We had just settled into our cozy two top. “Make yourself at home,” said a server on her water bearing rounds. I kicked off one shoe and sank into a paisley banquette that flanks an entire wall, just as chef/owner Justin Severino came bounding from his kitchen domain, apron flying, more like a shaman rock star connecting with his crowd than say, Father Goose, though that image struck me too. Severino strategically dispenses high fives to regulars and strangers alike, indiscriminately connecting with the crowd, including a few impromptu table stops, subconsciously multi-tasking while scanning the room. He interrupted his rhythmic table hopping long enough to perfunctorily shoo away a handful of feisty teens blocking the front entry, then paused long enough to fill up his lungs with the high octane night air. Was he contemplating work flow, closing time, or just gearing up for the next wave? Several milliseconds later he bounced back, circumnavigating the room– all smiles and high fives– back to his natural environ and the serious business of running a kitchen.
Cure is rustic and modest, done in what a Parisian might call “urban woodsman;” an American might say “weekend cabin” and” Mr. Dish irreverently deems it “good firewood.” The 400-square-foot room is diagonally paneled in gorgeous, weathered wormwood from a 180-year-old collapsed western PA barn, cozy and unpretentious, yet urbane enough for a couple of business partners kibbitzing over a few beers. I like the original pressed tin ceiling, painted a rusty red ochre, and there’s something sweet in the black outline of a well-fed swine on the front window, which pleasantly filters indirect exterior lighting after the sun goes down. Whimsical flocks of porcine paraphernalia stuck here and there appear to be a growing collection.
A few steps up is a tight but nifty open kitchen, the kind that requires comraderie to work a busy dinner shift. Four tiny, popular barstools front the stoves, dividing the kitchen from the servers, fridge and chopping block, a great little place to escape the world while being in the thick of it.
“It’s good to work for myself again,” muses Severino, a guy who’s paid his dues and has made a vocation out of being a locavore chef, a farm to table guru. “Lawrenceville is a comfortable, non-pretentious neighborhood, where you can do something unique and get away with it,” he says, obviously comfortable in his own skin.
5336 Butler St.
FARE: “Extra local urban Mediterranean”
ATMOSPHERE: Hip Earthy Urban
Mon. Wed. Thurs.– 5 p.m.-9ish
Fri. & Sat.–5p.m.-10 ish
CLOSED: Sun. & Tues.
Reservations suggested; credit cards accepted.
No wheelchair access
Sample menu available on website
(Ratings are 0-4 stars)
Severino came to Pittsburgh from his home in Ashtabula Ohio, and the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in (PCI 1998/’99) . After his PCI studies, he headed off to Monterey, California, with its revolutionary chefs and quintessential markets. Six years with “the pros,” included a stint at the famed Manresa (2 Michelin stars) in Los Gatos, where he managed their meat program, (sourcing local whole animals, butchering, seeing the animal all the way to the plate). That lead to his own endeavor, “Severino’s Community Butcher” in Santa Cruz, CA . “ I’ve been working everyday of my life since to get back to it,” recalled Severino. That was ’05, and whether it was impending tectonic shifts or yinzer longings, in ’07, literally days away from closing on a new lease, he and his wife Hilary became consumed with homesickness. That’s close to when we began to hear his name, first at Eleven (sous chef), then at Elements (opening executive chef). And when the little storefront in Lawrenceville lit up, we couldn’t wait to see what he had in mind.
His sense of enterprise and thoughtfulness serve him brilliantly. “When we first opened, I knew I wasn’t going to make everybody happy,” he says. This is a chef-driven establishment, where it’s not acceptable to ask for a side of ranch, a Caesar salad, big portions. You must trust the chef. I try not to over-complicate food, and make price reflect portion. I don’t want to cook what I won’t eat, and I feel really good about spending my money locally. These are my moral standards.”
Cure is a humming machine, a rustic but imaginative spot that, (note: it’s BYOB), be it belly or chop, if you’re pining for a neighborly place, it all seems to be working. Have a salad for $6 dollars, a mini-salumi plate for $8; or try the a hanger steak au poivre, with ramp salsa verde, romesco, lard potatoes and Swiss chard $25.” Scallops under a “snack” heading made a good “supper,” with almond-picholine olive vinaigrette with ramps and crispy duck speck, $12. Our table loved the chestnut gnocchi ($18), and a perfect duck breast ($26)–I quote my companion–“better than filet, tender and super juicy,” with favas, candied lemon, fennel and confit tortellini. Other choices we brushed up against: rabbit with pappardelle pasta, bacon, peas, mint, chili and ricotta salata; pork roast & boudin noir with sauerkraut, bacon, German potato salad, pickled spring onions and béarnaise ($25). For vegetable lovers, a Pennsylvania mushroom risotto with maitake, oyster, royal trumpet, parsley and Pecorino Romano ($13).
The house calls its fare “local urban Mediterranean,” in other words, unembellished, unabashed good food, with a wide range of local and organic produce, locally-sourced meats and cheese, elusive wild goods and edibles.
I’ve heard the whispers through the grapevine, “meat, meat, meat,” but that was in the dead of winter, and while Cure is dedicated to rich cuts and charcuterie, now that we’ve shed our winter coats, the chef will wring his heart out trying to make the shorter growing season here a thing of inspiration. “Things will lighten up” and though Pittsburgh’s obviously not California, where mesclun is always in season and lemons are piled high on everyone’s coffee tables, “I’d say two vegetarian options are pretty good for a menu of this size,” concludes the chef. He admits to having been a vegetarian during a phase of life when he was in Monterey California. and is as randy talking about leeks and tomatoes as he is about pork belly and sausage. Look for trout and walleye pike, both seasonally available in PA, plus lots of fruits and vegetables. Our neighbors were waving a forkful of Heritage Farms spring chicken, so we tried it, terrific with faro, coffee, harissa, yogurt, mint, peas and carrots.
A bowl of chilled butter lettuce soup is like sipping spring. Poured out of a big white kettle, over pickled ramps, ramp custard, heirloom carrots and mixed fresh greens, the color itself “looks like Kermit the Frog fell in the blender” slurps Mr. Dish. Blackberry Meadows (Farm) green salad, with firm pickled yellow beets under a pile of textured greens, looks like it tumbled down the rabbit hole with candied pistachios, preserved lemon-vanilla vinaigrette, rounded off with a squiggle of aged balsamic and another of creamy Parmesan forming half circles around the mix. Crusty homemade croutons add crunchy contrast.
Smoked Laurel Hill Farm trout with artichoke and tarragon is listed under “snacks” but I made it my supper, and we shared a “treat” (Cure’s word for dessert) of Farmstead cheeses, with tea-soaked prunes and local honey as an appetizer, proving some flexibility to the formula.
“I’m trained not to over-complicate food,” says Severino. “I love Cure because it allows me to do just what I want to do. I’m not trying to compete with anybody…I have not invented food,” he says sweetly.
Bottom line—the menu, which changes constantly, is and will continue to be a reflection of the seasons and farms in western PA.
And while Severino has the mindset of a working chef, he’s got the soul of a butcher. His grandfather was a butcher “it might be in my blood” he chuckles. He remains seriously committed to ethical farming practices and humane animal husbandry. “I make a pretty big effort to utilize all of the animal, snout to tail.” He has already started growing a heritage breed of 40-50 pigs on Heritage Farm in Ridgeway, PA. “Relief is soaring among the local bovine community” deduces Mr. Dish.
Everyone in the room seems to be nibbling or have nibbled on a popular salumi plate, “a hobby of mine, a dream even” says Severino. “I’ve put a lot of time and depth into that plate.” Since opening, a $14 plate has morphed into two sizes (small, $8; grand, $22). Imagine what the Corsicans carried over from Italy during long periods of Genoan rule (century-old methods of salting, air-curing, smoking and aging), then update to 2012. With a pate on either end, and assorted goodies—rillettes of duck, a pork pate, boudin noir or blood sausage; you might find finocchiona, fennel salami, black strap pork belly, cured lardo, duck speck, paper thin bresaola, pork terrine. Your server will explain any item you’re interested in, and will take the time to do it. Compliments to Gretchen, our waitperson, who knew the menu inside out and offered interesting commentary.
Servers in general appear to be well-trained and grounded. My only complaint: no Pittsburgh Seltzer Company water, as advertised. After my second visit, when servers couldn’t make it appear, I started bringing my own. There is a great assortment of loose leaf tea ($5/pot) and a Coke or Ginger Ale if you must.
Severino is part of a subset of new generation chefs bursting with energy and brimming with ideas, known to team up and work together in each other’s restaurants, create events together, even hang out during off hours. “We’re trying to raise the bar in Pittsburgh, making it a better food city, but not in a competitive way,” he explains.
This is his time. The whole American butcher shop craze reminds me a bit of the sushi infatuation, which has held its own in the marketplace. Small and smaller tastes of carefully sourced and prepared cuts, by an artisanal butcher, less about gimmickry and more about simplicity and flavor. Porcetta ($27), typically a traditional Italian pork roast, often rolled, boneless and heavily spiced, is done with dandelion and golden raisin, pine nut, his own fragrant soffritto and violette mustard. Everything is integrity driven, made from scratch, with an eye for perfection. Bread and cheese are the only things not made in-house, bread is high priority on the chef’s “next to conquer list.”
La Prima coffee makes a good nightcap, and we nursed ours with a seductive chocolate soufflé cake ($8), cutting sweetness with a trail of pistachio butter, olive oil and sea salt. I’m hooked for life.
On this spring evening, on the outskirts of our old mill town, the stereotypical Dickensian scene, the long engulfing shadows that once projected a vague malaise, that sagged and made the city look sad at night, are filling in. A quirky street scene is evolving in Lawrenceville, the gentrification of tall Victorians, garden plots and places with good vibes to eat and drink. I can see grapevine orbs covered in twinkling white lights over a patio across the street, kids and lovers skipping and strolling, blurring harsh old realities—all part of the rejuvenating “Cure.” We signed our check and joined them.
Deborah McDonald is a noted and accomplished Pittsburgh dining reviewer.
Photos: Adam Milliron Photography