Review: Café Zinho

Seasoned chef and entrepreneur Toni Pais continues to impress folks who dine at his longstanding Mediterranean establishment, Café Zinho.




Photos by Laura Petrilla

 

Café Zinho has re-emerged as a showcase for award-winning Executive Chef/Owner Toni Pais’ cuisine. After arriving here in 1978 from Portugal, Pais in 1992 opened Baum Vivant, which our independent Restaurant Review Panel named Restaurant of the Year for eight years consecutively; it closed New Year’s Eve 2006.

Pais established Café Zinho in 1997, as well as Café Zao, which he operated from 2004-2010. As he turns 60, Pais focuses solely on Café Zinho, for which he does the daily shopping and cooking, making each diner’s experience all the more special.

Around 2005, the chef/restaurateur started to exhibit symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Following his diagnosis, he managed his illness with medication, although his ability to use his hands for his craft declined over time. In August 2012, he underwent deep brain stimulation, a surgical procedure that helps to control impulses to the brain. The surgery had dramatic results, enabling him to get back into the kitchen. Sporting his signature baseball cap and warm smile, Pais is back to wielding a knife and sauté pan like a pro.

The interior of Café Zinho is bohemian and eclectic, with orange and brown walls, funky lampshades and bright, vibrant art. In contrast, the white tablecloths match the fine-dining-level fare.

The Mediterranean dishes give off a Portuguese flair. Pais describes Portuguese food as the original “fusion” food because it marries so many influences. Café Zinho’s creations always are classical, flavorful and straightforward. This is not a place for trendy foams and gelees; instead, it is a place offering dishes with tomatoes, peppers, herbs and traditional sauces. These meals are best with wine, so bring a bottle to this BYOB establishment.

Waitstaff deliver a loaf of slightly sweet, warm Portuguese corn bread to each table; you will need the bread to soak up the broths from your meal. The soup of the day ($6.95) remains worthwhile, no matter the choice. An interesting new menu item is the chilled coconut milk, lime and kale soup, which is refreshing and nutritionally dense.

Starters are wonderful. The crab gazpacho (or campachano, $9.95) is packed with veggies, shredded crab and chunks of avocado; it’s garnished with shrimp. Pais pan-sears chicken livers ($8.95), which are caramelized with apple cider and bacon lardoons; they’re decadent, sweet and unique to Café Zinho. On the lighter side, the clams cataplana ($10.95) are served in an aromatic white port tomato broth with accents of spicy sausage.

I have enjoyed every entrée I’ve had at Café Zinho. The signature Portuguese seafood stew, or mariscada ($29.95), is the preferred dinner for Pais’ wife Becky, his longtime business partner. It is cooked perfectly; for the tomato and cilantro broth, you’ll want to use your spoon and bread to get every last drop.



 

Pais’ culinary experience is evident in his artful technique and ability to manage the way heat is applied to each protein. For example, the whole branzino ($28.95) has a perfectly crispy skin contrasting the tender flesh. Similarly, the roasted duck ($28.95) features a leg and breast with browned crispy skin — yet it has a nicely cooked interior and is set in a pineapple-caramel rum sauce.

Two simple successes are the salt- and pepper-seasoned petite rack of lamb ($36) and the flounder special ($26), which is lightly dredged in breadcrumbs. Most entrées come with a thick-cut potato wedge and several vegetables.

Housemade desserts ($6.95) include chocolate mousse and Portuguese cookies layered with whipped cream and berries. Each treat is traditional and satisfying.



 

On May 31, Pais was honored at a Friends of James Beard benefit dinner at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, where Mayor Peduto declared it “Toni Pais Day” in Pittsburgh.

“I was definitely overwhelmed!’ says Pais of the recognition. “It brought tears to my eyes to hear the mayor’s proclamation and see the reaction of all of those in the room. The dedication of the instructors and students was really inspiring to me.”

In addition, our independent Restaurant Review Panel named Pais one of Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2014 Chefs of the Year. Although his awards are legion, it is the warmth of Pais’ personality, leadership in the local culinary scene and commitment to his customers’ enjoyment that have earned him a place in our hearts. 



 

Toni Pais, Executive Chef / Owner, Café Zinho

 

What was the food scene like when you arrived in Pittsburgh?  
The food here was very dreary. You could order at restaurants without looking at the menu because all [of] the menus were exactly the same. At that time, it was really hard to get good food products, so I was always smuggling things like fois gras and unpasteurized cheeses in my luggage when I traveled abroad.

What food trends have you noticed throughout the years?  
I saw nouvelle cuisine, which was overpriced small portions, and on the other hand, I saw the huge portions, like the 36-ounce steak. I believe in moderation. I think we have come full circle in that regard. In Pittsburgh lately, I am seeing more and more young professionals and people who have lived and traveled in other places; these people have a wider palate and will try anything.

What have you been thinking about recently in terms of your cuisine?  
I am reading a lot of books about good health. My food has always been wholesome and natural, but I am enjoying experimenting with interesting healthful ingredients, such as turmeric, coconut milk and various vegetables. I am also studying the properties of raw versus cooked foods. It is apparent that if you eat well, your health will be better. I’ve recently introduced a dark-chocolate dessert terrine with chili powder; it’s both delicious and good for you.

With whom are you now working?  
I have two wonderful people: My niece Becca Knee is my front-of-the-house manager, and she is doing a great job. I also have an assistant chef in the kitchen, Dounia Touil. I have worked for so many years with so many people that it amazes me that, at this point in my career, I have found a new, young person with whom I have such great cooking chemistry.

What is something you want people to know about you?  
I am very proud of my association with the James Beard Foundation. I was nominated for the James Beard Chef of the Year — Mid-Atlantic in 2001, and I also had the opportunity to be a guest chef at the James Beard House in New York City in 1998 and 2005.

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Health Care in Pittsburgh that Goes Beyond the Office

Health Care in Pittsburgh that Goes Beyond the Office

Innovations in Postpartum Depression Treatment, First-Aid Training and Food Security.
Looking Back: Dan Rooney, Remembered

Looking Back: Dan Rooney, Remembered

The builder of two stadiums, a billion-dollar football business, NFL labor harmony and racial sensitivity, and bridges between constituencies –– he was an everywhere man whose soft, steady hand was felt everywhere.
Restaurant Review: DiAnoia's Eatery Bridges the Gap

Restaurant Review: DiAnoia's Eatery Bridges the Gap

With a little work, the Strip District restaurant could become a Pittsburgh classic.
Pittsburgh at the Forefront of The Brain Revolution

Pittsburgh at the Forefront of The Brain Revolution

Alzheimer’s disease is the most expensive ailment to treat and the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. Pittsburgh has become a battleground in the fight against the devastating illness, thanks to the decade-long quest of two Pittsburgh researchers whose work is on track to change the face of medicine and affect millions worldwide.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

New Study: Pittsburgh Drivers are The Worst of the Worst

New Study: Pittsburgh Drivers are The Worst of the Worst

Pittsburgh ties with one other city for having the worst drivers in the nation.
HGTV Series Pilot Focuses on Renovation of Pittsburgh Home

HGTV Series Pilot Focuses on Renovation of Pittsburgh Home

The pilot episode of “Steel City Rehab” follows a Pittsburgh couple as they flip a home in the city’s East End.
‘The Good Wife’s’ Zach Grenier Appears on the Pittsburgh Stage

‘The Good Wife’s’ Zach Grenier Appears on the Pittsburgh Stage

Grenier on playing the dream role of Willy Loman, coming to Pittsburgh and performing at the renowned Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Enjoy a Cocktail to Help Preserve Pittsburgh's Historic Murals

Enjoy a Cocktail to Help Preserve Pittsburgh's Historic Murals

The nearly 80-year-old murals by Maxo Vanka show an immigrant's’ perspective on important issues.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Health Care in Pittsburgh that Goes Beyond the Office

Health Care in Pittsburgh that Goes Beyond the Office

Innovations in Postpartum Depression Treatment, First-Aid Training and Food Security.
Restaurant Review: DiAnoia's Eatery Bridges the Gap

Restaurant Review: DiAnoia's Eatery Bridges the Gap

With a little work, the Strip District restaurant could become a Pittsburgh classic.
Looking Back: Dan Rooney, Remembered

Looking Back: Dan Rooney, Remembered

The builder of two stadiums, a billion-dollar football business, NFL labor harmony and racial sensitivity, and bridges between constituencies –– he was an everywhere man whose soft, steady hand was felt everywhere.
Pittsburgh at the Forefront of The Brain Revolution

Pittsburgh at the Forefront of The Brain Revolution

Alzheimer’s disease is the most expensive ailment to treat and the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. Pittsburgh has become a battleground in the fight against the devastating illness, thanks to the decade-long quest of two Pittsburgh researchers whose work is on track to change the face of medicine and affect millions worldwide.
Dr. Thomas E. Starzl’s Legacy

Dr. Thomas E. Starzl’s Legacy

The “Father of Transplantation” created a pioneering medical center and a city transformed by medicine.
The Slinky Playing Right Wing for the Pittsburgh Penguins

The Slinky Playing Right Wing for the Pittsburgh Penguins

Winger Conor Sheary emerges as a constant scoring threat and tenacious on-ice presence.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


New Study: Pittsburgh Drivers are The Worst of the Worst

New Study: Pittsburgh Drivers are The Worst of the Worst

Pittsburgh ties with one other city for having the worst drivers in the nation.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Scratch Food & Beverage Has a New Executive Chef

Scratch Food & Beverage Has a New Executive Chef

Brandon Blumenfeld introduces an American gastropub menu at the Troy Hill bar.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


Dive Bar & Grille Expands to South Side, Remains Charming

Dive Bar & Grille Expands to South Side, Remains Charming

The latest outpost of the small, Wexford-born chain isn't flashy, but offers good beer and grub.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
‘Use Him Like ‘Troy Polamalu’ – Steelers Should Jump on This Pick

‘Use Him Like ‘Troy Polamalu’ – Steelers Should Jump on This Pick

If Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers is still available, the Pittsburgh Steelers would be wise to make him their first-round pick in the NFL draft.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Pittsburgh on a Plate

Pittsburgh on a Plate

The way to a beer lover’s heart is mapped out on notNeutral’s plate, which highlights Pittsburgh breweries (and other points of interest) across the city.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
A Refreshing Action Flick and a Redundant Thriller

A Refreshing Action Flick and a Redundant Thriller

Reviews of "Free Fire," "Unforgettable" and "The Promise," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Beautiful Blooms: Twists on the Traditional Bouquet

Beautiful Blooms: Twists on the Traditional Bouquet

You’ll definitely want the story behind these stunning wedding flowers.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Rare Plants, Accessories, Up for Grabs at 2017 Garden Marketplace

Rare Plants, Accessories, Up for Grabs at 2017 Garden Marketplace

Hosted by the Penn State Master Gardeners, the free event, which includes the local daffodil society’s annual show, features exclusive and hard-to-find flowers, shrubs, fruit and vegetable plants and other garden accessories from a variety of vendors.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
A-Rod to Talk Baseball and Steroids at Slippery Rock

A-Rod to Talk Baseball and Steroids at Slippery Rock

Considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time, Alex Rodriguez also is one of the league's more controversial stars.

Comments