For such a long time in Harrisburg, there was little to celebrate.
In the early ‘70s, the floodwaters from Tropical Storm Agnes all but decimated the city. Continuing into the ‘80s, as many residents left for the suburbs, the city was a ghost town after 5 p.m. There were a few bright spots, such as Strawberry Square, but it, too, became deserted when the state workers left for home. Two tiny restaurants, Caruso’s and Au Jour La Jour, lured patrons back to the city for a time. They were wonderful places, but were just not around long enough.
So here we are in 2016, and it’s almost Valentine’s Day. I am happy when I think of how far our little city has come. Often, we take a few steps back, but, in the restaurant department, we seem to keep adding more terrific places as each year goes by. This month, I would like to share with readers some of my favorite places to go for Valentine’s Day and some of my favorite dishes offered by each place. If you don’t normally come to the city to dine, you might be surprised.
Mangia Qui. Located on North Street, Mangia Qui is one of three restaurants co-owned by expert chef Qui Qui Musarra. It is the most formal of the three. The others are Suba (a Spanish tapas bar upstairs at the same location) and the French-inspired Rubicon right next door. Mangia Qui’s theme is Italian and Mediterranean, and the quality of the food is superb. Qui will often serve dishes that are rarely found elsewhere in the region, such as true Dover sole, whole branzino and dry-aged, hand-cut, Tuscan rib-eye steak.
Here are my recommendations for a Mangia Qui Valentine dinner started with a glass of cold Prosecco.
- Musticanza: a salad of baby greens with gorgonzola crostini and marinated tomatoes dressed with a fig balsamic vinaigrette.
- Gnocchi all’Amatriciana: homemade gnocchi that are light as a feather tossed with a sauce of San Marzano tomatoes, onions, guanciale and pepperoncini (nice to split or request a half-order).
- Anatra: a grilled duck breast and stone fruits served with polenta and a balsamic drizzle.
Desserts change with the day, but I would hope for a lemon tart back there in the kitchen. The espresso is excellent, with many different types to choose from.
Note. Bistro and Wine Bar. This little gem of a restaurant is located at the corner of N. 2nd and Harris streets and is relatively new. It is a warm and friendly place anchored by a small but lively bar offering some of the best cocktails in town. Wine choices, usually from Italy or France, can be found on a large chalkboard that occupies an entire wall at the back of the restaurant. At note., I would order:
- Caesar Salad: hearts of Romaine lettuce, Caesar dressing (on the side), focaccia croutons and shaved Grano Padano cheese.
- Berkshire Pork Chop: Pork chop served with butternut squash, risotto, pancetta, pearl onions, thyme and caramelized brussel sprouts, all topped with a maple Bourbon glaze.
- For dessert, some homemade gelato and note’s excellent French press coffee.
Carley’s Ristorante and Piano Bar. We have gone to Carley’s for many years so, for us, it always seems like we’re going to the legendary Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.” Carley’s makes very good veal, and that’s what we usually get there. So, to end my Valentine’s Day culinary tour, I would order:
- Baby Arugula Salad: a salad served with Gorgonzola cheese, candied walnuts and pears tossed with mustard vinaigrette.
- Veal Marsala: tender veal cutlets sautéed in butter with mushrooms, garlic and shallots in a hearty Marsala wine. (This dish can also be prepared with chicken, if you prefer.)
- Peanut Butter Pie: Carley’s (and its sister restaurant Stock’s on 2nd’s) signature dessert. It is very rich and can easily be shared with your Valentine’s Day partner.
The pianist at Carley’s will keep things lively, but you can always request a slow romantic tune.
If you are out and about in Harrisburg on Valentine’s Day, there are other choices. I also recommend Pastorante on N. 3rd Street, a casual and inexpensive choice for homemade pasta, Café Fresco for wonderful Asian-inspired dishes like salmon with black rice, and Home 231, which serves farm-to-table food that is unique and delicious.
Brighten your Valentine’s Day and the waning days of winter with a visit to one of these special Harrisburg eateries. They are truly something to celebrate.