Review: Justin Severino Knocks It Out of the Park With Morcilla
Severino's follow-up to Cure is already winning national accolades.
photos by Laura petrilla
On a cold Saturday night in February, I tore hedonistically into a suckling pig with a dude called Dutch. He, a couple of pals and I threw our forks and knives aside and our hands ripped through shattering, salty skin into soft, succulent muscle and fat. Liquid lard dripped from our faces. We drank funky Spanish cider and went back at it.
We ate that pig at Morcilla in Lower Lawrenceville, Justin Severino and Hilary Prescott Severino’s follow-up to their award-winning restaurant Cure. The Spanish cuisine restaurant is a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist for Best New Restaurant, an honor given to just 26 eateries in the United States.
Justin Severino is the restaurant’s executive chef and largely is responsible for creating the menu. Chef de cuisine Nate Hobart oversees the day-to-day operation of the restaurant’s kitchen; the young chef has been Severino’s right hand for more than five years now.
Hang out in the front-room standing bar. It’s easy to pop in for a quick snack and a glass of sherry on your way to somewhere else, or you can make a small meal out of a combination of tapas-sized pintxos, montaditos and croquettas.
Oysters are a must-get. The single-variety offering changes frequently, so you might miss out on the candy-like Emerald Islands — the best oysters I’ve had in Pittsburgh — or the meaty brine of Ichabod Flats. That’s OK. Whatever you get will be a step up from what you’re getting almost anywhere else.
Be sure to indulge in Jamon Iberico de Bellota; it’s pricy and one of the few non-house-cured meats at Morcilla, but the umami-rich, soft, cheeselike Spanish ham is too good to pass up. Foie gras, though occasionally served a hair too cold, is smooth fat cut with sweet membrillo (quince paste) and perfectly balanced. Oxtail with caramelized onions and Mahon cheese is a heroic, rich and crowd-pleasing bite.
From the croquetta menu, pigs feet and cheeks — flavorful meat and fat served in a liminal state between solid and gelatinous — is outstanding. For a crunchy treat, dip the sweetly oceanic bacalao croquettas into the accompanying chili-spiced lemon honey.
All of those dishes also are available in the 50-seat dining room, but there the menu is expanded to include larger plates as well as shareable platters.
The Basque butter lettuce salad is a smart foil for some of the menu’s heavier dishes. Soft yet crunchy lettuce is paired with piquillo peppers, anchovies and hard-boiled eggs and perfectly dressed with lemon, capers and manchego. Champiñones a la plancha (honey, maitake and oyster mushrooms, egg yolk, shallot, bread) were pure winter-weather goodness when I had them in February; sweet, bitter and hardy, with the gooey yolk adding body.
Our table joked that the chicken dish served while we waited for the suckling pig would be mere filler, but it, too, was a star. Bright salsa verde dripped off crispy skin, and the accompanying skin-on roasted sunchokes looked like burnt rocks but tasted of bittersweet minerals.
Service at Morcilla generally is quite good but occasionally descends into haphazard and chaotic. On one of my visits, we had to Bat-signal to get our (way-too-small) share plates changed. Twice. And again to swap out the covered-in-food silverware the server removed from our plates and put back on the table. On another visit, plates were swapped out quickly with ones that were appropriately sized to the courses. (Hallelujah!)
One server presented a bottle of funky-fresh Trabanco Cosecha Propia Sidra (also available by the glass from a dramatic, custom-made tap in the standing bar) and then promptly pulled out the aerator before dramatically if awkwardly pouring from shoulder height. Another server correctly left the aerator in but then tentatively poured it just a few inches from the glass. Because Spanish cider is best expressed when aerated and poured from a height, both mistakes left us with glasses of flabby cider.
Server-cider woes aside, the alcohol program at Morcilla is fantastic. As at Cure, the cocktail list is brief, forward-thinking and meticulously tested. Try a Vermut con Refresco (sweet vermouth, gin, saffron, lemon soda) for a light treat or a Flor de Jeréz (amontillado, rum, apricot brandy, lemon) for something a little more indulgent. There also is a selection of gins paired with house-made tonics, strong-for-Pennsylvania sherry and vermouth menus and a curated wine and beer selection. It’s a great place to drink.
If there’s anything I’d like to see from Morcilla in the upcoming months, I’d want this place to be a bit more fun than it is now. On all of my visits, I noticed an overarching reverence from some diners — I get it, Morcilla is a big opening for Pittsburgh and the lack of soundproofing already makes the restaurant feel louder than it really is — that isn’t necessary. Grab a glass of funky cider, rub your face in pork fat and let loose. Let’s make Morcilla the wild party it deserves to be.
3519 Butler St., Lower Lawrenceville; 412/652.9924, morcillapgh.com
Executive Chef/Co-Owner | Morcilla
What are some of the challenges of opening a second restaurant?
My biggest fear is that the thing that gave me the opportunity to open restaurant No. 2 falls by the wayside now that this place is open. I’m not going to let that happen. I designed the menu so that things will run smoothly when I’m not here. I need to spend time at Cure; I make a difference when I’m there. Nate [Hobart, chef de cuisine] and the team he has here are amazing.
The menu at Morcilla has a very clear voice to it. How much did traveling to Spain have to do with that?
It’s a combination of travel and experience. The chefs I worked for in California that had this experience all came from the Basque country. I knew I needed to go to San Sebastian. But the other part is there was no way I was going to open a Spanish restaurant in Pittsburgh without going to Spain. We’re going to go back this summer and see parts of the country we didn’t get to last time.
You’re part of a chef community outside of Pittsburgh. How does that influence what you’re doing here?
I love the food scene in Pittsburgh, and I love the growth that we see. But it’s hard to gauge what you’re doing if you’re just looking at Pittsburgh. So to be able to compare the quality of the work that you’re doing to chefs who are working in cities with a larger restaurant culture is important. This generation of chefs that I’m part of is much more open than earlier generations, and they’re less egotistical about sharing what they’re doing. We send people to each other’s restaurants to stage or to work. On top of that, we did a Cure’ated dinner series last year and brought in chefs from out of town, and that inspires the rest of the staff. It breaks up the monotony, and it gives them a chance to learn new things from all of these chefs. One of the things I do is that I have the chef that I know invite a chef that I don’t know. I’ve met a lot of really talented chefs that way. We pressed pause on that while I opened Morcilla, but it’ll be back again next year.