Carmella’s, a bar and dining destination is Pittsburgh’s South Side, is being featured as part of Pittsburgh’s Restaurant Week.
Carmella’s Plates and Pints opened with the goal of upping the ante in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood. “I knew the South Side needed and wanted and deserved a nice spot.”
After fifteen years of managing the neighborhood’s karaoke and dive bar, Jekyl & Hyde, Carmella Salem and business partner Michael Alberter decided to focus on a different demographic.
“I knew to pull in clientele of my age – professional people – you needed food,” Salem said. “I didn’t want bar food, I didn’t want fried food. I wanted really good quality food to go with really nice cocktails.”
“It’s been a challenging and exciting five years to say the least.”
Five years on, Salem and Alberter have established Carmella’s as a go-to dining spot in a city that’s fully embracing the restaurant boom. “We opened right at the beginning of all that craziness,” Salem said. “Back then this wasn’t such a foodie city. It just kind of started, but I had no idea the type of explosion that was going to happen in the city.”
Salem, who had established herself as the manager of Jekyl & Hyde, transitioned from planning themed drink programs for college kids to exploring the wide world of whiskey. “I want[ed] to get into all these whiskeys,” she said. “I had a feeling that these were going to continue to be really popular and bring in the clientele I was looking for.”
Her instincts were right. Pittsburgh was a city just starting to really embrace the spirit at the beginning of the whiskey boom. Salem attended the Pittsburgh Whiskey Festival while she still worked at Jekyl & Hyde. “I think that kind of introduced me to seeing how many people actually like whiskey … We didn’t have any of that at Jekyll. We didn’t have the clientele. It wouldn’t sell.”
Between her bar management experience and Alberter’s experience in owning food businesses, the two were ready to embark on their largely DIY venture into South Side.
Today Carmella’s interior is decorated with whiskey barrels, bottles, and warm brown hues. “This place just screams of warmth and winter with the fireplace and all the brick and the wood and the whiskey,” she said. “People really want to drink that whiskey in the fall and winter.”
The current decor took a while to nail down. Salem and Alberter did the full interior and design themselves, with Alberter doing all of the woodwork and light fixtures. The first year was heavy with renovations, and while the bar was open, there was no kitchen. Today, Carmella’s has expanded its location as well as its hours, including weekend brunch and dinners. With a new chef in tow, Salem and Alberter are innovating their menus and nailing down the vision they’ve always had.
“That’s kind of our focus: to make a great cocktail in a short amount of time.”
“I knew I wanted wine on tap and cocktails on tap,” Salem said. Today, Carmella’s has 11 wines on tap, and their expansive stock of spirits includes over 400 whiskeys and 120 tequilas. They put these bottles to good use – one of Carmella’s biggest draws are their custom designed cocktails.
“That’s kind of our focus,” Salem said. “To make a great cocktail in a short amount of time.” With homemade infusions and personal twists on classic cocktails, Carmella’s is the go-to place for quick but stellar cocktails.
“Our cocktails here are simple, but they’re good,” Salem said. “And they’re unique. Even though they’re simple … the infusions are all our own, and all those cocktails are our own.
“I don’t want to take 10 or 15 minutes to make a cocktail for someone. It’s gotta be delicious but it’s gotta be made quick.”
The home-made infused spirits are where Carmella’s really shines. “The infusion cocktails are where I get super excited,” Salem said. Recently Carmella’s debuted a peach old fashioned, featuring homemade peach infused whiskey. “I just love putting a spin on these classic cocktails,” Salem said. “And I love the infusions because nothing tastes better than a fresh fruit infused whiskey.”
With unique spirits like pineapple vodka, Salem’s back end work pays off. “You couldn’t buy a pineapple vodka that could compare. You just tastes it, and it tastes fresh and real.”
Of course, custom cocktails are just one of many innovations that Carmella’s is working on to keep current in a growing foodie city. “It’s nice to kind of keep reinventing yourself and to keep customers excited and interested in what your changes are,” Salem said. “Everyone has their own vibe and their own style of what they’re doing”
“Mike’s always fixing something or building something, and I’m always buying something or re-doing the cocktail menu…. I think you can’t stay stagnant, especially now.”
Carmella’s recommendations and Restaurant Week specials are below
Carmella’s Plates & Pints
1908 East Carson St.
No. 1 Selling Cocktail: Old Fashioned
“I definitely like a good Old Fashioned. This is the number one selling cocktail here. Everyone in Pittsburgh makes a different Old Fashioned. Ours is my favorite.”
White Pairing: Seared Scallops With Palladio White Blend
Red Pairing: Black Angus Hanger Steak With Scotto Family Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon
“Typically I’m not a Cab person, but it’s a very fruit forward Cab, and everyone loves it.”