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Goat loin with rhubarb chutney and confit chicken leg with Greek sausage at Legume
Goat loin with rhubarb chutney and confit chicken leg with Greek sausage at Legume
Bill Addison

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Is Pittsburgh The Country's Next Destination Food Town?

The dining scene is shaping a distinct identity

In 1989 I came to Pittsburgh to attend a pre-college summer music program at Carnegie Mellon University. I was earnest about the voice lessons but, foreshadowing my adulthood, I spent any free time combing the city for new things to eat. In groups we’d head off-campus to Primanti Bros. for roast beef or kielbasa sandwiches famously piled with fries and slaw, or to the "O" for super dogs and onion rings. A summer romance stirred over slices of coconut cream pie at Gullifty’s, a gussied-up diner in nearby Squirrel Hill. (It closed in 2013 after 31 years in business.) With money I’d saved from my video-store job back home, we splurged on duck a l’orange and other Continental thrillers at fancy Le Mont, with its city views atop Mount Washington. I had never returned to Pittsburgh. Over the years I’d wondered, as dining became my work, how the city’s restaurant scene had changed since my time there.

These days every small- to mid-size American city can take pride in at least two or three local chefs who keep apace with coast-to-coast trends. But in the last few years, the national arbiters have labeled Pittsburgh "the next big food town." They’ve cited cocktail upstarts like Bar Marco, where the skilled bartenders converse with customers rather than handing out menus, and innovative restaurants like Root 174, where Keith Fuller playfully surrounds pork belly with strawberry-apple slaw, barbecue-flavored pop rocks, and a savory Rice Krispies treat.

Was there a defining shift that had made this Rust Belt survivor the next must-fly-to-eat destination? Were key restaurants evoking a singular sense of place, like in Charleston or Nashville? Had the eating public developed remarkably adventurous palates à la Portland, Oregon? Or was it simply that a critical mass of stellar restaurants had opened? And did it really deserve the accolades?

I thought about all this last month as I began my first meal in Pittsburgh in 26 years, with a starter I couldn’t even have imagined or understood in my teens: trout cured in Cynar amaro. The dish had swum off the page at Cure, the restaurant currently drawing the most national attention to Pittsburgh’s dining scene. Chef and co-owner Justin Severino previously ran a butcher shop in California, and his diverse charcuterie program (coppas, pâtés, rillettes, duck speck, delicate ham made from leg of lamb) at four-year-old Cure has earned him the reputation as the town’s meat virtuoso. Wary of pigeonholing, and cognizant of the challenges around having pristine seafood flown in daily to Pittsburgh, Severino began experimenting with curing fish. He’d had luck infusing salami with the bittersweet notes of a Negroni, one of his go-to cocktails, and thought a similar treatment might fly with local trout.

Cured trout at Cure

He pulled it off. Cynar is an Italian liqueur distilled from 13 different botanicals, including artichoke: It’s the featured image on the bottle’s label, though its astringent earthiness doesn’t dominate the bittersweet taste. Severino cured the trout in salt and sugar for 10 hours and then compressed it with Cynar and beet juice overnight; the combination imparted a mysterious, herbal complexity that didn’t overpower the fish. Severino served it sliced among ribbons of pickled rhubarb, edible flowers, artichoke chips for a wink, and dribbles of honey to ease the trace of sharpness the Cynar left behind.

His traditional charcuterie impressed — particularly the spreadable Calabrian pork sausage ’nduja, a countrywide obsession among salumi heads for the last half-decade — as did puffs of Parisian gnocchi in a chunky sauce of tomatoes, smoked brisket, and pine nuts. But I found myself equally drawn, with happy results, to his seafood and vegetable dishes: savory churros filled with bacalao (salt cod) and splattered with saffron yogurt; asparagus vichyssoise with pickled shrimp and carrot mousse; pickled mackerel atop a nest of fermented ramps, cabbage, and knotweed. I could understand why Severino resists being categorized solely as a meat-centric chef.

Cure certainly qualifies as the boldest restau- rant in Pittsburgh, rewardingly so.

Cure certainly qualifies as the boldest restaurant in Pittsburgh, rewardingly so. It resides at the base of a three-story brick building in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, an area that spiraled into squalor when the city’s steel mills closed in the 1980s. The community began rekindling last decade, first as an emerging arts and design district. Now Butler Street, the main thoroughfare, is as much a restaurant row as it is a haven for galleries and boutique shops.

The recent transformation of Pittsburgh’s downtown, for decades largely a dining hinterland, has been even more striking. Native Richard DeShantz is a chief catalyst. DeShantz opened two places last decade, including the upscale restaurant Nine On Nine in downtown’s theatre-lined Cultural District, but really hit the zeitgeist when he and partner Tolga Sevdik opened Meat & Potatoes in 2011. A downtown gastropub serving pork belly tacos, burgers, and barrel-aged Manhattans, it brought the city up to speed on the countrywide hunger for casual, bombastic comforts.

In 2013, DeShantz and Sevdik followed with Butcher & The Rye around the corner. I sat at the corner of the mobbed bar on a Saturday night, eyeing a chandelier made of white antlers and backlit shelves that reached up to the second floor and held over 400 bottles of whiskey. Two au courant plates — cauliflower with farro, carrots, and yogurt punched up with harissa, and a ricotta gnudi special sauced with fava bean pesto and country ham and garnished with fried pig’s ears — excited more than an oddly bland take on "Sunday gravy" made with lamb neck and served with toasted bread.

Guacamole with salmon, octopus taco, and the outdoor seating at Tako

An hour before I’d been sitting next door at Tako, the latest DeShantz-Sevdik blockbuster that launched in April. It concentrates on street food-inspired small plates and, yes, tacos that mash up Mexican and Asian cuisines. The interior dining room was as dim and packed as at Butcher, but I snagged one of five seats along a sidewalk bar that faces the open kitchen. The chef in front of me worked with the precision of a jeweler. He was David Racicot, who had previously owned a 28-seat tasting menu restaurant called Notion in Pittsburgh’s emerging East Liberty neighborhood. It never found its consistent audience and closed last December. I watched Racicot meticulously layer the elements of ceviche on a plate and orchestrate myriad ingredients over tortillas. (A grilled octopus taco with harissa aioli, preserved lemon, pickled onion particularly stood out.) Frankly, his talents looked under-utilized in the position. But his humor was intact. Behind him the line cooks rapped along to "Regulate" by Warren G and Nate Dogg: "Since these girls peepin’ me I’ma glide and swerve/these hookers lookin’ so hard they straight hit the curb." Racicot and I looked over at them and then made eye contact. "Hey," he said. "It was Bette Midler last week. This is much better."

The next day, across town in the quieter Oakland neighborhood, I sat in a handsome bar called Butterjoint sipping an Aperol spritz and savoring its version of the unofficial dish of Pittsburgh: pierogies. The dumplings arrived with the Polish and other Eastern European immigrants who populated numerous communities in the early 1900s. They’ve been staples of church suppers and the specialties of small businesses for decades. Restaurant cooks have filled them with baroque proteins and drizzled sweet versions with chocolates. Trevett Hooper, the chef behind Butterjoint and its adjoining restaurant, Legume, approaches pierogies with a purist’s palate: He fills circles of dough with fluffy mashed potato and homemade farmer’s cheese and then boils and sautés the dumplings. He dots them with splotches of caramelized onions, serves them with a side of sour cream, and offers some accompanying options: a hunk of kielbasa, sauerkraut, sauteed greens. I ordered a plate with all those things, and the simple, contrasting combination was among the most satisfying meals of the trip.

At Legume next door, Hooper goes broad — but deft — with a New American menu. He’ll weave in the Eastern European flavors of beet soup with horseradish or cured mackerel with crème fraiche and pickles among goat loin with Carolina Gold rice and rhubarb chutney or a beautiful confit chicken leg sidled up to loukaniko, a Greek style of sausage perfumed with orange. Legume is the most sedate among the city’s finest restaurants, housed in a warren of odd but charming rooms that were once the lobby of an apartment building.

Among Pittsburgh’s reigning spate of ambitious chefs, Hooper seems the most invested in embracing the city’s culinary heritage.

And among Pittsburgh’s reigning spate of ambitious chefs, Hooper seems the most invested in embracing the city’s culinary heritage. Next year he plans to open Dacha, a restaurant focusing on Eastern European foods — a cuisine underrepresented in American restaurants as a whole, so I hope he succeeds in his new venture. I also loved stumbling into an interpretation of a Pittsburgh tradition (likely of Italian and Eastern European origins) at The Commoner in the Hotel Monaco downtown: the cookie table. At weddings, families bring waffled pizzelles, biscotti, and dozens of other types of cookies to create a sweet feast at the reception. At The Commoner, a much more modest but still tempting spread of peanut brittle, chocolate and sugar cookies, and other round treats arrives at the table.

Just as an emerging food town needs restaurants that uplift the deep-rooted culture, it calls, too, for places that elevate less familiar global fare. Local food writer friends pointed me to a few exemplars: Gaucho, serving Argentinian classics like empanadas (not so far a leap from pierogies?) and steaks with garlicky chimichurri; Conflict Kitchen, a restaurant that focuses on foods of countries with which the U.S. is in discord (currently it serves Cuban dishes like lechon asado and roja vieja; past cuisines include South Korean and Venezulean); and, most seductively, a Sichuan restaurant called Chengdu Gourmet. Wei Zhu, a chef who trained in China and worked in New York before moving to Pittsburgh, makes jelly noodles slicked in chile oil and Chongqing-style beef in a broth radioactive with Sichuan peppercorns. His prowess, I’ll admit, surprised me: It rivaled the numbing ma-la mojo of Sichuan cooking I’ve tried anywhere in the country, including Peter Chang in the Washington, D.C. area.

Above: Pierogis at Butterjoint and Legume's interior; Below: cookie tray at The Commoner and jelly noodles at Chengdu Gourmet

An up-and-coming food city also needs wildcards — the obsessives who fixate on a dish or a style of cooking and shake up the status quo with equal parts delight and bewilderment. In Pittsburgh right now the unruliest wildcard is Rick Easton, who at the beginning of the year opened a bakery called Bread and Salt. He and his crew toil in a building receded from the street, in a former slaughterhouse, in the Italian-German neighborhood of Bloomfield. Easton works with a Pennsylvania farmer to develop wheat strains to his specifications and his naturally leavened dough goes through a 24-hour fermentation cycle.

His crusty, stretchy, smoky-sweet bread is profound, the kind that brings as much pleasure to the teeth as to the palate. I stopped by for a breakfast of pane locale (bread made from all local, organic grains) toasted and smeared with rose petal jam and goat cheese. I ended up staying for lunch, waiting for his pizzas to emerge from the oven. He baked them in long rectangular pans. First I ate one covered in circles of soppressata and provola, a stringy Italian cheese, and then I tried one covered in thinly sliced herbed potatoes with wisps of onions. Best was a calzone-like construct stuffed with peperoncino, dill, and lamb’s quarters, a green with a mineral saltiness that married to the bread like eggs to bacon. Easton’s wonders were among the last things I ate in Pittsburgh, and I carried home a loaf of pane locale on the plane. I missed the rose petal jam the next morning but the joy of the bread was just as intense.

Rick Easton at Bread and Salt

So. After gorging through around a dozen of its buzziest restaurants, do I think it’s time for food fanatics to book a flight solely for the purpose of dining through Pittsburgh? Not yet. The dining scene is still shaping a distinct identity, though the dynamism among its strongest players is tangible. If you do find yourself in the city, start at Bread & Salt, Cure, Chengdu Gourmet, and Legume or Butterjoint, and hit up Tako for a late-night snack. Beyond national talk, proud Pittsburgh doesn’t strike me as a city of people clamoring for validation. Its character will keep developing on its own time, in its own way. In any case, it won’t take me another quarter-century to return with my appetite and curiosity.


Cure: 5336 Butler Street, Pittsburgh, (412) 252-2595,

Meat & Potatoes: 649 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, (412) 325-7007,

Butcher and the Rye: 212 Sixth Street, Pittsburgh, (412) 391-2752,

Tako: 214 Sixth Street, Pittsburgh, (412) 471-8256,

Legume and Butterjoint: 214 North Craig Street, Pittsburgh, (412) 621-2700,,

The Commoner: 458 Strawberry Way, Pittsburgh, (412) 230-4800,

Gaucho: 1607 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, (412) 709-6622,

Conflict Kitchen: 221 Schenley Drive, Pittsburgh, (412) 802-8417,

Chengdu Gourmet: 5840 Forward Avenue, Pittsburgh, (412) 521-2088,

Bread and Salt: 330 Pearl Street, Pittsburgh,

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