By Karen Mansfield
Photos by Holly Tonini
Since opening in October 2018, Sonny’s Prime has – pardon the pun – staked a claim as one of the best steak and seafood restaurants in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The restaurant is located off the beaten path in Arnold City, near Belle Vernon, and it’s only open three days a week. But gastronomically, it’s worth the drive and worth waiting for.
Jason Mendicino, 45, has owned and operated Sonny’s Prime since 1999 – it was the first restaurant he launched, and he’s operated other successful eateries over the past two decades – but he decided to re-invent the establishment for a couple of reasons.
First, Mendicino already owns and operates Sonny’s Grille, a popular casual eatery in Belle Vernon, which he opened in 2005, and he was reluctant to continue to have the restaurants compete against each other.
Additionally, Mendicino has long envisioned opening an eatery that serves delicious, high-end food in an upscale atmosphere.
The menu is simple, straightforward and satisfying: diners can select from prime cuts of meat and seafood. “We’ve learned that simple, high-quality ingredients will get you pretty far,” Mendicino says.
He got his start in the restaurant industry at age 15, when he worked as a busboy at the Holiday Inn under the guidance of Rose Calderone, who owned the Twin Coaches Supper Club in Rostraver, which drew top-tier stars like Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, The Supremes, The Temptations and Sammy Davis Jr.
“Once you work in the restaurant business, it’s kind of always in your blood. I’ve been doing it for so long, and I really do enjoy when people come in and they’re satisfied and happy. It gives me joy,” he says.
Sonny’s Prime has demonstrated its own star power, drawing celebrities including Jack Ham and Fabiano “Fabian” Forte. Most recently, Jack Osborne and the crew of the television show “Portals to Hell” spent an evening at the restaurant after wrapping an episode filmed in Monongahela.
But excellent food is the star at Sonny’s Prime.
On the menu is prime rib, slow roasted for eight hours and cooked perfectly pink from edge to edge and served with with natural beef jus and horseradish cream. If you come hungry, you might consider the king cut, a hefty 32 ounces.
Also featured is a Tomahawk steak – a big, bone-in ribeye steak – that is broiled at more than 1,500 degrees, resulting an a crispy, charred exterior and a juicy center.
Mendicino notes that each steak is hand-carved in-house from upper choice black Angus beef, and the prime rib is slow roasted three times a week.
Then, there’s the seafood. The lump crab cakes, one of the most requested entrées on the menu (and also available at Sonny’s Grille), are fashioned after crab cakes Mendicino encountered when he worked as a server in Ocean City, Md.
“I wanted to figure out what they did to make a Maryland crab cake a Maryland crab cake, and it was trial and error, but these are almost all jumbo lump meat with very little filler,” he says.
For sides, opt for lobster mac and cheese, mashed sweet potatoes and expertly grilled asparagus.
Salads and French onion soup are also excellent options. And if you’re indulging – and you should – try creme brulee, a rich custard topped with a delightfully hardened caramelized sugar. Sonny’s also offers a carefully crafted cocktail menu that is well matched to the dishes served.
Mendicino points out the establishment’s impressive collection of bourbons displayed behind the bar, and he deftly mixed a barrel aged Prohibition-style old fashioned crafted from Elijah Craig bourbon, orange bitters and simple syrup, and dramatically displayed in a glass with a two-inch ice cube.
The restaurant has thrived under chef and manager Chris Sylvester, a friend of Mendicino’s since middle school, and Mendicino plans to expand the staff of seven employees later this spring. For the summer patio season, he wants to expand the menu to include gourmet pizzas.
At one time, the building was part of a group of stores in the former coal mining town. Mendicino settled on the name, Sonny’s Prime, as a nod to his grandfather, Sonny Seman. A whimsical feature perched atop the restaurant is a fiberglass and styrofoam shark named Margarita Gill, built by Mendicino’s mother, Francine, and a friend of hers.
On Saturdays, there is usually musical entertainment: Clint One Man Band, who plays classics and jazz on multiple instruments, including bass.
Dinner at Sonny’s Prime, Mendicino says, is more than a good meal: it’s an experience. “You know when someone comes here for a 7 o’clock reservation, that table is going to be taken all evening. People want to eat, but they want to stay and have a few drinks, enjoy the atmosphere and the entertainment.”
Mendicino’s food philosophy is to provide excellent food and service, and a pleasant ambiance. “I want people to walk away saying, ‘That’s the best steak I’ve ever had,’ he says.
Chances are, they will.
Sonny’s Prime is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 5 p.m. and located at 304 Mikula Road in Belle Vernon. For more information or to make reservations (recommended), call 724.929.2188 or visit sonnysprime.com. Reservations can also be made at Sonny’s Grille, 724.929.5007.