East Liberty Restaurateur Focused on Fresh, Not Fussy Food

Chef Sonja J Finn’s quality-first attitude translates to stellar menu selections at Dinette.




PHOTO BY HANNAH HARLEY
 

The open kitchen at Dinette, Sonja J Finn’s cozy East Liberty restaurant, radiates focused, energetic warmth. That energy is a reflection of Finn’s leadership philosophy, which she says is based on making the most streamlined and productive kitchen possible.

“I don’t think anyone should be yelling in a kitchen. But that also means you have to hire the right people. You have to have people who respect the customers, respect the process and respect the food,” says Finn, 36.
 
Her menu is a reflection of that culinary philosophy. Ingredients should be fresh, seasonal and not at all fussy. “I don’t want there to be a moment where people try to figure out what their food is,” she says.

Finn’s respect for people and food translates to the plate, where seasonal dishes such as srpska salata (Serbian summer salad of tomatoes, hot peppers, onions and feta) are a straightforward celebration of ingredients, and the simple beauty of a pizza crust is elevated by combinations such as the Pennsylvania sweet onion with sun gold tomatoes, Brie, rosemary, sage and fresh mozzarella.

Aside from the pastries, there aren’t hard-and-fast recipes for any of the dishes. This, Finn says, largely is because the subtleties of an ingredient’s flavor change through the year.

Finn opened Dinette in 2008, when old Pittsburgh stalwarts such as Le Pommier were on their last legs. Her leadership helped to pioneer the city’s transition from white-tablecloth dining to meals in comfortable spaces cooked by chefs who focus on quality of ingredient above anything else.

Early on, sourcing was a challenge for Finn, who after graduating in 2003 from the Culinary Institute of America developed her skills in Northern California restaurants. “I didn’t understand how food could be so far from the source that there would be a rotten potato in the sack. And then when we got our first order here, half of the onions were bad,” she says.

At times, she even had to bypass the traditional restaurant supply chain and get the best produce she could find wherever she could get it. “I decided I’d rather get my ingredients at Whole Foods than settle for bad produce,” she says.

Now Finn for the first time is about to move on to her next endeavor: running a restaurant inside the Carnegie Museums in Oakland. She used to take her son Miles to the museums every week, and as part of the experience, they’d have lunch in the café. “I’d sit there and think about how amazing the space is and if only I could have my food here. I could feel it in my bones that this was something that was meant to be,” she says.  

 

Ajvar

This traditional Serbian (my mother is from Serbia) roasted spicy red-pepper spread is a favorite of everyone in my family. Red Serbian peppers work best, but unless your father smuggled seeds into the United States 40 years ago, your best substitute is red banana peppers.

  • 4 pounds mild red banana peppers
  • 1 pound hot red banana peppers
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • salt

Directions: Grill peppers until skins start to blister. Put peppers into a bowl, wrap tight with plastic wrap and allow the peppers to steam for at least an hour. Remove skins, stems and seeds. (Wear disposable gloves.) Transfer peppers into a colander and toss with a little salt. Let peppers drain at least overnight in the fridge. Pulse peppers in food processor until chopped finely, but do not purée. In a large sauté pan, add oil and peppers. Continuously stir over medium heat to both evaporate some water and fully incorporate the peppers and oil (about eight minutes). Adjust salt to taste. Let cool before serving.

 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Host an event in Pittsburgh’s urban sustainable homestead. Join a club for mushroom hunters. Tour a coal mine. Listen to some banjo music. We list our new favorite experiences, food, drink, personalities, stores, items and activities in the ’Burgh.
Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Fourteen years ago this month, the mighty Kinzua Viaduct met its match.
Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

The restaurant, run by Dinette’s Sonja J. Finn, boosts the dining experience at the Carnegie museums in Oakland.
Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

FASTER Pittsburghʼs Hip Hop Cardio promises to get your workout into a groove.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Marc-André Fleury Pens Loving Farewell Letter to Pittsburgh

Marc-André Fleury Pens Loving Farewell Letter to Pittsburgh

In a letter for The Players' Tribune, Fleury recounts his 14-year career as a Pittsburgh Penguin and the bittersweet weeks leading up to his departure to Las Vegas.
Pittsburgh-Area Fireworks 2017: When & Where to Watch Them

Pittsburgh-Area Fireworks 2017: When & Where to Watch Them

You can get your fill of fireworks throughout the long holiday weekend, if you know where and when to look.
See The Tiny House with Room to Grow

See The Tiny House with Room to Grow

The housing company Module, a Pittsburgh start-up, creates an alternative housing model that grows in size as you grow in income.
Watch: Pittsburgh Penguins Video Tribute to Marc-André Fleury

Watch: Pittsburgh Penguins Video Tribute to Marc-André Fleury

With a tear in our eye, we bid the “Flower” Au Revoir.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Host an event in Pittsburgh’s urban sustainable homestead. Join a club for mushroom hunters. Tour a coal mine. Listen to some banjo music. We list our new favorite experiences, food, drink, personalities, stores, items and activities in the ’Burgh.
Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Fourteen years ago this month, the mighty Kinzua Viaduct met its match.
Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

The restaurant, run by Dinette’s Sonja J. Finn, boosts the dining experience at the Carnegie museums in Oakland.
Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

FASTER Pittsburghʼs Hip Hop Cardio promises to get your workout into a groove.
Curling in Pittsburgh: ‘It's Basically Golf and Chess on Ice’

Curling in Pittsburgh: ‘It's Basically Golf and Chess on Ice’

On the eve of its largest annual event, the Pittsburgh Curling Club has plans to increase Pittsburgh’s appreciation for its intricate sport.
Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Marc-André Fleury Pens Loving Farewell Letter to Pittsburgh

Marc-André Fleury Pens Loving Farewell Letter to Pittsburgh

In a letter for The Players' Tribune, Fleury recounts his 14-year career as a Pittsburgh Penguin and the bittersweet weeks leading up to his departure to Las Vegas.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Pusadee's Garden Will Close at End of Year (But Not Forever)

Pusadee's Garden Will Close at End of Year (But Not Forever)

Look for some big changes at the Upper Lawrenceville restaurant, which is expected to shutter for at least a year.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Best Places for Kids on Rainy Days in Pittsburgh

Best Places for Kids on Rainy Days in Pittsburgh

Read on for some under-the-radar ideas on how you and the kids can survive a rainy day this summer.

Comments


High-Wire Acts at Carnegie Science Center

High-Wire Acts at Carnegie Science Center

The North Shore landmark's new ropes course is a draw for adults and youths alike.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Pittsburgh Pirates Looking for Relief from Their Bullpen

Pittsburgh Pirates Looking for Relief from Their Bullpen

The just-completed, pivotal 10-game stretch began and ended the same way for the Pittsburgh Pirates –– with no one having an answer for the faltering bullpen.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Make the Cut with Jonathan Moran Woodworks

Make the Cut with Jonathan Moran Woodworks

The Strip District-based woodworker's cutting boards can be custom made with the wood of your choice.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Buckle Up ... Again, as Cars 3 Hits Theaters

Buckle Up ... Again, as Cars 3 Hits Theaters

Reviews of "Cars 3" and "47 Meters Down," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Brewing Up Romance: A Couple Comes Together over Beer

Brewing Up Romance: A Couple Comes Together over Beer

See how this couple used their love of beer and breweries to create their special moments.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Blooming: Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Hosts Town & Country Tour

Blooming: Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Hosts Town & Country Tour

From a forest of Japanese maples to a rocky urban sanctuary, the annual tour covers 14 very different gardens across the East End.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Visit Thiel College for a Summer BBQ

Visit Thiel College for a Summer BBQ

On three days this summer, the college will host visit days for prospective students.

Comments

Edit Module