Chef Torrey Davis brought out a whole lamb in preparation for the outdoor spit & the next days lamb roast.  Pop-up dinners are the trend in cool cuisine at the moment and the best reason ever to “friend” a restaurant on Facebook.  A friend of mine calls it “facey-space” but when I get wind of a full fledged lamb roast in the Strip District, I call it social networking at it’s finest!

Sunday Brunch boasts an entirely different brunch menu but one thing I know for sure- they have candied bacon!  Candied bacon.  Brunch.  Lamb.  Cocktails.  Outside.  Yes.

I’m almost out of room with so many things to tell you about Taverna 19…….

You’ll just have to get there.

Closed Monday & Tuesday.

Restaurant is open at 11am daily for lunch.    Kitchen closes when it closes.

108 19th Street in the Historic Strip District – Phone:  412.224.2720  Opa!  Hope to see you there!