Thursday, April 14, 2011

Altoona's Italian Offering

Altoona is a small town nestled amongst the Allegheny Mountains in Central Pennsylvania. Its conception and growth was directly tied to the rails of the Pennsylvania Railroad. And for many years, most Altoona inhabitants were Railroad employees. There are several ways to approach Altoona, but the most dramatic is the course where you can observe the Horseshoe Curve, a historical engineering feat from the 1850's that allows trains to traverse the curves and heights of the Allegheny ridge safely.

Fast forward to 2011 and you'll find Altoona is still a small town (less than 60,000) in Central Pennsylvania, but it has grown to embrace the 21st century. One of their proudest establishments is the Blair County Convention Center. They also have several hotels, motels and a Hooters restaurant (see earlier blog for that experience!). I think I may have found another establishment that Altoonans can brag about, it's Raphael's Italian Steakhouse. If you were to think about dining in Altoona, and odds are you wouldn't, you'd probably think it'd be a great town for Pennsylvania Dutch eats. But you would be making a mistake if you passed up Raphael's for something else.

Arrived at Raphael's on a mid-week evening, with three other out-of-towners. We stood huddled in the entry way, inviting the stares of the regulars as we wondered, "do we seat ourselves?", "is there a hostess?" "Can we really get a glass of wine in Altoona"? Finally hunger won out over patience and I asked the bartender, just as the hostess appeared to seat us.

She guided us through the Romanesque arch into the main dining room. It was immediately apparent the owners had spent some thought and money designing the interior. It resembled something Roman, but I wouldn't really pin it down to a period or style. There seemed to be a lot going on in the artist's head when he got to the wall paintings. Pictures of extremely white "ruins" covered the walls, leaves and vines intertwining with the images meant to evoke a place somewhere in Italy. As we walked to our seats, grateful to escape the peering eyes of inquisitive Altoonians, we couldn't help but notice the stunning mural on the main wall of the restaurant. Stunning, fantastic, slightly weird, borderline bizarre, described by its artist John Rita (of Altoona) as "kind of like a fantasy on Roman ruins. It is a glimpse into the past based on a lot of experiences I have had." I would agree with the fantasy all right. The walls in general were a fantastic homage to Italian art and architecture. But his version of the Three Fates was, well, it left me slightly speechless.

Our waitress, sensing our general weariness from a long day at work, quickly took our drink orders. She returned with them just as quickly. We all nodded in approval - we're going to like this girl! She knows how to handled the tired, huddled masses.

We all started with the house salad. Can't generally go wrong with a house salad, even in Altoona. As expected, it was totally pedestrian and unimaginative. It looked like it had spent the last 30 years in a cold storage locker and recently been pulled out and covered with Marzetti dressing.

Fortunately, we had ordered a bottle of Paso Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, a respectable red from Paso Robles, CA. A rich shade of red garnet, the Cabernet layered caramel, vanilla, pepper and black cherry equally to create a reasonably priced wine at $35.00. We made short work of the first bottle by the time we finished our salad.

Unfortunately, that left us with a lot of time to nurse a final glass of wine, between the time we finished our salads and the time our entrees were served.

Fortunately, everyone agreed, the entrees were worth the wait. I ordered Steak Diane, one of their signature steak dishes. Other specials include steak au poivre and wiener schnitzel viennese (Please don't ask me why an Italian steakhouse in the middle of Amish country would feature a viennese hot dog.)

Our waitress arrived with our entrees almost 30 minutes after we finished our salads. Not bad if you're in a restaurant in Venice or Bologna, a

little long if you're sitting in an Altoona restaurant after a long day of work.

The medium-rare medallions were served smothered in a creamy, spicy Diane sauce, accented with mushrooms and onions. Served with a creamy risotto, the steak was delicious and practically as creamy as the risotto. The vegetables included carrots and red and yellow peppers sauteed in olive oil and a slight citrus seasoning. They were filling yet very light at the same time. There was more food on all of our plates than could be eaten. No one went away hungry or unhappy after our meal at Raphael's.


  1. Jon Rita is an absolutely phenomenal artist. Everything he does is breathtaking,inspiring, and original.

  2. Anon - thank you for crediting the artist.