The rest of us had to be crabs, eels, seas witches, or even worse, the lame mermaid sisters who were always so jealous of the perfect Ariel. Ginger Sister got to splash around singing (in her mind) melodiously while her sisters and cousins asked for chances to be the star mermaid, but were only shut down with the same excuse: we didn't have red hair.
Though our days of swimming in my uncle's pool are long gone, Ginger Sister still holds a special place in her DVD collection and in her heart for The Little Mermaid and the film's scaley heroine. Needless to say, when Pittsburgh's Byham Theater announced its January production of The Little Mermaid, I ordered tickets to present to Ginger Sister and my Momma for Christmas, with an extra ticket for Aunt Jackie Number One. Without any hesitation, we decided that a preshow dinner would be needed and I suggested Emporio, a Meatball Joint, first floor of the three story Sienna Mercato located on Penn Avenue.
Since I learned of the magical restaurant centered around meatballs, I had been dying to try it, but this was my first real opportunity. Luckily, my fellow theatre-goers take meatballs just as seriously as I do, so the decision was unanimous.
Sienna Mercato holds three separate dining locales within one restaurant, separated by floor. Emporio is the first floor, then Mezzo Charcuterie on the second, topped by Il Tetto, a rooftop beer garden.
We agreed to arrive at 5 p.m. and in typical fashion, I was freakishly early. I ordered a glass of wine and reviewed the menu while I waited and observed the relaxed environment with a variety of patrons.
Our server was attentive and friendly, despite my early arrival and seemingly lonely spirit. She asked if I would like an appetizer to munch on before my family arrived and without much convincing, I ordered a bowl of poutine. I love poutine, but it has to be done just right for it to be worthy of praise. Emporio's poutine was not the best that I've ever had, but it was still pretty darn good. The typical cheese "curds" were more saucy than I had anticipated, but I still enjoyed it a lot. I tried not to devour the entire pile by myself, which proved easier said than done.
My Ginger Sister, Momma and AJNO arrived just as I was spreading the poutine around to make it seem as though I hadn't eaten as much as I did. As they got themselves situated, our server asked for their drink orders. As Ginger Sister said "I'll have..." our server darted away and said she'd be back with water. It was loud in the restaurant, so it isn't difficult to see why she didn't hear Ginger Sister's request for a beverage, but her departure from the table did seem a bit hasty.
We then were tasked with the choice of choosing our meals. Emporio's menu gives diners the option to choose from various types of meatballs (beef, turkey, veggie, pork) and a wide array of sauces, including classic marinara and the more daring Tzatziki. My Momma ordered a panini with beef meatballs and marinara.
AJNO ordered two sliders: one with a beef meatball and marinara and another with a turkey meatball and spinach-almond pesto.
Ginger Sister and I decided to get a bowl of four "saucy balls" over creamy parmesan macaroni and cheese. I opted for original beef and marinara, while Ginger Sister got turkey and pesto, then we traded.
My saucy balls
Our faces were quickly buried into our meals as soon as the server departed. I tend to be leery of restaurant marinara, as I don't like chunks, but I was not disappointed in Emporio's sauce. It was smooth, mixed nicely with the parmesan macaroni and the meatballs were pretty massive. The turkey meatballs were good and seasoned with tasty herbs, but I was not overly thrilled with the pesto. I make homemade pesto fairly often and, not to toot my own horn, but I prefer my version to what Emporio served.
My Momma and AJNO enjoyed their sandwiches and did not seem to have much trouble finishing them. Ginger Sister and I were a bit overzealous in thinking we could eat four meatballs, plus macaroni and cheese, but we fought a good battle.
Part way through my meal, I realized that the spoonful of macaroni in my mouth was also featuring something hard and foreign. Channeling Miss Manners, I did not make a spectacle of spitting the object onto the table, but discreetly removed it from my mouth for examination. We all decided that it was a sliver of wood, likely from a wooden spoon.
We alerted our server who quickly blamed a toothpick, until I assured her that the toothpick stuck into my meatball was 100 percent in tact. She took the wooden piece to the kitchen where the cook concurred that it was part of a spoon. Our server assured us that my part of the bill would be removed and we happily placed an order of warm ricotta donuts with hot fudge for dessert.
I wish that I can say that there was time to photograph the donuts... But alas. We tore into those suckers so fast that only traces of powdered sugar remained. None of us had ever eaten ricotta donuts and we were not disappointed. The donuts were more like donut holes, but similar to Emporio's meatballs, the donuts were pretty large... And delicious.
With bellies full of balls and donuts, we asked for our separate bills and our server quickly delivered. Expecting to see a minimal charge on my sales slip, I instead saw an almost $30 charge and realized that my dinner had not been removed. We questioned our server who said that the macaroni portion of the meal ($4) HAD been removed... But I still had to pay for my meatballs and sauce ($11). It seemed a little off-putting, considering my dinner had a chunk of wood in it, but it wasn't worth becoming too agitated. We paid and departed.
The Little Mermaid was a great show with a talented cast, crew and orchestra. We had a great time and Ginger Sister greatly enjoyed seeing her Disney likeness on stage. Hunk of wood aside, both the show and the evening's dinner were excellent and I will think of Emporio's meatballs fondly. Eventually, I'd like to explore Sienna Mercato's other floors, but for now, I'll have to reminisce about poutine, mermaids, and eating my saucy balls with a dingle hopper.