Tapas have taken off in America in the past few decades, and diners embrace the small plates as a sophisticated and social way to dine and snack. But tapas once had a very practical purpose. According to Gonzalo Cembrero, owner of Shadyside’s new Pallantia Tapas de España, the tapas tradition dates back to 13th-century Spain. In those days, taverns were not the most hygienic places, and proprietors took to covering wine glasses with slices of bread to keep them free from bugs and dirt. That bread evolved into more elaborate snacks with cured meats, cheeses and seafood, and the modern tapas was born. The legend lives on in the name—the Spanish word tapar means “to cover.”

Today, chefs all over the country forgo the appetizer-entrée-dessert format in favor of menus that encourage sharing a variety of small plates. At Pallantia, however, Cembrero connects tapas back to their origins. “I want to bring the real taste of Spain,” explains Cembrero, who hails from Palencia in northern Spain (the name of the restaurant is a nod to his hometown’s ancient former name).

For Cembrero, authenticity starts with ingredients. He is importing many key items from Spain, including top-notch ibérico ham, pimentón de la Vera (a smoky paprika that shows up in many dishes) and Spanish wines that “go beyond Rioja.” Using these traditional ingredients as a foundation, Chef Nathan Schoedel creates a rotating menu of hot and cold tapas peppered with local, seasonal produce, such as foraged mushrooms from Wild Purveyors. In addition to the small plates, Pallantia features large dishes of paella full of ultra-fresh seafood and short-grain bomba rice—imported, of course.

Cembrero first came to America in 1994 as a high school exchange student. He lived in Irwin for about a year and kept in touch with his host family after returning to Spain. In 2010, Cembrero left his successful but unfulfilling job in Spain and headed to America to pursue his dream. The original Pallantia opened in Greensburg in 2011, and Cembrero shuttered it three years later to focus on the new and improved Pallantia on Ivy Street in Shadyside. After a year of hard work (Cembrero did much of the build-out himself), the restaurant opened its doors last month.

All that work paid off. The new location is classy but relaxed, and the airy space is filled with Spanish touches like hand-painted tiles and a huge photograph of the Running of the Bulls. Pallantia is currently open for dinner every day except Monday, and there are plans to add a weekend brunch in the near future. And sticking to the social nature of tapas-style dining, Cembrero will also be adding a weekday happy hour complete with pitchers of sangria and pintxos (bar bites served on small slices of bread).

Above showcasing the beautiful walnut bar top or the imported meats and cheeses, Pallantia is a place for Cembrero to share his native home with his adopted one. Many of the recipes come from Cembrero’s own family, and he’s passionate about making sure Pallantia is Pittsburgh’s own little slice of Spain. “I’m a proud Spaniard,” says Cembrero. “And I want to bring the best of my country.”

In other news…

This Saturday, the Pierogi Fest returns to Stage AE. The festival, which kicks off at 1 p.m., includes over 30 pierogi vendors, live music, kids’ activities and more. Read our event preview here. For more info. and tickets, click here.

Also this Saturday is the latest installment of the eatPGH and Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership Urban Supper. The dinner, to be hosted at a transformed parking lot on Liberty Avenue, will feature food by chefs from the Sienna Restaurant Group and cocktail pairings from Tom McGraw and Wes Shonk. Tickets are available here.

And if you need yet another option to fill your Saturday night, head up to Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus in Gibsonia for a five-course farm dinner. The meal will feature organic produce from the student-run farm and local wine and beer pairings. A portion of ticket sales (which are available here) benefit the Falk School of Sustainability Scholarship Fund.

On Thursday, September 24th, Tazé Ristorante—a Mediterranean restaurant in Indiana, PA—is hosting a five-course dinner of Spanish specialties. Each course will be paired with biodynamic wines from Parés Baltà Winery in Penedès, Spain. Make a reservation by calling Tazé Ristorante at 724-471-2720.

Drew Cranisky

Drew Cranisky is a writer, bartender and recent graduate of Chatham University's Food Studies program. He enjoys cats, pinball and fancy burgers.