A requiem for a restaurant: Dish Osteria
The news was jarring. And the subsequent gathering was, in every sense of the word, a wake. We met at Jack’s on a rainy late-March Sunday afternoon because damned if that isn’t the kind of dive where you should go to absorb and numb away bad news. There were tears and beers, hugging, laughing, singing and crying behind that neon-lit glass block entrance. And, a lot of brown liquor. Someone asked if we’d lost a family member.
We looked at each other for a minute and nodded yes.
• I first passed through the door at 128 S. 17th St. in 1996. I was 19 years old and home from college, but wielding a fake ID that said I was a 23year-old from Portland, Maine.
The place was called McCann’s, and it had a storied history. But it was nearing its own last call, and my friends and I could go there and order Iron City bottles with no hassle and watch Penguins playoff games on the massive old rear projection big screen in the back room. We called it “Moe’s Tavern” after the bar in “The Simpsons.”
Four years later, I actually was 23 and home from college for good. I’d read about a new spot in McCann’s: Dish Osteria.
This South Side corner dive became a gorgeous room with a cherry-stained backlit bar with a copper counter. It was dark and sleek with candles and eclectic music. Owned by a young couple — he was from Sicily, she went to West Allegheny — who’d met while working in restaurants in Manhattan, it was cool. The people were beautiful. I ordered a martini. I was intimidated.
For years it was a place to impress dates or for special dinners with family as Dish developed a menu of Italian food nonpareil in the city — sophisticated in execution, but pure simplicity in design.
Gnocchi like angels’ pillows. Membrane-thin Carpaccio. Grilled octopus. Spaghetti with fresh shellfish, oil and red pepper flakes. Rigatoni in a cream sauce dubbed “crack” for its addictive quality. This was Sicilian soul food.
In a 2016 interview with NPR, New York Times dining critic Pete Wells lamented modern dining:
“Everybody used to say going to restaurants ... is like theater, there’s stage sets, there’s drama, there’s play acting and you watch the show. And now, boy, everything’s just become so serious. And you sit at the counter and the chef comes out and tells you what he did to the Brussels sprouts leaves and no, there’s not a lot of dancing.”
That was never the case at Dish Osteria, with the genuine warmth that Cindy and Michele Savoia exuded as the heart and soul of the place, and Michele’s brother, Andrea, as the basso jester.
• There is much discussion about the disappearance of the “third place” in American life. After work and home, where do we go? Church? The gym? Coffee shops? Sure. But for some of us, it’s a bar. Not for the buzz. For the company.
As I got older and more friends got married and started families, I needed a third place. And I found it at that same spot I’d walked into — basically on a dare — in my late-teens.
Dish had become a place where you’d be as likely to find yourself eating or drinking next to Ike Taylor or Max Talbot (both of whom lived nearby) or a movie star in town filming as you would the undertakers from the funeral home down the street (old McCann’s regulars, no less). But mostly it was my South Side neighbors. People I’d see on the street but didn’t really know. And we became friends.
Another Times writer — and bartender — Rosie Schaap, wrote:
“Stick around any bar long enough ... and you will inevitably come to love at least some of the people who drink there. … I’ve long cherished bars as sites of real community, where nearly the whole of an adult’s life cycle can be enacted and observed. I’ve watched customers and fellow regulars fall in love and get married.”
I managed to one-up that. I married the bartender.
I met her shortly before she started to work there. But on the very first night we met, RaeLynn and I went to Dish for drinks. I’m pretty sure I fell in love over a round of Old Fashioneds when she did a flawless Betty Draper impression. When we married seven years later, dozens of our Dish friends celebrated with us.
• The Savoias informed their staff on that Sunday afternoon four weeks ago that Dish would close — today. And so we mourned together at Jack’s.
They need a break. They’ve earned it. Their son is growing up and they want to spend time with him. They are going out on top, like Jerome Bettis retiring after Super Bowl XL.
The past few weeks has brought an enormous outpouring of affection. Former bartenders now in Nashville and Brooklyn made a specific trip back for a last nip and a nosh, as did ex-regulars from Texas and New Jersey. My wife has practically fallen through the door of our home from physical and emotional exhaustion after her late shifts.
In past years, the Penn Monroe, Lava Lounge and Chiodo’s were beloved places patrons wanted to come back to for one last drink, to celebrate the third place that became a part of the stitching of their lives. Accidental communities formed by chance.
Mine was Dish. I brought old friends and made new ones. Spent wonderful time with my family, and quite literally created a new one.
After a dinner or a night on the northern side of that beautiful copper bar, the bottom of the register receipt has a simple Italian phrase for the customer, but now rings appropriate to the owners and the place.
Grazie e arriverderci. Thank you and goodbye. For now, anyway.