Best in Class: Our 2014 Chefs of the Year
We tip our hats to the city's 13 premier chefs, who consistently create good food and help to position Pittsburgh's dining scene on a national scale.
photos by Laura Petrilla
To recognize the city's accelerating restaurant scene, our independent dining panel wanted to recognize a group of elite Pittsburgh chefs as opposed to one or two individuals. Local chefs have formed a posse, supporting each other and comparing notes about various topics, including product sourcing. It’s also worth recognizing that these 13 culinarians together have a greater collective impact on our food scene than any one chef could alone. Some are mavericks with edgy flavors and techniques; others are “true blues” dishing out consistently excellent, classic fare.
The bottom line: Each, in his or her own way, has elevated Pittsburgh’s dining standards.
Placement on our list does not constitute ranking; the chefs are listed in alphabetical order by last name. Nor does the list include the supporting cast of sous chefs, line cooks, prep cooks and others who absolutely are essential to producing quality food, day in and day out. We thank them as well for their contributions.
Avenue B, B Gourmet
North Hills native Chris Bonfili worked in various states — including Colorado, Utah and New York — as part of his culinary training before returning home to be closer to his family. As executive chef of the former Red Room, he established a following for his fresh, innovative cuisine. In 2009, he opened Avenue B, which he runs with his wife, Jennifer; in early 2012, they opened B Gourmet, a carryout shop and market, in Sewickley. Bonfili says his goal is for his food to be “approachable, yet very refined and to use classical preparation techniques.” He dislikes menu descriptions that are too wordy or erudite; he strives to make Avenue B’s menu contain straightforward descriptions that don’t detail each dish’s every nuance. Of the city’s dining community, he says, “Pittsburgh is a fantastic scene right now with so many people making names for themselves and so many chef-driven restaurants. It’s really great.”
Favorite Local Restaurants: Eleven, Meat & Potatoes, Grit & Grace and Noodlehead (especially for family dinners with his three young children)
Meat & Potatoes, Butcher and the Rye
As did many chefs, Richard DeShantz started cooking as a teenager, but his background also includes the study of art, design and breadmaking. These talents are evident in his downtown restaurants, which he designed and built. His goal, he says, is for his places to be “unpretentious and fun;” both spots exhibit a quirky aesthetic that always includes recycled materials and local art. And select breads at his restaurants are made in-house. DeShantz collaborated with business partner Tolga Sevdik on both establishments, which were instant successes because people have become hooked on comfort food prepared with panache. DeShantz lives downtown and thinks of the neighborhood as his own. This summer, he and Sevdik will continue to expand their brand by opening a Mexican spot next to Butcher and the Rye featuring tequila and mezcal drinks.
Favorite Local Restaurants: Umi, Root 174 and Grit & Grace
Gloria Fortunato is a diehard Pittsburgher — raised in Brookline, she now resides in the South Hills. The chef has extensive culinary experience, including at Café Allegro and UPMC private dining, and she opened Wild Rosemary six years ago with good friends Cathleen Enders and Lynne Bielewicz. She says her priority is to create straightforward food starring quality ingredients. “I am not trying to be trendy,” she says. “[French chef Auguste] Escoffier already taught us so well; how can anyone improve on that?” She loves to work with local farmers and changes the menu about every two weeks based on available ingredients. Fortunato says she sees trends in food coming full circle, from when she was growing up and dining with her family at the former Tambellini’s restaurant to now, at a time when less-fussy food is back in fashion. She particularly enjoys circulating the dining room of her always-booked eatery and greeting her customers.
Favorite Local Restaurants: “I don’t really have time to go out, so I cook at home a lot, with my dog, Olive, by my side. My favorite places to shop in the South Hills are The Fresh Market and Pete Beccari’s Farm Market.”
Root 174 is Chef/Owner Keith Fuller’s small restaurant, which he opened in 2011 following a six-year stint at Six Penn Kitchen. He says his purpose is to “just make good food” — which happens to be extremely creative yet unpretentious. To match that philosophy, the restaurant environment is relaxed but refined. “I want my food to be delicious yet affordable; almost all the dishes are under $25,” he says. Since opening, Root 174 has acquired a liquor license and hosted special events, including pop-up dinners and movie screenings. Fuller, who sports a neck tattoo of his eatery’s logo, says he likes “to have a full cocktail program with wine and beer but again keep it affordable yet special. One of our fun novelties lately has been making our own sodas, like tonic and colas for cocktails or just to drink.”
Favorite Local Restaurants: Grit & Grace, Spoon, Cure, Meat & Potatoes and notion. More casual favorites are Korea Garden and Golden Pig.
Legume started in 2007 as a small Regent Square restaurant that developed a dedicated following based on Trevett Hooper’s wholesome cuisine. In 2012, Hooper reopened in the restaurant’s current, much-larger Oakland location. The Maine native’s parents gardened and cooked, helping to make him the value-driven chef he is today. Hooper, a 2013 James Beard Foundation nominee, strives to use products that are sustainable and untainted and prepare food using traditional — often labor-intensive — methods. He cares deeply about food sourcing and the treatment of animals, people and the planet; his goal for this year is to ensure that his restaurant is “a healthy place to work.” Hooper is concerned that the meals Legume serves to staff do not reflect the same values of the food the crew cooks for customers. He says his goal “is to make staff meals here that reflect Legume’s values of attention to detail and using healthful ingredients.”
Favorite Local Restaurants: Dinette, E2 and Salim’s Middle Eastern Foods
Toni Pais truly is a local legend. The chef/owner of the former Baum Vivant and Café Zao restaurants now owns and mans the kitchen at Café Zinho, which he operates with his wife, Becky. Pais has received numerous awards, nominations and reviews from the press, including a 2001 James Beard Foundation nomination for Best Chef – Mid-Atlantic. When Pais moved to Pittsburgh from Portugal in 1978, there were few good restaurants here, he says, and a lack of good products. “In those days, we had to smuggle foie gras and unpasteurized cheeses in our luggage,” he recalls. He has seen many trends come and go, and he dislikes portions that are expensive yet tiny or large and cheap; he appreciates high-quality food at affordable prices in appropriate portions. Of late, he has been focusing on incorporating healthful ingredients into his already wholesome Mediterranean based-cuisine. Thus, you now may see pomegranates, turmeric, coconut milk and hot peppers in his fare. At Café Zinho, he credits his success to his two right-hand women: Moroccan-born Assistant Chef Dounia Touil and his niece Becca Knee, who manages the restaurant.
Favorite Local Restaurants: “Recently, I have mostly been cooking at home. My very favorite thing is whole fish, from the small anchovy to the large branzino.”
BRGR, Grit & Grace, Spoon
Brian Pekarcik hails from Murrysville and studied psychology at John Carroll University in suburban Cleveland; he minored in business management. After college, he moved to the West Coast, where he worked with esteemed chefs Gary Danko at San Francisco’s Restaurant Gary Danko, George Morrone at San Francisco’s Fifth Floor and Bradley Ogden at San Diego’s Arterra. He continues to travel to other cities to keep abreast of national restaurant trends and focuses with great detail on his menus. The self-described perfectionist says he always is working toward “100 percent.” A collaborative person, Pekarcik is quick to credit others for his successes. “There are many people I work with who are far more talented than I am,” he says. “I am so fortunate to work with these people.” He also enjoys the camaraderie of Pittsburgh’s chefs and their unwavering support for one another.
Favorite Local Restaurants: “I really try to support the restaurants of my friends such as Justin [Severino] at Cure, Keith [Fuller] at Root 174, Rick [DeShantz] at Meat & Potatoes and Butcher and the Rye, Trevett [Hooper] at Legume, Allen [Chen] at Tamari and Sonja [Finn] at Dinette.”
Sienna Sulla Piazza, Sienna Mercato restaurants
Matthew Porco grew up playing in downtown’s Market Square, where his dad ran a bar and his uncle owned a restaurant. He has come full circle, having attended the former Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts downtown and returning to Market Square to lead the kitchen at Sienna Sulla Piazza, our 2013 Best New Restaurant. Porco also resides downtown, and he says he is pleased to see the revival of Market Square and the movement toward downtown living. While Sienna is going strong, Porco, who also operated the former Mio Kitchen & Wine Bar in Aspinwall, is attending to his newest downtown venture — the three-story Sienna Mercato in the Cultural District. This “dining destination” houses three Italian cuisine concepts: meatballs at Emporio, quick and casual fare at Mezzo and bar snacks and brews on the rooftop at Il Tetto, which will open this fall. Although Porco’s cuisine is elevated in terms of quality and technique, he says he really wants people to “have fun and relax” at his establishments.
Favorite Local Restaurants: Grit & Grace, Eleven and Noodlehead
Dish Osteria and Bar
Michele Savoia grew up in Sicily, working as the unofficial kitchen assistant to his grandmother who cooked “all day, every day.” He jokes that the food was so fresh that “the goat came to the door to give us its milk.” As an adult, Savoia lived in Northern Italy, where he learned that region’s cuisine. Later, he and his Pittsburgh-born wife Cindy lived in New York City, where he held front-of-house positions in various restaurants. While there, the couple decided to go on a seven-month trip to Costa Rica. On the way home, they decided to settle in Pittsburgh, rather than return to New York, because, he says, “Pittsburgh needed a bistro.” The couple opened Dish in 2000, originally as a bar — the first to offer mojitos and caipirinhas — and later as a bar/bistro. His goal, he says, is simply “to create food that people like” with a focus on quality ingredients, simplicity and taste. Savoia says the secret to Dish’s long-term staying power is that he is “there six days a week, day after day, and I have good people working with me.”
Favorite Local Restaurants: “For casual, I like Dinette. I also like Cure, Spoon, Stagioni and Eleven. For sushi, I like Fukuda. And for takeout, I like Pho Minh.”
Justin Severino and his small restaurant Cure have received a number of significant mentions and awards of late. Among them: 50 Best New Restaurants from Bon Appétit magazine in 2012 (the year Cure opened), 2014 People’s Best New Chef – Mid- Atlantic from Food & Wine magazine and a 2014 James Beard Foundation Best Chef – Mid-Atlantic nomination. Severino attended culinary school locally and gained experience at several highly esteemed California and Pittsburgh eateries. Always a fan of butchery, Severino operated his own while in Santa Cruz, Calif., and is something of an artist when it comes to charcuterie. The ethically driven chef cares deeply about food systems, farmers and the humane treatment of animals. Cure’s menu is a reflection of “what’s going on with farmers and what we in the kitchen want to do with it,” he says. Thus the menu changes according to product availability. Cure also offers specialty dinners, including its signature “hog-butchering demonstration and family supper.”
Favorite Local Restaurants: Butterjoint, Stagioni, Dish Osteria and Bar, Eleven, Everyday Noodles and Noodlehead
Mr. Shu has developed a cult following in Pittsburgh for his refined sushi. Our 2001 and 2013 Chef of the Year has delivered high-quality cuisine at Umi since its 2000 opening. The Taipei, Taiwan, native lived in New York City before coming to Pittsburgh to work at the New Dumpling House in Squirrel Hill. Although he is a reserved person, Mr. Shu focuses intensively on his craft and enjoys his friendships with regulars. To provide the best sushi, Mr. Shu devotes an enormous amount of time to sourcing fish, which is flown in daily from around the world. He is known for his omakase (chef’s tasting menu) — the true outlet for working his creative magic. Regarding his continued success, Mr. Shu is quick to give credit to his sous chef, Jesse Wilson, and his customers.
Favorite Local Restaurants: Eleven and Sesame Inn
Station Street, Union Pig & Chicken, Harvard & Highland, Superior Motors
2012 James Beard Foundation semifinalist Kevin Sousa is viewed as a maverick, opening one concept restaurant after another. His three current projects are in the East End — barbecue spot Union Pig & Chicken, cocktail haven Harvard & Highland (above Union), and hot dog and taco joint Station Street. The chef grew up in McKees Rocks, dining on locally revered Pasquarelli’s pizza. He made his greatest culinary splash as the former co-owner/executive chef of the acclaimed Salt of the Earth, which received a 2011 James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant. Just when you thought he couldn’t outdo himself, Sousa raised more than $300,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to support his planned restaurant, Superior Motors in Braddock. Much of the funds were raised in the last 24 hours of the campaign; its success can be attributed to Sousa’s partnerships with such locals as Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, the Pittsburgh community and even national media outlets including CNN. Sousa and his family have moved to Braddock to demonstrate their commitment to the project, which will be Braddock’s only sit-down restaurant. Its “farm-ecosystem” model includes plans to raise chickens, grow vegetables and keep bees. Sousa also plans to operate a culinary education program to teach community members kitchen skills and farming techniques and prepare them for jobs in the farming and culinary fields.
Favorite Local Restaurants: Grit & Grace and Korea Garden
Derek Stevens has been working in leadership positions at fine restaurants for many years. Stevens, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, returned to Pittsburgh “for love” and has cooked locally at Hyeholde Restaurant, the former Nina, The Duquesne Club and Casbah. He has been the executive chef at Eleven since 2006, and he says his goal is “to continue to strive to make Eleven better, to keep it fresh and interesting.” He says he has an “awesome” team, both in the corporate office of big Burrito Restaurant Group and in the restaurant itself. “I feel [an obligation] to all these people to not let them down,” he says. Stevens describes Eleven as a “unique” place because there is something for everybody; in his words, “you could eat here for a special occasion, like a marriage proposal or a 25th-anniversary celebration or just to stop by the restaurant bar for beer and oysters before a Penguins game.”
Favorite Local Restaurants: Legume, Butcher and the Rye, Cure and Salt of the Earth