You may think you walked into the wrong place, as I thought. It’s not that the Highland doesn’t look sufficiently restaurant-like; rather, it looks like you’ve entered an Italian joint from your parents’ childhood. Which already probably projects the Highland into its own future. It opened in 1936.
Twenty years is an eternity in this business. Three-quarters of a century is freakish. But another anachronistic phenomenon comes into play here once you’re seated and studying the menu. You feel like you’ve been here before—been here often enough that your server’s easy familiarity was earned by those repeated visits. Why else would anyone be so friendly?
Read the online reviews and you’ll learn it’s the nature of the place. Nothing in the experience of my recent visit proved otherwise. It was a Sunday evening, going on 7. Downtown Pittsfield was sepulchral, with open-for-business lights peeking only from an occasional convenience store. .
It was a sweet transition from icy streets to warm, padded booths, heightened by sharing the meal with a friend I’ve known for more than four decades, whom I see too rarely. Having shared several trips to Yankee Stadium during our teenhood, a meeting in a retro Italian restaurant with life-sized photos of baseball heroes on the walls was fitting.
I predict a big comeback for calf’s liver someday, and only because it’s been out of any culinary spotlight I know of for decades. But it’s here on the dinner menu, a $10 entrée served with mashed potatoes and salad. I passed it up this visit only because I’ve had it here before, a few years ago, and I doubt that the preparation has lost any of the crispness that heralds a tender inside.
It took but moments for John to make up his mind. “Italian sausage and peppers with spaghetti,” said he, settling back with a smile. The $10 dish was exactly as expected—no experimentation here. It was peaceful and filling.
The Highland already had been in operation for more than 20 years when Italian immigrant Leon Arace became chef. In the early 1970s he bought into the business, and, 20 years after that, he and his three sons became sole owners. Those sons—Pasquale, Gerardo and Dario—still own and operate the place and, as Pasquale observes, the emphasis remains on homemade food at affordable prices.
“I’ve been here 15 years,” said Linda, who was managing the floor the night of my visit. “My husband, Richard, who’s over there behind the bar—he’s been here even longer. And some of the girls who work here have been here for even longer than that.”
I asked about a signature dish and our server recommended pretty much anything in which spaghetti is involved. “If you like pork, the tenderloin is nice,” she added, and so I opted for that one, a $12 dish, and, yes, I wanted onions on my home fries as well as on my salad. I mean, who wouldn’t?
Ah, I see. Someone bitched on a blog about getting automatic onions. But note that the majority of the online reviews are confessions from Highland-addicted writers, who agree with my editor (a Pittsfield native) not only that the look of the place is deceiving, but often so is the look of the food: a blah-looking veal parm, for instance, has the breading and tenderness down to a science.
My pork cutlet was similarly disposed. It looked disappointingly ordinary, but proved as tender and juicy as could be. It broke no ground in terms of flavor or presentation, and included applesauce from a jar and the sort of home fries you’d find on any good diner grill, but the effect—comforting, homey—transcended the prosaic plate.
This is the point of the Highland. “Oh, if they try to make anything different from the way it’s been, folks complain,” said Linda. “We get people who come in after being away for years and years and they tell us they’re so happy the food’s still the same.” The salad is mostly iceberg lettuce, and there you are. I won’t cavil. If ever there’s a restaurant that has a right to serve iceberg, it’s this one.
You can get a hamburger for under $3, a hot dog for a buck and a half. Most of the sandwiches—there are more than three dozen to choose from—come in under $5 and include filet of sole, pot roast, veal parm and Italian sausage as options. French fries are $2.50 extra, and an order of onion rings will set you back five, but this a la carte approach allows you to lunch economically on sensible portions.
On the dinner side, no appetizers are listed as such, although an antipasto is available for $9. The so-listed Italian dishes include veal scallopini or parmigiana, southern-fried chicken (southern Italy?), sautéed chicken livers, broiled mushrooms with spaghetti and many more—and each of the ones I listed is $10.
Under entrées you find roasted chicken, turkey or Yankee pot roast ($9 each), a $6 hamburger plate (fries and cole slaw included), chicken croquettes or baked pork sausages ($8), and, for the big-budgeted, a strip steak or filet mignon at $14 each. A buck more for added mushroom sauce.
The dessert list includes a slew of homemade pies that we were already too full even to sample, and I’ve been admonished that this was a mistake. They haven’t changed the recipes in a half-century, my editor notes, and he insists that the pies put the confections from fancier places to shame.
Would pie have been too much? By the time our entrées arrived, John and I already had traveled to a place where a sense of past and future no longer exist. I used to think that was a place called limbo or the result of really fine sex, but now I know it’s a vintage Italian restaurant in Pittsfield.