Gretchen McKay

Fueling a football team, the Steelers way

Fans line up for hours to see their favorite players at the Steelers training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette

During the Steelers’ summer training camp, the Community Center Dining Hall at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe is the stuff big eaters dream of.

Indecisive souls feeling ravenously hungry could go crazy mulling its many menu choices, which features a cornucopia of lean meats and fish, garden-fresh vegetables, orb after orb of plump seasonal fruit. There also are five Oster blenders waiting to whirl fruit, peanut butter and protein power into liquid meals at a DIY smoothie bar. On the opposite corner of the room, a wood-burning pizza oven pumps out a cheesy 16-inch pie every 10 minutes. The dough is made fresh each morning in the kitchen, and most days there are at least three varieties to choose from.

There’s even a cookie table that would bring a Pittsburgh bride to tears with its tempting display. Last week, it included platters of peanut blossoms, Oreo cookies, chocolate-peanut butter gobs, gingersnaps and chocolate-chip cookies the size of small saucers.

Not that the players attending the 52nd annual camp, which continues through Aug. 18, indulge in those guilty pleasures.

Food is fuel, after all, and a football player’s body is his temple. As such, it’s all about clean eating for today’s training camp attendees, who are better educated than ever before about the cause and effect of diet and nutrition.

So the cookies, notes executive chef Daniel Keeley, who oversees the preparation and serving of meals in the college dining hall operated by Parkhurst Dining Services, are really there for the coaches and ball boys.

A daily menu outside the cafeteria at Steelers training camp in Latrobe.

“The players walk over and say, ‘Ooh,’ and then walk away,”  he says.

That said, a certain long-time veteran was spied licking a vanilla ice cream cone after lunch as he sped away from the cafeteria on the back of a golf cart.

A few years ago, Parkhurst added signs on the buffet tables that spell out the number of carbs, fat, protein and calories included in each dish. Players not only took note but also took it to heart.

“It’s extremely important to put the right fuel in your body,” says veteran linebacker Arthur Moats as he waited outside the locker room for a golf cart to ferry him to lunch. “What you put in is going to dictate what you get out over there,” pointing his thumb toward the practice field.

Mr. Moats, 29, sticks to what he calls the “healthy stuff” — salads, fruits and broiled or baked fish. “And I’m big on hydration,” he says. “You gotta have your waters and Gatorades, especially this time of year when you’re sweating so much and getting banged every day.”

On a day when it is a sweltering 92 degrees on the Westmoreland County campus, he also quaffs Pedialyte to replenish electrolytes and avoid dehydration.

Alejandro Villanueva adheres to a similar diet. “I hate to be this boring, but I eat a lot of fruit, carbs, chocolate milk for fast protein … and a lot of water.” That translates to at least four glasses at each meal. He also piles his plate high with his favorite vegetable — raw spinach. Lunch might include a couple of grilled chicken breasts; dinner is usually some type of fish, plus more chocolate milk. Also, he has bagels as a snack for quick energy.

At 6 feet 9 inches and 320 pounds, the 28-year-old offensive tackle and former Army Ranger can certainly pack it away. While diets and conditioning goals vary among players — some are trying to gain weight and strength after the off-season while others are attempting to lose it to keep light on their feet — NFL players typically consume between 4,000 to 10,000+ calories per day, or about twice as many  (and sometimes more) as the average sedentary adult’s requirement of 1,800 to 2,400 daily calories. For breakfast, for example, Mr. Villanueva eats not just fruit and oatmeal but also a three-egg omelet.

“If I feel hungry, I eat,” he says.

Players, especially the rookies, get guidance from team nutritionist Matt Darnell. But even with that expert advice, fueling their bodies properly can be just as much of a task as memorizing the playbook.

“You have to think about everything that goes into your body because at the end of the day, my body is what helps me perform,” Mr. Moats says. “So I have to treat it with extreme care.”

Linebacker L.J. Fort typically starts the day with an omelet stuffed with sausage, ham, peppers and mushrooms. A sushi lover, he’s especially fond of the salmon and other broiled fishes. But sometimes the best eat also is the simplest.

He gets his carbs up before practice with every elementary school kid’s favorite comfort food: the humble PB&J.

“I just want healthful foods,” he says.

Mr. Villaneuva says it gets a little harder to maintain weight as the season unfolds, which is why he considers himself lucky that his wife,  Madelyn, is such a great cook. Spaghetti carbonara is one of her specialties, and he also eats a lot of red sauce and tuna steak, along with the occasional Fat Heads IPA if he’s out with friends. “It’s pretty balanced,” he says.

The same could be said of the training camp menu as a whole, which Mr. Keeley and executive sous chef Brian Cable start planning in May, soon after graduation. Even though they’re responsible for three meals a day plus snacks, they take great care to keep it as interesting as it is nutritious by offering a rotating menu. For instance, potatoes are always a given but sometimes they’re sweet and shredded, other times they’re Idaho and diced. That way, players don’t get bored over the three weeks of camp.

The chefs typically build their menu off what’s proved popular at the Steelers’ practice facility on the South Side. But it’s never completely set in stone. Offerings are continually tweaked based on players’ likes and specials requests.

Some food items haven’t changed much in the 10 years Mr. Keeley has cooked for the players, such as the burger bar at lunch (with every imaginable topping and a choice of four proteins) and the massive salad bar that anchors the room. But the entrees have generally gotten more “clean.” with a focus on whole foods and quality ingredients. Today’s camp includes lots of whole grains and deep-dark greens such as kale and chard, and the kitchen no longer cooks food in butter. “If we use any fat, it’s extra-virgin olive oil in minimal amounts,” Mr. Keeley said.

Fried food also is a thing of the past, and meat choices now include bison and turkey along with beef and chicken. Fish is broiled, or ground into patties. There’s also a push to use as many local and organic products as possible from producers such as Rivendale Farms in Robinson, which provides maple syrup and honey to sweeten oatmeal and yogurt.

Mr. Keeley estimates the Steelers will go through 40 cases of 24-count Buffalo burgers alone during camp. And that’s just for lunch. Every night for dinner, the kitchen staff cooks some 150 pounds of beef tenderloin or hanger or flank steaks for the team on giant charcoal grills outside the cafeteria.

“They don’t go hungry,” Mr. Cable says.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Pasta Parmesan With Tomatoes

PG tested

This is quick, easy, totally delicious and has 287 calories per 4-ounce serving. 

1 pound penne

1/4 cup margarine or butter

1 garlic clove, minced

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for serving

Chopped fresh basil for serving, optional

Red pepper flakes for serving, optional

Cook pasta in 4-quart saucepan according to package directions. Drain, and return to large bowl.

Melt margarine or butter in 10-inch skillet over medium heat until sizzling. Add garlic and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes burst and release their juices to form a sauce, 6 to 8 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss pasta with tomato sauce and Parmesan. Spoon into serving dish. Sprinkle with additional Parmesan cheese, if desired, and garnish with basil and a pinch of red pepper flakes.

Serves 4.

— Executive chef Daniel Keeley, Saint Vincent College


Triathlete overcomes traumatic brain injury to race again

Megan Kruth still doesn’t know what sent her flying over her bike’s handlebars on Aug. 4, 2013.

The Ironman triathlete and 17-time All-American collegiate swimmer had done training rides on that stretch of Babcock Boulevard near her McCandless townhouse hundreds of times. But that Sunday morning, she probably hit a bump in the pavement. When her helmet struck the pavement, it split open like a too-ripe watermelon. The impact fractured her skull, ribs and collarbone.

By the time her ambulance pulled into Allegheny General Hospital, she was in a coma. Doctors weren’t sure she’d survive the surgery to remove a bone flap from the skull to expose the brain and relieve building pressure.

But neurosurgeon Khalid Aziz says that the then-41-year-old had several things working in her favor: the quickness with which the paramedics got her to the hospital, her youth and her extremely good health.

“But I also believe it was her spirit,” he says. “You could just see she wanted to get better.”

Ms. Kruth would have to re-learn how to swallow, talk and walk in the months of difficult rehab that followed. But no one doubted she’d fight her way back, says her younger sister Erin Kruth of Dallas. “There has never been anything that Meg didn’t do because it was too hard.”


Megan Kruth lived with her parents, George and Mary Lou Kruth of Shaler, for a year after her bike accident in Aug. 2013. (Megan Kruth)

With the support of many doctors and nurses, family and the triathlete community, “Iron Meg” has been able to return to not just swimming, but also competing. On Saturday, she’ll participate in Race for the Conch Eco-Seaswim, a 2.4-mile swim in the Atlantic Ocean at the Turks and Caicos. This would be on the 1,427th day since her accident.

The 44-year-old long-time second-grade teacher at Pine-Richland’s Hance Elementary is using it as an opportunity to help others who’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury, as afundraiser for Allegheny Health Network Neuroscience Institute.

She says, “Goal-setting has brought me back to what I love.”

Slow and steady

After her initial surgery, Ms. Kruth wound up needing four more cranial surgeries over the next year, including one to place a customized synthetic implant in her head after the first bone flap became infected. (“But I can go through scanners with no problems!” she quips.) Her broken collarbone, repaired with a titanium plate, required another major operation.

While she hated the white protective helmet she wore for months to keep from reinjuring her brain, she slowly got better. After 17 days in the hospital, she spent less than two weeks doing inpatient rehab at UPMC Mercy Hospital’s Center for Brain Injury before going home to live with her parents, George and Mary Lou Kruth of Shaler.  By fall she was jogging short distances; by Thanksgiving, her daily routine included spinning on an indoor trainer bike while FaceTiming with her sister Marcia in Florida.

Ms. Kruth, though, couldn’t always see that she was making progress. Plagued by short-term memory loss that sometimes left her struggling for words, she often felt frustrated or angry. Multitasking proved impossible. And she didn’t like being dependent.

“Doctors told us this will be a journey, not a sprint, and you’ll need lots of patience,” says her father, noting how just one wrong word could set her off into a rage.

There also were setbacks during the year she spent recuperating in her parents’ home. One of the scariest was a seizure during a Sunday walk at Hartwood Acres not long after she got out of rehab. Seizures occur in one of every 10 people who have a TBI that required hospitalization, so it wasn’t completely  unexpected. But as her sister Erin noted in a post on the CaringBridge website, it was a reminder that healing is a process, “even when you think you’re in the clear.”  Ms. Kruth would have three more seizures over the following spring.

Her family encouraged her with Ironman analogies: “Sometimes in training you get an injury and have to step back and rest a bit, Erin would tell her. “But you always get to the finish.”

“Yes, I went through a lot of extreme emotions,” admits Ms. Kruth, who still works with a neuropsychologist to develop strategies for coping. “But there also was a part of me that said, ‘OK, I’m going to fight for this, whatever it is.’ ”

One big milestone was getting her driver’s license back in September 2014 . That’s also when her plastic surgeon, Michael White, allowed her to start swimming again with friends, albeit very slowly and not for long distances.

After a false start in January 2015, she was back in the classroom the following fall, by which time she’d also achieved another milestone — moving back into her townhouse. Her students’ parents, she says, “were wonderful.”

All the while she was swimming. She now practices five mornings a week before school, with the Cranberry Wave masters swim team at the Rose E. Schneider Family YMCA in Cranberry.

It was team member Mary Anne Savage of Cranberry who first planted the idea of the Turks and Caicos race in her head last winter. Ms. Kruth decided it’d be a good vacation for her, too. She was ready.


Megan Kruth poses with fellow swimmers at Crawford Pool in Shaler on Labor Day weekend in 2014. It was her first swim after her bike accident in 2013. (Megan Kruth)

Because Ms. Kruth is such a fast, amazing swimmer, Ms. Savage expects to come in well behind her.

Training with her, Ms. Savage says, has been an awesome experience for the entire team. Not only does Ms. Kruth have a ready smile at 5:30 a.m., “but we all can learn from her experiences how to face things head on.

“Just the way she approaches each challenge is so inspirational.”

For her part, Ms. Kruth — who in 2015 was featured in acommercial for Allegheny Health Network —  says she’s just happy to be back in the water, competing, and to be able to give back to the community that gave her so much during the healing process.

Before her accident, summers were always about her. This year, it’s about the fundraising and she’s also volunteering at Mercy in the brain injury unit.

“It readjusted my perspective,” she says. “It brought me back to earth.”

She’ll never be the old Meg, says her father. But that’s OK. So many brain injury patients give up. His daughter never lost hope.

“Your life just starts over,” he says. “You appreciate where you’ve come from and all the new life experiences.”

Ron Molinaro has been obsessed with pizza most of his adult life. And not just your average slice, but the lightly charred Neapolitan-style pies crafted from a slow-rising dough and baked in a 950-degree brick oven at his Il Pizzaiolo restaurants.

It started when he was about 19 and visiting friends in New York. College wasn’t a great fit for the Whitehall native. But pizza? That was something a young man of Italian heritage could put his heart and soul into.

During that sojourn, he put the city’s reputation for great pizza to the test by eating as many imaginable styles of pizza as possible. When he hit Patsy’s Pizza in Brooklyn, something clicked.

He’d read about the shop’s signature thin-crust pizza months before in an in-flight magazine but had forgotten about it. But with one bite of Patsy’s classic pizza margherita, he discovered his destiny.

Made the Italian way in a coal-fired oven with fresh mozzarella, crushed San Marzano tomatoes and sprigs of basil, it was nothing short of heaven. Mr. Molinaro just knew he had to bring the concept back to Pittsburgh.

Over the next several years, he read everything he could find on pizza and pizza-making, and also he picked the brains of expert pizza makers from across the country. In 1994, he and his father, Ron Sr., built a brick oven in his parents’ backyard in Whitehall. There, next to the swimming pool, he practiced, pie after crispy pie. 

It would be two years before he felt he was good enough to open Il Pizzaiolo (translates to pizza maker in Italian) in Mt. Lebanon in  September 1996.  It’d be a family affair, with his dad becoming the manager after he retired from the postal service in 1997.

In a city accustomed to the thicker crust Pittsburgh-style pies served at Mineo’s, Aiello’s and Fiori’s, there were plenty of naysayers. But Mr. Molinaro knew he was setting a new bar with the neo-Neapolitan pies he made with high-quality ingredients imported from Italy. Plus, he had optimism of youth: He was just 25 when Il Pizzaiolo opened with its giant brick oven crafted in Delaware.

“I never thought for one second I’d fail,” says Mr. Molinaro, now 46.

He wouldn’t really hit his stride until six months later, after a  trip to Naples, Italy. “It changed my focus to  true Neapolitan pizza,” he says. That’s also when he added his signature pastas to the menu, drawing inspiration from foods his grandmother, mother and aunts made when he was growing up. His mother, Mazie, made the desserts.

From the get go, he says, there were lines out the door. It’s only grown in popularity, with Mr. Molinaro opening three more locations over the decades, along with the “fast-casual” Pizzuvio off Market Square.

“The quality and authenticity speaks for itself,” he says.

Easy to shape because the flour used to make it has less gluten, a Neapolitan-style crust cooks fast and hot — about 90 seconds in a blazing-hot wood-fired oven. But it’s the toppings, says Mr. Molinaro, that truly make the pies special. The buffalo mozzarella is flown direct from Naples every Thursday, and he uses canned plum tomatoes from Italy’s famed San Marzano region. The dry faella pasta, artisanally produced in a town just south of Naples, also is imported, and basil arrives still on the stem, ready to be picked.

Gnocchi, ravioli and tortelloni, conversely, are made every day in house by hand.

The key, he says, is simplicity. “You have to let the ingredients do their thing.”

He’s also a stickler to authenticity. In 2006, he knocked down the original brick oven in Mt. Lebanon so two guys from Naples could build him a new one over the course of a week. And he’s never stopped trying to make his pizzas and pastas better.

“I’m still perfecting it,” he says, sometimes working with his 10-year-old son, Roman, by his side. “I go to sleep reading ragu recipes, and wake up thinking about pizza. It’s not a casual thing. I eat, sleep and breathe it.”

Pittsburgh’s meister of artisan bread

Nick Ambeliotis never doubted his life’s work would revolve around food.

The Ohio native grew up working for his father, Mike, in the corner grocery store he started after World War II in Warren, near the Pennsylvania border. After graduating with an accounting degree from John Carroll University in 1982, he helped turn the store into the upscale Woodland Market and eventually ended up running it. By 1992, however, he’d grown restless and wanted to try something new.

He took a job with Euro USA, a leading importer and distributor of European cheeses, olive oils and charcuterie. For the next nine years, he traveled the world in pursuit of olives in Greece, spices in Turkey and elusive white truffles in Alba. But that, too, eventually grew old. After a “life experience” that led him back to his Greek Orthodox faith, he took stock.

“I wanted to work with my hands and be spiritual,” he says.

A voice inside told him maybe he should be baking bread and helping people. “Everyone needs to be accountable, or you’re walking aimlessly through life,” he says.

But he knew nothing about baking. So for the next 18 months, Mr. Ambeliotis visited the best bread bakers all over the world, taking it all in one loaf at a time. In 2001, he formed Mediterra Bakehouse. A year later, he started baking in an industrial park in Robinson with a natural yeast starter, called a levian, gleaned from a bakery in Paris. He had just a few employees, 10 varieties of bread and a handful of customers.

Friends, he says, told him he was crazy. Pittsburgh already had a great bread tradition.

But Mediterra would do it a little differently, with small-mill organic ingredients, slow fermentation, overnight proofing and hearth baking in the French tradition in a custom-built steam-injected oven from France. In addition, about 95 percent of production is done by hand using traditional techniques. For instance, bread rises in willow baskets covered in French linen. Dough is cut, weighed and shaped by hand.

“Each loaf of bread is touched by human hands at least five times,” says Mr. Ambeliotis, 56, of Robinson.

What further sets his bakery apart, he says, is the fact it’s grown into a family business. When he started, Mr. Ambeliotis mixed, shaped and baked all the bread himself and delivered it to customers in his car. Today, all four of his children work for him and in pivotal roles. His oldest son, Anthony, 31, is the production manager, while the second son, Mike, 33, serves as bakery and business manager. Daughter Nicole, 28, is a senior business manager, who handles marketing and social media, and her husband, Garrett McLean, is the sales manager.

Then there’s the youngest, Nicholas, who as head baker is responsible for scoring each and every raw loaf that goes into the 450-degree oven. The cuts give the bread its beautiful tic-tac-toe, diamond and other elaborate designs, and also controls which direction the loaves will spread while baking.

The company has grown organically along with its number of customers and sells in stores, including Whole Foods, in Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Today, the bakehouse uses upward of 25 different doughs for 65 different recipes. It also makes all of chef Michael Symon’s hamburgers buns with an Austrian roll machine.

Because he considers bread a gift from God, Mr. Ambeliotis tries to enrich as many local families as possible with donations. Mediterra helps feed up to 100 families each week through St. Cyril of White Lake Food Pantry at Holy Assumption of St. Mary Orthodox Church in the South Side, and it sends countless loaves to other charitable organizations.

In 2012, Mr. Ambeliotis opened a second bakehouse near  Coolidge, Ariz., which rolls out 5,000 loaves a day during high season. Taking advantage of Arizona’s dry climate and substantial sunshine, Mediterra also is in the wheat business. Thirty-five planted acres yielded 100 pounds of wheat last July, and 250 pounds is expected from this year’s 70 acres. Mr. Ambeliotis hopes to  expand to 600 acres or more in the future and build his own millhouse.

Mediterra also is in the midst of a major expansion that will double the bakery and consolidate its pastry business, run by Mike’s wife, Aundrea, which provides desserts and other goodies to Whole Foods, Giant Eagle, Trader Joe’s and high-end hotels.

It’s not about the money so much, but giving back to the earth and being the best at what you do, Mr. Ambeliotis says.

“It’s been an amazing ride and has kept my family close,” he says.

A519 Chocolate turns into a sweet career

Some of the hand-crafted chocolates created by Amanda Wright of A519 Chocolate. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

With dual degrees in neuroscience and psychology, Amanda Wright possesses both a knack for problem-solving and the patience of a saint. Two skills that served her well as a research assistant studying adolescent brain development at the University of Pittsburgh.

Yet, ever since she was little, the soul of an artist burned inside.

When she decided in 2012, to put her science career on a back burner to study baking and pastry arts at one of the country’s premier culinary schools, no one was surprised. Least of all herself.

While the 28-year-old loved her job at Pitt, and the fact that it complemented her husband’s doctoral studies in biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, “I had that slight dread of not doing exactly what I wanted to do to be happy,” she says.

So back to West Coast the couple went, where during her first semester at Napa Valley’s Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, the San Diego native figured out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life: to create one-of-a-kind confectionery from chocolate. Serving as an assistant to CIA instructor and Team USA member Stephen Durfee at the 2013 La Coupe de Monde de la Patisserie competition in Lyon, France, only cemented that goal — and not just because the aromas that come with the job of chocolatier are so intoxicating.

“It’s one medium, but you can be creative and express yourself in so many ways,” she says of the intricate process of turning high-quality chocolate into delectable treats like truffles and hand-dipped candies.

Flash forward to April 2015. With stints as a pastry cook and sous chef and creative director at an artisan chocolate shop in tony Yountville in the Napa Valley under her toque, Ms. Wright and her husband, Andy Rape, boomeranged back to Pittsburgh to open A519 Chocolate in Greenfield.

Amanda Wright of A519 Chocolate. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Talk about a well-laid plan: The business launched just four days after the couple arrived in Lawrenceville. And her hand-painted chocolates were such that they quickly found fans not just at local farmers markets and boutique shops but also with clients such as Stage AE, Carnegie Mellon, Hotel Monaco and Coterie, a co-working space for women in the Frick Building.

Ms. Wright concedes the move was risky. But at the same time, the couple felt certain there was a growing market for hand-crafted artisan chocolates, even at the princely sum of $30 for a 16-piece box. At least there would be once people saw what bold, gorgeous works of art her truffles were and came to understand the precision, care and artistry that goes into making them.

What’s it take to create her edible treasures? Ms. Wright this month started offering private truffle-making courses at A519’s expanded year-old kitchen in Millvale. The interactive class — which starts with a tasting — costs $85 and takes about 2½ hours, during which attendees try their hand at everything from tempering chocolate on a marble slab (it’s harder than it looks) and creating chocolate shells to painting an acrylic mold with colored cocoa butter. Guests also learn how chocolate is made, from the growth of the cacao bean to its harvest, processing and preparation. The price includes a six-piece box of truffles.

Ms. Wright describes her work as “magical,” but it’s really a fragrant labor of love. She starts early each morning at 6 and often toils late into the night in her 68-degree, 400-square-foot industrial kitchen. Quality is key; each piece starts with milk or dark chocolate from Valrhona, a premier French chocolate maker, and most of the fillings, infusions and flavorings are sourced locally —  cream from Penn Hills’ Turner Dairy Farms, coffee from Allegheny Coffee and Tea Exchange, nuts and other dry goods from Pennsylvania Macaroni.

While the holidays are the busiest, every season is chocolate season. Ms. Wright hand-crafts thousands of truffles each week. It’s as taxing as it sounds, but make no mistake, she never gets tired of it.

Amanda Wright of A519 Chocolate fills molds with chocolate. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

“Every day I get to go back to my childhood,” she says, recalling how when her teenaged self was grumpy, her father got her to chill out by slipping her a Dove chocolate heart.

She also loves the fact she still gets to use the left side of her brain. Truffle-making involves so many rules and incredible precision, and there’s also a science to creating a killer ganache or soft caramel. Also she gets to put the cooking techniques she learned in culinary school to good use, such as when she makes pralines or nougat from scratch for fillings.

Her colorful, abstract designs, she says, are usually the result of a conversation with her husband, who is in charge of marketing and packaging. But sometimes she just has fun and lets go with the splatters and swirls. She also can customize the chocolates with a client’s desired colors or logo, using an innovative three-dimensional printing process.

The most popular truffle is her signature black-and-gold salted caramel, crafted with gray salt, but there’s always 10 rotating flavors to choose from. Depending on the season, the chocolates might be filled with fresh strawberries, pumpkin or apple cinnamon caramel, or a gourmet take on s’mores; two new spring flavors are mandarin honeysuckle (dark chocolate infused with fresh mandarin and honeysuckle tea) and bananas foster (blond Dulcey chocolate with bananas and Maggie’s Farm Rum). For Valentine’s Day, the shop will feature a special line of single-origin dark chocolates, including Illanka (Peru), Manjari  (Madagascar), Nyangbo  (Ghana) and Alpaco (Ecuador).

While the idea of opening a stand-alone store is perpetually on the table, the couple has no concrete plans to make that move just yet; they’re  too busy keeping pace with current demand. For the immediate future, it’s just about creating a product she’s proud of, and having fun.

“I’m following my heart and allowing myself to express my creativity,” she says.

To sign up for one of A519’s truffle-making classes. go to shop.a519chocolate.com or  call 412-475-9519.

Pittsburgh’s pie guy

Pittsburgh’s pie guy, Frank Ruzomberka, has been making pies at Grant Bar for more than 20 years. Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette

Frank Ruzomberka of Shaler has been in the family-restaurant business going on six decades, and he’s always been a terrific chef. (He was American Culinary Federation’s Chef of the Year, Pittsburgh chapter, in 1979.) Yet some would argue he didn’t realize his true calling in life until he had a good 30 years of cooking under his belt.

Twenty or so years ago, he started making pie from scratch for Grant Bar, the tavern on Grant Street in Millvale that his parents, Matthew and Maria Ruzomberka, started in 1933. Talk about a great idea catching on.

The old-school neighborhood restaurant has always served pie and other desserts, of course. But in the early days, many of the fillings were made with prepared mixes. A dedicated pastry chef would have been an unaffordable luxury, and as a busy executive chef responsible for overseeing an entire menu and staff, “I just didn’t have the time,” says Mr. Ruzomberka, who was certified by the  American Academy of Chefs in 1981 and is largely self-taught.

While taking some courses at Community College of Allegheny County in his 50s, he changed his mind. Among all the “young kids” in a class that involved pie-making, “I was the best,” he says. So an idea sprang forth. Why not put his skill to use for customers?

Within three months, he’d perfected his recipes for a crispy lard/butter crust and a variety of fillings, and over the years, some have become legendary: apple, peach, pumpkin, banana, egg custard, chocolate and banana cream, among others.

If Pittsburgh had an official Pie Guy, it’d be Mr. Ruzomberka, who at age 81 still makes upwards of a dozen pies a day by hand in the kitchen in which he started his culinary education at age 18. He’s particularly proud of his best-selling coconut cream. Piled high with whipped topping and toasted coconut, it weighs in at a whopping 4½ pounds — but still tastes light as a feather.

“I like to make things that people want and like,” he says.

In Pittsburgh when it comes to dessert, that just happens to mean pie. And not just on Pi Day, which this year falls on Sat., March 14. (And what better way to commemorate the never-ending number 3.14159… than with a slice of your favorite?)

On a busy day, Mr. Ruzomberka will sell 24 slices of coconut cream pie alone; none are more than 24 hours old.

What makes them so delicious, he says, is the time and care he takes crafting them. He spends more than four hours a day on his creations, and only uses the freshest ingredients. If peaches aren’t in season, for example, don’t expect to see peach pie on the menu.

To say he has pie-making down to a science takes some of the magic out of it. It’s really more of an art, an expression of love. “I put my heart into every pie.”

His still-nimble fingers belie the arthritis and other health issues that have come with age. (He’s had three heart attacks, along with open-heart surgery.) It takes him less than a minute to transfer a disk of pastry dough from between two pieces of waxed paper into a metal pan, trim the excess, then pat and crimp it into a perfectly fluted crust. After pricking the dough with a fork, and before adding the filling, he swirls egg white on the unbaked crust with his fingers to prevent it from getting soggy.

The swirling pattern in these crusts for cream pies comes from using fingers to paint the dough with egg white before baking them. Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette

“You can patch it up if you need to,” he says while he works, though it’s tough to imagine him making any mistakes: With thousands of pies to his credit, he has it down pat.

The empty pie shells are so perfect, in fact, that “everyone thinks I buy them this way,” he says with a chuckle.

In the past, he did everything himself. Now, longtime chef Joe Roethlein mixes and rolls out dough the night before so it’s ready to go when Mr. Ruzomberka arrives at around 7 a.m., six days a week. Make that seven, if there’s an event on Sunday.

All the while, he’s constantly in motion. While the milk is simmering to 180 degrees over a double boiler, for instance, he’s separating eggs into a bowl, whisking in sugar, melting chocolate and dissolving Knox gelatin in water to use as a thickener. Then it’s stir, stir, stir after the custard is cooked and strained and cooling on an ice bath.

A day when apple pie is on the menu? He can peel and slice 10 Golden Delicious for a pie, then assemble it in layers with cinnamon-sugar and a crumble topping, in four minutes flat.

“I could do it with my eyes closed, in my sleep,” he says.

Not that he would, because he’s too much of a perfectionist.

“Everything has to be to my standards,” he says.

It’s a work ethic that his parents’ nurtured early in their seven children. At age 6, he was cleaning spittoons and shining brass rails in the restaurant.

His creations are not for those who count calories. The crust is made using a 4-to-1 ratio of lard to butter, and each cream pie includes six egg yolks, ¾ cup sugar and 3 cups of milk (boiled precisely to 180 degrees). And don’t forget about that tall whipped topping.

With his 82nd birthday coming in May, no one could complain if the longtime chef decided to retire so he could spend more time perfecting his golf game. But in his mind, old age alone is not a recipe for retiring.

“I feel like I’m 60. I can’t wait to get here. I just love my work,” he says with a grin.

“When I can’t put the pies in the oven without spilling a drop — that’s when I’ll stop.”

Meet Carol ‘Dearheart’ Pascuzzi, the ever-cheerful cheese expert of Penn Mac

Carol Pascuzzi often finds people staring at her.

She’ll be standing in a line somewhere — the supermarket, perhaps, or an airport hundreds of miles from her creekside home in Turtle Creek  — when she’ll suddenly sense a stranger’s gaze.

“I can tell they’re trying to place me,“ she says. Usually they can’t, if she’s sporting jeans and a sweatshirt instead of the white chef’s hat and butcher’s coat that identify her as one of Pittsburgh’s most recognized food personalities.

She clears things up in an heartbeat with one word.

“All I have to say is ‘‍Dearheart,’ ” Carol says with a chuckle. “And they’ll be like, ’Oh my, God! What are you doing here!’ ”

If you’ve ever stood in line for a piece of cheese at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip District, chances are you’ll agree that it’s weird to see Dearheart’s smiling face anywhere but from behind the glass cheese counter at the Italian specialty store, where she’s worked for some 30 years.

At 6:30 a.m. every Tuesday through Saturday, she arrives at the Penn Avenue landmark. Her job is not just to slice, grate or scoop Pittsburghers a portion of their favorite domestic or imported cheeses, but also to educate us about our choices. This typically involves samples.

Plenty of customers know exactly what they want — a half-pound of Piave, maybe, or a generous cut of Ubriaco, a sexy Italian cheese from the Veneto region that’s soaked in prosecco. “Drunken” cheeses, she says, are especially trendy.

Every third or fourth person who waits his turn at the counter, though, is clueless. Then, the questions fly.

What was that leaf-wrapped buttery kind I got the last time that tasted so incredible?  

I have this really wonderful bottle of Champagne — what will pair well with it?

What can I put in my mac ’n cheese to make it a little different?

Carol’s skill and charm always come to the rescue.

Like any cheesemonger worth her salt, she’s one heck of a good listener.

“Can you describe it?” she asks a customer who’s drawing a blank on the name of a cheese — she thinks it was Italian — purchased a few weeks ago. “Was is salty? Dry? Nutty?” To help jog the buyer’s memory, she offers up a sliver of Grana Padano. The woman standing next to her gets a piece, too.

Smiles all around.That might not be it exactly, but it’s a keeper.

“Anything else, Dearheart?”

When you wait on dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of people a day, the endless chatter could wear you out. Yet day in and day out, Dearheart is as patient with her first patron as her last. Good question or bad, she never judges.

“She goes out of her way to make you feel comfortable,” says Mike Gonze, president of Dreadnought Wines, a distributor of specialty wines in the Strip. He and Carol have been collaborating on wine-and-cheese pairing classes for years now. Whether you’re buying a fancy fromage like Midnight Moon aged goat cheese, which retails for more than $15 a pound, or a cheaper pantry variety, like domestic parmesan, you get the same easy smile from her.

“She lets everyone know, it’s food. You don’t have to like what she likes,” says Mr. Gonze.

“She’s lovely and — this is praise — a really common person,” agrees Tony Knipling of Vecenie Distributing, who during the holidays teams up with her for beer-and-cheese tastings.  “I’ve never seen her not in a good mood, and she puts her heart and soul into that.”

Which explains why some customers give up their place in line until she can wait on them and hear the words that made her famous: “Anything else, Dearheart?”

The endearment is a family tradition. Her grandmother called her mother, Kathleen, that, and she in turn called her oldest daughter that, and she turned it into one of Pittsburgh’s favorite catchphrases.

With so many customers, it’s impossible to remember everyone’s names, Carol explains. Yet great customer service involves making personal connections. “Dearheart,” she says, is “way better” than calling her customers “honey,” “dear” or “sweetie.” It makes them feel warm and comfortable, “like family.”

It’s especially apropos when customers appear to be having a bad day.

“You say that, and they just smile,” she says.

Customers return the affection.

Almost immediately after she started working the cheese counter, she says, people started calling her Dearheart, too. Maybe because they heard her call it out so often (some people count the times while they wait in line). Maybe just because they liked the sound of it. Pittsburgh being a friendly place, the name stuck. Quite literally, actually —  ”Thanks Dearheart!“ is printed with the price on her bags of paper-wrapped cheese.

She loves the nickname. ”It’s a sign of affection.“

Especially, she adds, when you think of all the names you could be called in this crazy world.

A team effort

Carol’s not the first to gain fame cutting giant wheels of locatelli Romano behind the counter at Penn Mac; Ursula Janotti, whose family owned a sausage company in Larimer during its heyday as Pittsburgh’s Little Italy, was the original Cheese Lady. Nor is that Carol’s only duty. A typical day starts with her  making all the creamy olive-, vegetable- and cheese spreads in the refrigerated case between the meat and cheese counters. She’s especially proud of her Italian tuna salad, made with balsamic vinegar and roasted peppers instead of the mayo that her German-Irish family grew up with. (It’s her husband’s grandmother Antonette’s recipe.) She also packs Internet orders and puts together the Cheese of the Month Club baskets.

She might be Penn Mac’s most famous employee, but she insists no one person is in charge. “We work together as a team. We all help and need each other, even if we don’t like to admit it.”

When she first tied on her white butcher’s apron in 1984, the entire store fit into the room that today houses just meat and cheese. (The adjoining rooms were used for storage.) And she only had to be conversant in about 40 traditional cheeses — most of which she grew up with or knew from waiting tables since the age of 16. Today, Penn Mac boasts more than 400 varieties from across the globe, with new products arriving every month. They sell some 200,000 pounds of cheese a week.

Penn Mac owner David Sunseri says she can recite the provenance of every single one, if not the kind of grass the cows ate and the time of day they were milked.

“She never gets flustered,” he says.

Her Bible is Steven Jenkins’ “Cheese Primer.” But her gift for cheesemongering really developed, along with her nimble knife skills and ability to reach for any requested cheese without looking, by working the counter.

When she first started at Penn Mac, the job was simply a means to an end. Her son Carmine, just 3½ pounds at birth, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 3. Insurance didn’t cover the therapy sessions.

“I needed a part-time job like everyone else to help make ends meet,” she says.

Food was a good fit.

The oldest of six, Carol often cooked dinner for the family out of the pages of “Joy of Cooking” when her mother was still working at Kroger’s supermarket (her father, Leon, was a traveling salesman); she also did deli work and waitressed at places such as Jimmy Monzo’s long-gone HoJo’s restaurant on Route 22. So it didn’t take long for the Churchill High School grad to start selling a lot of cheese.

“I was familiar with the food, and not afraid of people.“

That includes the suppliers who continually challenge her to try new, unfamiliar cheeses. Which she loves, even when it’s of the blue variety she’s allergic to. Opening their cardboard boxes, she says, is like “unwrapping a Christmas present. Every day is a new day.”

In the ’80s, every Saturday was as crazy as it is today during the holidays. Entire families would queue up to buy enough parmesan or provolone to last the month.

“Huge pieces,“ she says. ”Nothing under a pound. And everybody knew everybody.“

It’s different in 2014. While there still are lines, they’re mostly comprised of singles or couples. Purchases also tend to be smaller — a wedge of this, a chunk of that (though the store requires at least a half-pound minimum). What keeps it fun is that customers are so much more adventurous with their fresh cuts.

Some cheeses remain a hard sell; many Pittsburghers, she says, ”just aren’t ready“ for stinky artisan raw-milk cheeses or aged Dutch Beemster with its fresh, moldy rind.  But the city’s palate continues to evolve and surprise. Even a few years ago, Utah’s espresso-rubbed Barely Buzzed Beehive Cheese would barely have been noticed; now it’s hard to keep in stock. Taleggio, a semi-soft, washed-rind cheese from Italy, also is increasingly popular, along with Spanish sheep and goat cheeses.

Carol reads incessantly to keep up to date, but new arrivals also come at the behest of customers.

“They’ll tell me ’I grew up with this,’ or ’I had that on vacation, can you get it in?’” she says.

The fact that her cheeses turn so quickly, says her boss Mr. Sunseri, “show the kind of resource we have here.”

Just one of those people

Getting the uber-private Dearheart to talk about life outside Penn Mac is not unlike unwrapping a wheel of Pecorino Foglie di Noce, a raw sheep milk from Emilia-Romagna, Italy: You have to gently peel away the walnut leaves to reveal the treasure within.

She’s so closed-mouthed about family, for instance, that you might be surprised to learn that the white-moustachioed man behind the counter is her husband of 43 years, Nick, whose family owned La Famiglia Pascuzzi Restorante Italiano on Saltsburg Road in Plum in the ’70s. She met him at age 16, when he stepped in for a boyfriend who wouldn’t take her to her driver’s exam.

After work on a recent night, she opens up a little.

Talking a walk before dinner along the creek that borders much the couple’s 9 1/2 acres, Carol talks about her love of the outdoors and a garden that this summer will overflow with eggplant, basil, tomatoes and zucchini. She points out an arbor that by September will be heavy with Concord grapes. She’ll turn the crop into blue-black jelly her co-workers usually fight over.

After a busy,10-hour day on her feet, it’s nice to be able to retreat somewhere quiet, or as she puts it, “go from city water to well water.”

Later, over plates of pork chops, fried potatoes and picture-perfect Caprese salad (being Pittsburgh’s Queen of Cheese, they eat one variety or another practically every day), we visitors learn that she paints. Has trained and shown champion cocker spaniels. Is a proud grandma who loves to fuss over her 4-year-old granddaughter in Houston. And despite having a job that entails always looking for the next Big Thing, hasn’t warmed to modern technology.

Use an iPad, computer or cellphone? “I’m too fidgety for that.”

How so? As a 3-year-old, her mother recalls, she’d get a dishcloth and scrub the floor when others were playing. “She’s just one of those people.”

Today, Carol would rather funnel that excess energy into baking one of the ricotta pies or cheesecakes for which her husband says she’s famous, or quietly raising money for Autism Speaks. (Two nephews are on the spectrum.) Usually it’s by donating her teaching stipends, but not always; last December, quite out of the blue, she showed up at a wine-and-cheese class hosted by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust with a painting of a bottle of wine being poured into a glass. Someone bought it and she donated the proceeds.

“As busy as she is, the thought she took the time to put her personal touch on something … that’s why everyone loves her,“ says Susan Sternberger, the Trust’s theater services director.

She loves ’em right back. ”Even the grumpy ones.“

Putting smiles on people’s faces and making them feel excited about cheese, she says, might not seem like a big deal. But it’s really a joy like no other.

“You’re helping them with something so personal — their meal,” she says. “So you have to treat them like family.”

Dearheart’s Caramelized Onion and Asparagus Pizza

PG tested

Carol Pascuzzi calls this her “clean-out-the-refrigerator dish.” This recipe calls for onions and asparagus but you could use any veggie or meat that’s hanging out in your fridge. If you don’t want to deal with fresh dough, a prepared pizza shell or flat bread works just fine. You can both taleggio and burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream, at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip District, where “Dearheart” has manned the cheese counter for more than 3 decades.

3 tablespoons butter

Pinch of sugar

2 large onions, thinly sliced

Salt and pepper

1/2 pound asparagus, peeled and trimmed

2 tablespoons oil

12 ounces fresh pizza dough (enough for 2 12-inch pizzas)

1/2 cup thinly sliced taleggio cheese

1/2 cup burrata (fresh Italian cheese)

Prepare an indirect medium-hot fire in your grill.

Prepare onions. Melt butter in large cast-iron skillet on grill. Add onions and toss to coat with butter. Cover and slowly cook onions, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until golden. Turn heat up to medium high and begin to brown the onions, stirring constantly about 10 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

While onions are cooking, prepare asparagus. Place asparagus on a plate. Drizzle oil over the asparagus and turn spears until they are coated. Sprinkle with salt and turn again.

Grill asparagus for 5 minutes over a hot grill. Each minute or so, roll each spear 1/4 turn. Asparagus should begin to brown in spots (indicating that the natural sugars are caramelizing) but should it not be allowed to char. Slice et aside.

Transfer dough to a floured surface and cut into 2 equal pieces. Oil a baking sheet and stretch each piece out on it to form a 10- to 12-inch circle 1/8-inch thick.

Gently lift one piece of dough, using both hands, and drape it onto grill over hottest part of fire. Dough should puff slightly within a minute, and the bottom will stiffen. As soon as grill marks appear on underside, turn dough over with tongs, and move to edge of grill, away from heat. Repeat with remaining dough.

Scatter caramelized onions over top of pizzas. Sprinkle on cheeses, followed by grilled asparagus, which you should arrange in a circular pattern with the tips facing out.

Slide pizzas back over fire. Cook pizzas, rotating frequently, for 30 to 60 seconds, or until bottom is slightly charred and cheeses bubble. Serve at once.

Makes 2 pizzas.

— Carol “Dearheart” Pascuzzi 

 

Pittsburgh Pierogies: “We love you, dumpling!”

Carl Funtal of Cop Out Pierogies in Etna, Post-Gazette photo

Carl Funtal has spent most of his adult life as a tough guy, protecting the public as a sergeant with the Shaler Township Police Department. Truth be told, he’s really kind of a softie.

Despite his commanding appearance — at 6 feet, 3 inches (6-4 in his motorcycle boots) and 275 pounds, he dwarves most folks — the Pittsburgh native isn’t afraid to admit he likes to . . . cook.

He’s particularly good at making the comfort food of his youth that speaks to his Polish-Russian-Czech-Austrian heritage, and the one that he’ll dish up this weekend at South Shore Riverfront Park during the city’s newest food fest: Pierogies.

As a kid growing up in Brookline, Mr. Funtal watched as his mother, Laura, rolled out and then cut big hunks of soft dough into circles to be stuffed with mashed potatoes and cheese. He doesn’t recall helping out too often, but somehow, maybe through osmosis, he learned.

By the time he married and started raising children, he’d garnered such a reputation for his exquisite potato dumplings among family and friends (the dumplings often were included on the party spreads he catered during off-duty hours) that one day, someone told him he should be making them professionally.

“And I said, ‘You’re crazy! No!’ ”

Then again, maybe making a few batches here and there and selling them as a fundraiser might be a fun way to help cover the cost of his daughters’ dance lessons.

“When your kids are in activities, you’re always selling something,” he says, “so I thought, ‘Why not?’ ”

Last year, that paternal labor of love evolved into Cop Out Pierogies, a small storefront on Butler Street in Etna (copoutpierogies.com; 412-973-0068). For $6.75, you can buy a cop’s dozen (14) traditional potato-and-cheese pierogies, or you can spend a little more for one of the specialty flavors, which run the gamut from Buffalo Chicken to Spring Roll to Cheeseburger to sweet Lekvar, a thick Eastern European jam made from prunes.

Or maybe you’d like to try the more seasonal Pilgrim Pierogie, a plump conglomeration of turkey, potato, corn and fresh cranberries. He’ll have an ample supply of those Thanksgiving-style dumplings, too, at Saturday’s first-ever Pittsburgh Pierogi Festival.

“It’s like a ship in a bottle,” he says. “You don’t know how it all gets in there.”

Better late than never

The brainchild of Riverlife Pittsburgh and the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the free fest will feature nearly a dozen pierogie vendors and/or restaurants along with live entertainment and children’s activities. There also will be a pop-up pierogie market selling everything from pierogie T-shirts and onesies to jewelry, crocheted ornaments and all sorts of other swag; and attendees can snap photos with the likes of Sauerkraut Saul and Cheese Chester. It was the latter who logged the most wins this year at PNC Park (22) running the Pirates’ signature 280-yard Pierogi Race at home games. The fest runs from noon to 5 p.m., rain or shine.

Chocolate “Pie-Rogie” from Cop Out Pierogies in Etna. Post-Gazette photo.

All proceeds will benefit the recently completed South Shore Riverfront Park (riverlifepgh.org), the $13-million, 3.4-acre park in front of Hofbrauhaus Pittsburgh that will play host to the event and that extends the SouthSide Works retail complex down to the Monongahela River. Activities will take place near the terraced, 1,000-seat outdoor amphitheater.

“It’s a wonderful space that’s just begging for an event like this,” says Riverlife’s director of communications Stephan Bontrager, who over the summer, with folks at the URA and Revive Marketing Group, came up with the idea as a way to promote the park. “It’ll be a nice fall day, with crisp air, and the comfort food of pierogies in all different forms.” (And different spellings.)

He’s not kidding. In addition to Mr. Funtal, scheduled vendors include the Polish Pierogi Truck, which will be serving at least three varieties; S&D Polish Deli in the Strip District; Kevin Sousa of Salt of the Earth, who will trot out a family recipe; and Marty’s Market, which will offer a sweet-potato pierogie.

If you’re from Pittsburgh, where pierogies are among the city’s most celebrated foods, no doubt you’re saying: It’s about time! After all, we’ve got festivals for just about every other ethnic edible imaginable on any given weekend throughout the area. You’d be right.

“Coming here 12 years ago from Denver, I’m fascinated with the pierogie culture in Pittsburgh,” says Mr. Bontrager. “It’s such a cool regional food thing. I know a lot of Rust Belt cities that can call claim to it, but this city has a solid stake in that horse race. . . . It’s one of those Pittsburgh pride things.”

All signs point to the inaugural event being a runaway hit. Close to 500 people already have RSVP’d on the festival’s Facebook page, which leads organizers to expect upwards of 1,000 or more.

“The response has been incredible,” Mr. Bontrager said. “And the wonderful thing is, the park can accommodate everyone comfortably, whether you’re arriving by bike, boat or car.”

A Pittsburgh thing

Traditionalists might consider Mr. Funtal’s new-fangled flavors sacrilege, and it’s hard to blame them. Generations of Pittsburghers have grown up on pierogies lovingly hand rolled, filled and folded by church ladies at parishes such as Saint Mary Ukrainian Orthodox Church in McKees Rocks, Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ambridge and St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Brighton Heights.

Many more pray at the altar of Pierogies Plus, the down-to-earth McKees Rocks shop in a not-so-converted gas station that’s been cranking out the tasty dough pockets in the Polish tradition for more than 20 years. A media darling, the Island Avenue store has been featured on The Food Network and in national magazines such as Saveur, which in 2011 included it on its annual list of 100 great food finds.

Gosia’s Pierogies in Latrobe, which uses a “secret” recipe handed down from the owner’s grandmother in Poland, also has a devout following, as does Szmidt’s Old World Deli in Greenfield (and soon to be in Garfield) and S & D Polish Deli in the Strip District, where 15 varieties are made with Polish flour.

But the times, they are a-changin’.

The new wave

If a survey of the Pittsburgh restaurant scene is any indication, you no longer have to be of Slavic origin to make a good dumpling. Nor do you have to stick to the traditional fillings of potato-and-cheddar or cottage cheese. Pierogies have become a popular ingredient among a growing number of Pittsburgh chefs, who have been using them to spice up everything from hamburgers to steaks to the dessert menu.

Church Brew Works, for instance, recently had both rattlesnake and alligator pierogies on its menu, and Eleven tops its prime beef ribeye with a dumpling stuffed with pastrami. Braddock’s offers pierogies ranging from Braised Short Rib to Buffalo Chicken to Chocolate and Peanut Butter. At Franktuary, you can get your dog “Pittsburgh” style, or topped with a smooshed pierogie and slaw, and a fried pierogie also is a topping option at Burghers in Harmony. Knossos Gyros in Dormont has (what else!) pierogies filled with lamb carved off the cone and tzatziki sauce. And at Rowdy’s BBQ and Fatheads, they’re deep-fried to a golden brown as an appetizer.

The list goes on and on.

Pierogies also have joined Pittsburgh’s expanding food-truck scene via Polish Pierogi’s Pittsburgh Pierogi Truck. Before they ceased operation late this summer, the duo behind Peddlin’ Pierogies sold gourmet pierogies made with organic spelt flour from the back of a bicycle, as well as at Inn Termission Lounge on the South Side. Their non-traditional flavors included Buffalo Blue Cheese and Curry-Sweet Potato.

Speaking of preparations and flavors your Polish babcia might never had considered, Downtown’s Sinful Sweets occasionally includes a chocolate-dipped pierogie on its menu. And Mr. Funtal, who will open a small sit-down space in front of his commercial pierogie kitchen in about a month, offers more than 10 different Pie-Rogies, or dessert pierogies. This time of year, Pumpkin Spice and Apple Maple Walnut Cheese Cake are among the more popular varieties, but he also sells a heck of a lot of Banana Split and Freaking Fudge pierogies. And kids, says his wife, Beth, who works part time in store with their 16-year-old daughter, Sydney, love their PB&J dumplings.

“They can’t get enough of them,” she says.

Despite being something of a newbie, Cop Out Pierogies already has proven it’s got some chops: Not only does it supply more than a half-dozen restaurants including Atria’s with pierogies, but it also grabbed the No. 2 spot this June on Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2013 Best Restaurant Reader’s Poll, when it had been in business for only nine months. Mr. Funtal now makes between 300 and 500 dozen a week with help from his family when he’s not busy keeping Shaler safe. (He mixes, rolls and cuts the 30-pound chunks of dough into circles while his wife and daughter fill the dumplings.) He plans on doing an open house on Nov. 23.

He credits much of his success to his dough, which includes sour cream and is cut by hand using a metal milkshake cup. The result is a pierogie that’s not quite like a snowflake, but obviously not one of those mass produced, 12-to-a-pound pierogies, either.

“People like that,” he says. “A consistent taste but slightly different texture” with each bite.

But Pittsburgh’s love and never-ending appetite for the dumplings plays a big part, too.

“They give comfort,” he says.

Pierogie-making has become his passion. He loves the challenge of coming up with the next winning flavor combination (to date, his only failure has been one filled with spaghetti) and also gets so much pleasure out of interacting with satisfied customers.

“Nothing makes me happier than when an 80-year-old comes in here, and she comes back and tells me they taste just like Mom’s,” he says.

“I can’t wait,” he adds, “until the Pierogi Festival,” especially the naming of the people’s choice pierogies. “I’m very competitive, so it’s going to be fun.”

Find Bigfoot and more, at Jack Bell’s meat market in Kane, Pa.

Jack Bell, 76, has been making specialty sausages in his meat shop in Kane, Pa., for more than 40 years/Gretchen McKay

KANE, Pa. — Mom-and-pop butcher shops usually are pretty friendly places, but not always the cutest businesses on the block.

Not so with Bell’s Meat & Poultry, Jack Bell’s tiny market here in the heart of Allegheny National Forest.

It’s tough to say what’s more Instagram-tastic about the McKean County meaterie: the baskets of local produce stacked outside the front door that speak to the season, or the 10-foot-tall Bigfoot standing guard in the parking lot. Some guy named Snuffy hand-carved the wooden statue this past spring in honor of the hairy creature with the famously big feet who’s said to roam these parts (Animal Planet recently filmed an episode of “Finding Bigfoot” in the area). From the day it went up, it’s been an attention-grabber.

“That causes more commotion!” says the 76-year-old grocer, who has named several products after the giant ape-man. “I can’t tell you how many people stop to take pictures with him.

“And boy, it’s a dandy,” he adds. Even over the phone, I can tell he’s smiling. “He musta been looking right at him when he made it!”

Nearly as picturesque are the store’s shelves, packed with row after row of housemade pickles, jams and other curious delicacies you didn’t know could be stuffed into a Mason jar with sugar and vinegar. Pickled beef logs or chicken gizzards, anyone? I didn’t think so. Though Mr. Bell — Jack to friends, or basically anyone who walks into the store — is happy to try to change your mind with a sample. Will insist upon it, in fact, if he sees you making a face at the label.

Me? I was in search the gourmet sausages tucked into the cold case at the rear of the store — 32 varieties to date, with more in the works, with flavors ranging from sweet (Apple) to savory (Bratwurst) to peppery (Hot Wild Leek) to burn-your-lips spicy (Cajun Boudin). Prices start at $4.99 a pound.

“And I’ve got a Tasso that’s unreal,” I hear Mr. Bell tell a fellow customer as I consider my many options, which on this fine fall day also include Garlic Parmesan, Kick-Ass (with cheese and jalapeno) and the best-selling St. Mary’s Springwater, crafted with Straub beer from nearby St. Mary’s.

Meat sticks are among the many pickled items in Bell’s Meat Market in Kane, Pa/Gretchen McKay

When we first heard about Bell’s, my husband and I were enjoying a mouthful of Kinzua Journey, a semi-sweet white wine that Flickerwood Wine Cellars makes in honor of the new Kinzua Bridge Skywalk in nearby Mount Jewett. During our tasting ($3 for six wines), we’d asked the bartender what else there was to do in tiny Kane, which looked as if its best days just might be behind it, save for the Railroad Depot and Museum.

She pursed her lips in thought. “You could go to Texas Hot Lunch/4 Sons,” she said after a while, referring to a local hot dog joint that’s been in business since 1928. Then her smile brightened. “Or try my favorite, Bell’s deli. They make alligator sausage and Cajun crab dip!”

Hmm. Hot dogs or alligator. It wasn’t a tough decision.

A main-drag stalwart for more than 40 years, Bell’s sits at the very end of the business district on Route 6. Mr. Bell opened it in 1971 after spending 13 years as a deli-department manager for Market Basket, a small chain of groceries. Towards the end of his career there, a friend who used to be a Sugardale salesman opened a small market in Limestone, N.Y., and had so much fun running it that he urged Mr. Bell to go out on his own, too.

“I wasn’t really being challenged, so I thought, ‘Man, I think I’ll do that,” he recalls. He’s never looked back.

Like many new to the business, the New York native started small, offering just a handful of sausages in addition to cold meat. Right off the bat, he says, he had to learn how to make Korv, a mild Swedish sausage made of pork, beef and mashed potatoes and seasoned with allspice, to please residents of Mount Jewett, which has a large population of people with Swedish ancestry. Apparently, he nailed the recipe: Today, he sells upwards of two tons a week of the sausage during the holidays. Or as he puts it, “I’m an Irishman, but I’ve got those Swedes thinkin’ I know what I’m doin’. They come from near and far to get that stuff.”

As his skill grew with sausage-making, so did his varieties. Today there’s Polish sausage along with sweet and hot Italian; Mexican-style chorizo; smoked kielbasa; bacon sausage; blueberry and apple breakfast sausage; and in a nod to nearby Bradford’s annual Stinkfest each May, two types of ramp sausage — sweet and hot — made with the locally foraged wild leeks he stores throughout the year in two freezers. The Creole-seasoned Bigfoot sausage also is a heavy hitter, as is his Greek sausage, plump with feta and spinach.

“I got a lot of ideas,” he says of the ever-growing list of ingredients. “It all depends on what we’re thinking about that day.”

One of his latest is the ‘gator sausage. From 1988 to 2003, Mr. Bell fished professionally on the Bassmaster’s and FLW sport fishing tournament circuits, spending his winters in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas. Two years ago, he decided to create a sausage that captured some of the flavors of the South. He decided on alligator because it’s as mild as it is exotic, and works nicely with Cajun spices.

“It’s farm-raised, not those wild ones,” he’s quick to point out. He imports the tail meat from a buddy in Okeechkobe, Fla., and from Louisiana, and mixes it with ground chicken thighs.

The region’s many gas and oil workers are enthusiastic customers of the sausage, and they also go crazy over his Tasso, a Creole-style smoked sausage that’s made from cayenne-, garlic- and salt-rubbed pork. (There’s a smokehouse out back.)

“Man, those boys like that. That’s a real Louisiana deal,” he exclaims.

Bigfoot stands guard over the parking lot at Jack Bell’s meat shop in Kane, Pa. And he’s on the menu, too/Gretchen McKay

Whatever’s stuffed inside the natural hog casings, the results have long been a family affair: Until she was beset by health problems, his wife, Carol, helped in the store. So did his daughter, Pam, who now lives in Georgia. These days, he works — seven 10-hour days a week — alongside his grandson, James, and his son, Jack Jr., who runs the greenhouse next to the market when he’s not on the job in the Marcellus Shale industry.

It’s a lot of long days, but Mr. Bell doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon.

Starting his own meat market, he says, is “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Because it’s a true service counter — he’ll tell you how to cook what you buy and offer up recipes — he gets a chance to visit with people.

“We have fun in here,” he says. “Every day is a challenge, but my customers keep coming back. It’s all about the people.

“You don’t have to look over your shoulder up here,” he adds.

Unless, of course, you run into Bigfoot in the Allegheny National Forest.

Bell’s Meats & Poultry is located at 203 N. Fraley St in Kane, Pa. It’s about a three-hour drive from Pittsburgh. Store hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sun. Info: jackbellsmeats.com or 1-814-837-7321.

 

Pittsburgh Food: Family puts its eggs, other holiday fare in one basket

On Easter Saturday, this basket full of food and decorative eggs will be taken to Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Church in Ambridge to be blessed. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

 

Sometime around 10 a.m. on Sunday, Stella Woytovich and her daughter Justine will gather with family in their neat-as-a-pin Baden home and, as they have on more Easters than anyone can remember, dig into a huge brunch.

There will be a ham glazed with bourbon and brown sugar, paired with buttery scrambled eggs or some sort of frittata. The dining room table, set with their best linens, also will hold squat links of local Saffron’s homemade kielbasa that Justine has gently roasted in the oven. The French toast will be made with paska, a sweet bread that’s an Easter tradition among the faithful with Eastern European backgrounds.

Stella, who’s a vibrant 86, has been baking this rich, eggy bread with the pretty braided top for more than 50 years now. She learned how from her mother, also named Stella, who brought the recipe with her when she immigrated in 1910 to the U.S. from Galitzia, in present-day Ukraine. It’s a tradition dear to the heart of every Ukrainian.

Just last week, the petite grandmother of two spent an entire day making the bread she so adores, toasted and slathered with butter, for breakfast; today, Holy Thursday, which commemorates the last supper of Jesus with his apostles, she’ll mix, knead and bake several more of the high, round loaves for family and friends to enjoy over the holiday weekend.

Stella figures she’ll make two or three recipes throughout the day. “The little boys next door love it and I also give some to two couples across the street.”

She’ll cheat, a bit, with a KitchenAid mixer.

In the old days, she did batch after batch by hand as taught by her mother, who, after marrying Hnat Woloczyn, settled in a house on Beaver Road in Leetsdale and raised seven children. But it’s a little harder now that she’s in her 80s, and it’s not like anyone who eats it — and there are many — can tell the difference.

Recipes vary depending on the culinary traditions of the baker, as it’s also popular among Russians, Poles and Polish-Americans. But the bread always includes lots of eggs and butter along with sugar and milk. Stella’s secret ingredient is Spanish saffron, a rare and expensive spice that gives her paska its lovely, buttery color and earthy taste.

“We get it for her for her birthday or Mother’s Day,” says Justine.

The prettiest loaf will be set aside for an event mother and daughter look forward to all year long, to help celebrate the holiest day of the year: Sviachenia, or the traditional blessing of the food to be eaten on Easter Sunday.

One of the most beloved and enduring Ukrainian traditions on Holy Saturday, the basket blessing will take place at Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Ambridge. This is where Stella got married to John Woytovich in 1946 and Justine was baptized a year later; the sprawling century-old parish on 6th Street also is where John, who worked as a scarfer at Spang-Chalfont Co., was memorialized after he died of emphysema in 1978, at age 53. Justine’s sister, Christine McKenna, who lives just around the corner, also was married there.

“We’re very busy there,” says Stella. “It’s always been the center of our family.”

It is for others, too: So many hundreds of parishioners want their baskets blessed that SS Peter & Paul — where they still say one mass Sunday in Church Slavonic, the primary liturgical language of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine — offers two services, one at noon and another at 2 p.m. Actually, this blessing-of-the baskets is a time-honored ritual for Catholics everywhere; the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s website lists dozens of churches across the city and neighboring counties that offer the activity as part of the Easter triduum.

“Even in 2013, this tradition has profound meaning,” says Father Michael Polosky, who’s been pastor for nearly 20 years. “And it’s not just old folks.”

Nor is it just parishioners who warm the pews each and every Sunday, Stella notes with a mischievous smile. “You see people you haven’t seen for a long time.”

Butter molded into the shape of a lamb for Easter. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

The decorated baskets are carried into the high-school gym, where they’re placed on tables lined up in long rows on the basketball court. Each contains a lighted candle — symbol of the radiance of the resurrected Christ — in addition to the foods, each of which is symbolic. After reciting prayers, Father Polosky offers the traditional Easter greeting in Church Slavonic: Khrystos Voskres! Christ is Risen! To which the congregation responds: Voistyno Voskres! Indeed He is Risen!

The baskets then are taken home, and the food is put in the refrigerator to await the big Easter meal the next day — a final test of self-control in the 40-day Lenten period of fasting and abstaining.

“It smells so good, but you can’t eat it,” says Justine. Particularly torturous is the smoky perfume of the kielbasa, which “hits you every time you open the fridge door!”

While it’s not a competition, everyone can’t help but compare linen-lined baskets, which, even when they’re on the modest side, are a sight to behold. Along with various meats and lamb-shaped butter, they hold sinus-clearing chrin, a bitter-sweet mixture of grated red beets and horseradish; and custard-like hrudka, a type of sweet cheese. A loaf of paska also gets tucked into the wicker, along with eggs and a container of salt.

What immediately catches the eye in Stella and Justine’s basket are the pysanky, the colorful and delicate Easter eggs decorated with traditional Ukrainian folk designs. It’s hard not to reach out and touch them, they’re so exquisite. Most were crafted decades ago by Stella’s sister-in-law Mildred Rohal, who was so dedicated to the batik-style art form (and good at it) that she continued decorating the hollow eggs even when her fingers pointed sideways because of arthritis.

“Every year she’d give us a few,” says Justine. She displays the most intricate of the designs year-round in a shadowbox on the dining room wall.

Aunt Mildred also made a richly embroidered scarf symbolizing Christ’s shroud that the women place on the basket before it’s blessed. It carries the traditional Paschal greeting “Xphctoc Bockpeci” embroidered in Cyrillic letters ( “Christ is Risen”).

Each of the foods holds a special meaning within the Catholic faith, even if the faithful don’t always remember what, exactly. The eggs speak of new life and resurrection, and the paska is a symbol of Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life. Necessary for flavor, salt reminds Christians of their duty to one another. Horseradish, especially mixed with grated beets, is symbolic of Christ’s passion and the blood he shed. Ham is symbolic of great joy and abundance. Kielbasa represents generosity. The candle, which somehow never manages to catch the basket’s contents on fire (though it has scorched the occasional handle), represents Christ as the Light of the World.

The women continue the tradition their ancestors carried over from Europe, because to do otherwise would be unimaginable.

“We’ve done it all our lives,” says Stella.

But it’s also about the future.

“It gets not only individuals together, but the whole church family,” says Justine. “It pulls everyone back to the church.”

This is Pittsburgh Food

This is one in a series of stories on local food traditions by Gretchen McKay and videographer and photographer Steve Mellon. Find past installments at www.post-gazette.com/stories/life/food/this-is-pittsburgh-food-648106.

Paska (Ukrainian Easter Bread)

Paska is a traditional Ukrainian Easter bread. This one is flavored with saffron. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette
  • 3 1/4-ounce packages dry yeast
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 3/4 cup warm water
  • 3 cups milk, or 1 cup powdered milk mixed into 3 cups water
  • 2 cups melted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Pinch saffron, soaked in warm water and strained
  • 12 whole eggs, beaten
  • 5 pounds high-gluten bread flour (20 cups), sifted, plus more if needed
  • 1/8 cup oil (for counters)
  • Beaten egg for brushing

Mix 3 packages of yeast with 3 tablespoons sugar, and add to warm water. Mix and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes.

In a 17-quart pot, heat 3 cups milk, or 3 cups water mixed with 1 cup of powdered milk, until hot. Add butter, sugar and salt. Mix and then let cool. Add saffron and beaten eggs. Beat everything together with a hand mixer.

Add 1/2 of the flour (10 cups) and mix again. Add yeast mix, mix gently by hand and let rise until double in bulk in a warm oven.

Knead down and add remaining flour and mix by hand to make a soft (not sticky) dough. Use all of remaining and possibly some more flour.

Let rise until double in bulk. Put small amounts of dough into mixer (double handfuls) and knead with dough hood for about 3 minutes each. Put back into pan until all of the dough is kneaded.

Form into loaves on a lightly oiled surface and put into greased bread pans. Put bread pans on top of stove to rise (covered with a cloth to keep warm). When you press the top of the loaf with your finger and it springs back, it is not done rising; when it leaves a hole, it is done and can be put into the oven to bake.

After the dough rises (it should be above the top of the pans) brush tops of loafs with a beaten egg. Bake in a 350-degree oven for approximately 35 minutes. Bread should sound hollow when thumped on the bottom after removing it from pan.

Makes 7 or 8 loaves, depending on size of pan. Recipe can be cut in half.

— Stella Woytovich, Baden

Horseradish and beets. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beets and horseradish

  • 1 or 2 15-ounce cans of beets, drained
  • 8-ounce jar of horseradish
  • 1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar (optional)

Chop beets in food processor to desired fineness. Add 1 tablespoon at a time or less of horseradish to taste.

If horseradish already has vinegar and sugar in it, don’t add any more. If not, add 1 tablespoon sugar and 1 tablespoon vinegar to taste.

Put beet mixture in jar and refrigerate. Makes 1 to 2 cups.

— Stella Woytovich, Baden

Glazed Easter Ham

  • 3/4 cup bourbon
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard
  • 3/4 cup ground cloves
  • Some orange rind to taste (optional)
  • Easter ham

Mix bourbon, sugar, mustard, cloves and orange rind, if using, in a small bowl. Pour over ham.

Bake ham uncovered in a 350 degree oven just until warm, 30 to 45 minutes, basting it 2 or 3 times to get a nice glaze. (Since it is already cooked , you don’t want to dry it out, just get it hot and glazed.)

Remove from oven, and let it sit for a few minutes before serving. To serve, pour some of the glaze over the slices.

If you’re not immediately eating the ham, store it in the refrigerator sitting in the glaze.

— Justine Woytovich, Baden

 

This is Pittsburgh food: Tailgating – Sunday dinner, Pittsburgh style

Tailgating before Steelers’ home games at Heinz Field is a Pittsburgh tradition. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

 

Lynn Cauley grew up in a household that bled black and gold during football season, so as an adult, there never was a question she wouldn’t carry on the Steelers tradition.

“I came to all the games when I was a kid,” recalls Mrs. Cauley, of Park Place, whose sportswriter father, Carl Hughes, covered the Steelers for The Pittsburgh Press before becoming assistant manager of Kennywood Park in 1956.

But even good friends are a little surprised at just how far she and husband, Jim, go in the days and hours leading up to a home game at Heinz Field.

A rousing tailgate isn’t just a tradition for the East End couple. It’s practically a religion, and not just because most of their parking lot-parties unfold early on Sunday morning, when the faithful of another kind are settling into pews at church.

Long before the gates to Gold A swing open at 8 a.m., the Cauleys are preparing for the pre-game celebration, which for the last few years has drawn more than 100 friends, family and business associates. Up at 4:45 a.m. to put food in the oven, the couple is on the road with a packed car by 7:15. To dawdle, says Mrs. Cauley, would be a rookie mistake.

“I know, we’re nuts,” she says, laughing. “But it’s first-come, first-served.”

In this town, they’ve got plenty of equally crazy company. Pittsburgh prides itself on being the Tailgate Capital of the World. Rain or shine, blistering heat or blustering snow, each of the stadium’s 22 neighboring lots is packed during home games with thousands of fans. They bring with them an amazing display of pre-game munchies.

Even before many of us have had our morning coffee, the intoxicating aroma of kielbasa, pierogies, wings and burgers on the hibachi fills the air. More than a few fans lay out elaborate tablecloth buffets, complete with fancy cocktails and gourmet eats. On one recent Sunday, Rocco Ferrante, a Mount Washington native who now lives in Princeton, N.J., could be found deep-frying, right on the pavement, not just a turkey, but also a duck.

And don’t forget dessert. Brownies, cakes, pies, bowls of candy and assorted cookies.

“Pittsburgh’s the best because it’s such an ethnic town,” says Mrs. Cauley. “All those family traditions are tied to the tailgate.”

She admits throwing such a big party takes lots of preparation. Wednesday finds her shopping for paper products. On Thursday, the marathon cooking sessions begin, starting with sauce that will serve as the base for her husband’s “signature” hot sausage sandwiches. They’ll make enough to fill six trays.

“The secret is to grill it,” says Mr. Cauley, who when he isn’t cooking is a sales executive at Ceiling Systems Distributors, a construction supply company.

His wife’s specialty, meanwhile, is another Pittsburgh classic: sweet banana peppers stuffed with a spicy mixture of sausage, cheese and bread crumbs, and then baked in red sauce.

“They’re homegrown,” she says of the long yellow peppers, proudly holding up a box of the veggies she brought to a recent tailgate for all to see.

Before last Sunday’s game against Washington, the menu — determined each week by the weather, and emailed to invited guests along with parking directions — also included fried chicken, honey-baked ham, meatball hoagies, two kinds of potatoes and several desserts. Helping to wash it down were pineapple vodka martinis.

There also was plenty of variety at Louis Lipps’ tailgate along Art Rooney Avenue. Once a year, aided by friends, the former Steelers wide receiver cooks up a storm to raise money for the Flight 93 Memorial Fund. It’s a Southern delight, offering invited guests everything from fried catfish to seafood etouffe to Cajun beef stew to gumbo and jambalaya . . . or as he puts it, “something you can’t get up here.

“I know Pittsburgh made me famous,” he adds, “but I’m New Orleans born and bred.”

Rob Castille’s tailgate for about 20 friends was a bit more traditional, serving up real-deal pierogies sauteed in butter and onions, big bowls of Buffalo chicken dip and hot wings. Though the Greensburg native did have one thing on the menu you might not find elsewhere: drunken gummy bears.

“They’re soaked in vodka, and they’re delicious!” his friend Renee Heininger of Fox Chapel declared. “What else could you ask for?”


 

Stuffed banana peppers

This recipe can be prepared ahead of time, and kept in the freezer.

  • 20 banana peppers
  • 2 pounds sweet Italian sausage
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella
  • 1 1/2 cups Romano cheese
  • 2 cups bread crumbs
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 to 2 24-ounce jars Classico Italian Sausage and Pepper sauce
  • 8-ounce package Kraft shredded Italian Five Cheese

Cut off top of the banana pepper. Slice one side of pepper lengthways. Clean out seeds, rinse pepper, turn upside down on paper towel to dry. Repeat with remaining peppers.

In a large bowl, mix ingredients through salt and pepper.

Pour Classico Sauce to cover bottom of 10-by-12 inch chafing dish pan.

Gently part sliced pepper and generously fill with combined ingredients. Place pepper in chafing dish. Repeat with remaining peppers. There will be 2 layers when complete.

Cover top of peppers with sauce and sprinkle with 8 ounces of Italian Five Cheese.

Bake for 1 hour in a preheated 350-degree oven.

Serves 6 to 8.

— Lynn Cauley, Park Place


 

Signature Hot Sausage

48 hot sausages (Costco and/or Sam’s)

  • 2 24-ounce jars Classico Italian Sausage and Peppers sauce
  • 2 24-ounce jars Classico Spicy Tomato and Basil sauce
  • 3 large green peppers
  • 3 large onions (yellow or Spanish)
  • 4 large-sized banana peppers
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter
  • Seasoned salt
  • 2 8-ounce packages fresh sliced white mushrooms
  • 36 Breadworks sausage rolls (some prefer no bun)

Grill sausage for 10 minutes on each side under medium flame/temperature. Remove from grill pad, then dry with paper towel to remove excess grease. Place in 2 chafing dish-size aluminum pans.

Add 1 jar of each Classico sauce into the pans with the hot sausage.

Cut green peppers into 21/2-inch long strips (3/4 inch wide). Cut banana peppers into 1-inch circles down the length of the pepper. Cut the onions in half and then into 1-inch sections.

Combine the peppers and onions in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the 1 stick of butter and cook for 12 minutes. Season to taste with seasoned salt. Drain excess butter from skillet and evenly divide and spread the onions and peppers onto the 2 pans of hot sausage.

Cover and bake the hot sausage pans in a 325-degree oven for 1 hour. Remove the cover and put one package of mushrooms in each pan. Cover again and place the hot sausage pans back into the oven for an additional 25 minutes at 275 degrees. When sausage is done baking, slice rolls, and enjoy a signature hot sausage sandwich — it’s the best sausage sandwich in Pittsburgh.

Serves a crowd.

— Jim Cauley, Park Place

 

This is Pittsburgh food: On the cookie tables

This is the sixth “This Is Pittsburgh Food,” a series of stories and videos on local traditions by Gretchen McKay and videographer and photographer Steve Mellon.

The Cookie Table is a Pittsburgh wedding tradition. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

When Cristina Lazzaro started planning her wedding to Brian Perris, her checklist included all the bridal basics: A stunning gown. A swanky dinner reception for 250 guests. A relaxing beach honeymoon. A tiered wedding cake from which the newlyweds would give each other bites in front of the oohing and aahing crowd.

And, of course, cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.

So many were piled high on the couple’s wedding cookie table — make that tables — that the sugary spread took up an entire room at Bella Sera, the Tuscan-inspired hall in Canonsburg where they held the reception last month. More than 6,000 cookies in all, if you were counting (and many were) and every one was homemade, thanks to a Herculean effort that took 21 family members several weeks, and untold amounts of sugar, butter and flour, to pull off.

Not that anyone was complaining.

“We made 100 trays for our last wedding, too,” notes Cristina’s mother, Maria Lazzaro, referring to her oldest daughter Rosanna’s wedding in 2010.

“For us, it doesn’t feel like a wedding unless we have a cookie table,” agrees the bride, a teacher with the Pittsburgh School District. “It’s a big family tradition. Everyone is bringing cookies.”

No one is really sure where, or how, the Pittsburgh cookie table tradition started. But the general consensus is that it’s a custom the region’s many Italian and Eastern European immigrants brought with them from their homelands. An elaborate wedding cake is expensive; homemade cookies not so much, especially when baking them is shared among the extended family. Mrs. Lazzaro, who at age 5 moved to the U.S. with her parents from the small town of Ateleta in Italy’s Abruzzo region, remembers how the aunts and cousins would bake up a storm before family celebrations and holidays such as Christmas. So as an adult, she continued the tradition with her own family.

“We try to keep up the old way, even though we’re here and not in the Old Country,” she says.

Today, the practice is so ingrained in Pittsburgh’s wedding culture that it crosses all ethnic and religious lines, with tins of homemade cookies sharing the spotlight with the wedding cake at even the ritziest weddings. Which isn’t to say cookie tables are unique to the area, or even Pennsylvania, for that matter. Parts of New York, West Virginia, Virginia, New Jersey and Ohio (especially Youngstown) all share some version of the wedding custom, according to local historians.

Pittsburghers, though, still claim it.

Cristina Lazzaro and Brian Perris’ Pittsburgh wedding reception included a cookie table with more than 6,000 cookies. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Treasured family recipes are a must on a traditional cookie table, so bright and early the Saturday morning before the wedding, Mrs. Lazzaro, her three daughters and a half-dozen relatives gather in her Ross kitchen to bake some favorites handed down over the generations. There’ll be cookies from both northern and southern Italy, because as the bride’s aunt Maria Tolomeo of Shaler explains, “Each region has a different tradition of cookies.”

So different, that the sisters-in-law can’t even tell you what each other’s specialties are called in Italian.

Mrs. Lazzaro’s mother, Giovanna Ricci, 85, who lives in Bloomfield and speaks with a lilting Italian accent, is tasked with making hundreds of snowflake-shape pizzelles at the dining room table. Nearby, the bride’s 9-year-old cousin Ilaria Lazzaro fiddles with a tray of sugary Pesche Dolci, cookies that look exactly like miniature peaches; outside on the patio, another cousin is frying a savory biscuit-like treat known as Gravioli in a large vat of oil set on a portable burner. Allowed to cool and dry until crunchy in a box lined with paper towels, they’ll be served as a bar nibble with wine before dinner.

Mrs. Tolomeo has the toughest cookie job, or at least the most intricate: crafting dozens of Nacatole, a traditional deep-fried Calabrian treat. After rolling a sweet yeast dough into long, thin ropes and cutting it into 18-inch lengths, she wraps each piece around a thin dowel and then up and down the sides, after which she carefully pinches the seams together. After the sweet is removed from the peg, she places it on a comb-like tool called a pettine to create the cookie’s characteristic “rifling.” Fried in oil, they’re crunchy, with just the slightest hint of her husband’s homemade red wine folded into each bite.

“It’s a labor of love,” says Mrs. Tolomeo, who will spend several hours kneading, rolling and wrapping the dough into crown-shaped biscuits. “Everyone makes them to show their love for the couple.”

The morning before the wedding, aunts and cousins meet at the Lazzaro’s house with their myriad offerings. There are so many boxes and wicker baskets of cookies, it takes five cars to transport them the half hour to the reception hall, where they’ll be stored until after the wedding.

Baking? That was easy, says Mrs. Lazzaro with a tired smile.

“This is the hard part. I just want to get them out of the house so we can relax and enjoy the party.”

Not to mention once again be able to prepare a proper meal for the family: With so many cookies taking up room in the fridge there’s been no “real” food for days.

At the reception after dinner, it takes three servers just about 15 minutes to unwrap and lay out the cookies after rolling them into the “cookie room” off the main hall on carts. To assure a big reveal, they keep the doors closed, and shoosh away the nosy people who try to sneak a peak. When the room finally opens up at around 8:30 p.m., there is a bit of a mad rush as the first guests file in.

Peanut Blossoms are always the first cookie to disappear from a Pittsburgh cookie table. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Peanut Blossoms are always among the first cookies to disappear. So the Lazzaros have two varieties — a traditional cookie rolled in sugar and another dipped in coconut. There are also nut horns, Italian cupcakes, tarts and tassies, lady locks, Nonni’s pizzelles and countless butter, chocolate and sugar cookies.

Some of the cookies are eaten right away as dessert. But many dozens more are immediately packed into plastic boxes to be taken home for breakfast the next morning. This is one time you don’t have to be shy about being a bit of a cookie hog: When one guest tries to walk away with a half-full container, bridesmaid Angela Bucci sends her back to the table.

“There’s too much room on top,” she gently scolds her. “They have to be completely smashed in.”

As for how to assure you get your favorites in the race to the table?

“You run as fast as you can,” says the bride’s sister, Marina Lazzaro, 19. She was only half kidding.

Spectacular as the event is, this isn’t the biggest cookie table ever laid out at Bella Sera. For their daughter Beth’s reception on Jan. 2, 2010, Peg and Jack Lydic of Bethel Park tempted friends and family with some 21,000 cookies in more than two dozen varieties — or roughly nine dozen per guest, who stuffed them into 400 takeaway containers.

“And all of them were beautiful,” says event coordinator Michelle Houston.

With one more daughter and many nieces, nephews and cousins, the Lazzaros know this is not their last cookie table. Far from it.

“We keep saying as a joke that we want to do away with it, because it’s so much work,” says Mrs. Lazzaro. But everyone knows that will never happen.

“It’s a way of connecting with our Italian heritage,” says the bride. “It makes us feel even more Italian when we get together.”


 Amaretti con Pignoli

Amaretti Con Pignoli. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Amaretti is the Italian name for macaroons. The perfect accompaniment for a cup of coffee or espresso, the cookies are crunchy on the outside, and chewy on the inside. This version is rolled in pine nuts.

  • 2 cups almond paste
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 8 tablespoons flour (heaping)
  • 3 egg whites
  • Pine nuts

Cream together almond paste and sugar in food processor. Add 8 tablespoon of flour and 3 egg whites mixed together. Take 1 tablespoon full of dough and roll into ball (if sticky, lightly flour hands). Roll one side of dough in pine nuts. Place on parchment-lined cookie sheet.

Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes on top shelf of oven until golden brown. Cool on parchment paper before removing. The cookies can be stored in a container for up to 1 week.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

— Maria Lazzaro, Ross


Hawaiian tarts. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hawaiian Tarts

For the cookie
  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 cup softened butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
For filling
  • 1 cup pineapple preserves, divided
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 cups coconut
  • Powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat oven 350 degrees.

Make cookie dough: In a large bowl combine flour, powdered sugar and cornstarch; mix well. Add butter and vanilla, and stir until soft dough forms. Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place balls into 36 miniature muffin cups. Press in bottom and up sides of each cup.

Make filling: Spoon 1 teaspoon pineapple preserves into each dough-lined cup. In a small bowl, combine sugar and egg, and beat with fork until blended. Stir in coconut until coated well with egg. Spoon 1 teaspoon coconut mixture over preserves in each cup.

Bake tarts for 23 to 33 minutes, or until light golden brown. Cool in pans for 20 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar.

Makes 36 tarts.

— Maria Lazzaro, Ross


 

Nut Horns

This makes “a bucket” of cookies, but they freeze well. You also can store them in an airtight container for up to a month in a cool place.

For dough
  • 2 pounds butter (8 sticks), softened
  • 1 pound (2 cups) sour cream
  • 10 egg yolks
  • 3 teaspoons yeast, diluted in 3 to 4 tablespoons of warm water
  • 8 to 9 cups flour
For filling
  • 3 cups walnuts, ground really fine
  • 1/2 cup sugar, plus more for rolling
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Vanilla

To make dough, place butter, sour cream, egg yolks and dissolved yeast in a large bowl. Mix until creamy. Slowly add flour, mixing as you go, until you get a dough that is soft and elastic. Form dough into balls the size of pingpong balls. Place on cookie sheet, cover and refrigerate overnight.

To make filling, place ground walnuts, sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Add vanilla, a little at a time, until the ingredients stick together in a paste.

Working with just 5 or 6 chilled dough balls at a time (the butter will cause the dough to soften if it sits too long on the counter), roll dough into small circles. Spread about 1 teaspoon filling in the middle of each circle, then roll up. Roll cookies in sugar, then arrange seam side down onto an ungreased cookie sheet into a horn (half-moon) shape.

Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes, or until cookies are golden brown.

Makes 70 to 80 cookies.

— Maria Tolomeo, Shaler