Photo by Kristy Locklin.

In the days leading up to the launch of Alta Via, big Burrito Restaurant Group’s foray into Italian food, President and Corporate Chef Bill Fuller left the front door unlocked, giving hungry passersby false hope that they could snag a table at the long-awaited eatery.

“They’d come in to ask if we were open and I had to break their hearts,” Fuller says.

The spot, located in Fox Chapel Plaza in O’Hara Township, officially opens today — April Fool’s Day — no joke.

Inspired by life in both the Italian Alps and Northern California, the menu focuses on modern Italian fare such as pasta, seafood and vegetable-forward appetizers and entrees made over an open, wood-fired grill.

“We haven’t done a new concept in a long time,” Fuller says of the company, which operates numerous Mad Mex locations, as well as Casbah, Kaya, Eleven, Soba and Umi. “We approached this with a lot more thought and planning.”

Although the development of Alta Via was complex, its offerings are simple. The dishes are lighter than traditional Italian fare and showcase just a few, flavorful ingredients prepared in a seasonal, Cali-style method of cooking.

Executive Chef Ben Sloan, a 15-year veteran of the group, helped orchestrate a menu that includes fresh pasta, roast chicken, chops, steaks and fish.

Appetizers range from Castelvetrano olives with rosemary and orange, to fried calamari with crispy Meyer lemons,  parsley aioli and gremolata. For dessert, they make two flavors of gelato on-site daily, along with a Tiramisu Sundae, Hazelnut-Chocolate Torte and Zabaglione, a brown sugar focaccia with mixed berries.

The pasta selections are Fuller’s pride and joy but he views menu items the same way he views his children: there is no favorite.

This isn’t your grandma’s spaghetti. Alta Via’s take on the meal includes lemon, prosecco, uni butter, pine nuts and bread crumbs. The sauce on the rigatoni boasts two different kinds of tomatoes — one acidic, the other sweet — and is complemented by roasted garlic, fresh basil and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

If bread is your carb of choice, dip into a whole eggplant, roasted in the wood-fired oven and drizzled with Calabrian chili, lemon and olive oil.

Dinner is served seven nights a week, with brunch and lunch offerings coming later in the spring. Fuller says there will be daily off-menu specials to give the kitchen staff room to have fun and experiment. The overall menu will change monthly as local produce becomes more available.

Interior of Alta Via in O’Hara Twp. Photo by Kristy Locklin.
Interior of Alta Via in O’Hara Twp. Photo by Kristy Locklin.

At the large horseshoe-shaped bar, patrons can sip cocktails such as the Negroni and the Grapefruit Basil Margarita, along with Italian and American wines and a curated — and predominantly Pennsylvania-made — selection of draft and bottled beers.

The California vibes aren’t just in the food and drink, they’re in the decor, too. The 90-seat space, formerly Donato’s, was redesigned by Studio K in Chicago and Wildman Chalmers Design. They ditched the dark, wood paneling and burgundy seats for light, natural tones. A wall separating the dining room and the bar was torn down to open up the space.

Alta Via, a footpath through the Dolomites mountain range in northeastern Italy, is a place Fuller hopes to visit one day.

For now, he’s happy to serve the region’s cuisine in the ‘burgh.

Kristy Locklin

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.