Gretchen McKay

Dreams of a dreamer

Gisele Fetterman helps her son August, 4, get ready for school at their home in Braddock. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

The line of new and expectant mothers stretched a half block down Braddock Avenue by the time Gisele Fetterman opened the doors of a former-pharmacy-turned-business-incubator at 5 p.m. and welcomed in the smiling faces.

Inside was a mountain of baby equipment and supplies, still in their original packaging, free for the taking. The charity organization Delivering Good had dropped off 27 pallets of infant gear that morning — enough car seats, strollers and baby carriers to fill the beds of more than two dozen pickup trucks. It was time to give it all away at Braddock’s first community baby shower.

It took Ms. Fetterman and her volunteers more than eight hours to unload and sort the baby booty into piles. Larger pieces got stacked against a wall on one side of the room; baby books, clothes and blankets were piled high on a folding table on another, kitty-corner from where MAYA Organization handed out flyers about the nonprofit’s free services to pregnant women.

 

“It was my workout for the month,” joked Ms. Fetterman, 36, herself a mother of three, before rushing off to kiss a baby and envelop his excited mom in a hug.

Many politicians’ wives do good deeds for the communities they live in. Ms. Fetterman has rolled up her sleeves and gotten to work in her adopted town of Braddock from day one, and never slowed down. And she has big plans in her new role as Pennsylvania’s second lady after her husband, John, was sworn in as Pennsylvania lieutenant governor in January.

Since moving to Braddock from New Jersey more than 10 years ago, she has become one of the struggling steel town’s staunchest activists and community leaders. The baby shower showcased her latest initiative, The Hollander Project, the incubator and co-working space for local women entrepreneurs she co-founded last year.

In 2012, she established Free Store 15104, where residents in need can “shop” for slightly used clothes and household items and surplus food. In 2015, wanting to address the disparate problems of food insecurity and food waste, she co-founded 412 Food Rescue so that unwanted, perishable foods made its way into schools, shelters and charities instead of a Dumpster. For Good PGH, a nonprofit that works to advocate inclusion and inspire kindness, followed in 2017.

She doesn’t draw a salary for any of it.

It’s a contagious energy that has made the Brazilian “dreamer” who came to the U.S. undocumented at age 7 arguably more popular than Braddock’s longtime, larger-than-life former mayor — her husband John.

“She’s magical,” said Kristen Michaels, her partner at The Hollander. “She just believes things are going to work when everyone else is thinking about what can go wrong or how much work it will be.”

“She has an X-factor,” Mr. Fetterman agreed. “Her compassion and empathy has no filter, and people are drawn to that.”

She’s also fearless, especially when it comes to the subject of immigration.

After her husband was elected to office Nov. 6, she tweeted, “Pennsylvania, your second lady is a formerly undocumented immigrant. Thank you.”Pennsylvania, your second lady is a formerly undocumented immigrant. ❤️Thank you.

And at his inauguration on Jan. 15, she gave her fellow dreamers a visual shout-out by attaching a pin to the bow of her vintage-inspired dress. Handcrafted by Braddock-based Studebaker Metals, it reads “Immigrant” in flowing script.

‘GOING ON AN ADVENTURE’

Gisele Fetterman thought she was simply going on ”an adventure” when her mother, Ester, asked her to help pack a suitcase in 1989. In reality, they were leaving Brazil to immigrate to the U.S. Here she is on her Brazilian passport. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

Ms. Fetterman was in second grade when her mother, Ester Resende, came home from work carrying two suitcases. They were going on an adventure, she said, and Gisele and her older brother, Delfim, needed to pack. At the time, the family was living in Rio de Janeiro’s middle-class community of Jacarepagua in the West Zone, but it was close to one of the city’s largest slums. Her mom, who had divorced Ms. Fetterman’s father when Ms. Fetterman was just a baby, had decided to escape Rio de Janeiro’s never-ending violence after learning her sister-in-law Madalena had been robbed for a seventh time. Within days, they were on a plane to New York.

No one in her family spoke any English, so they had to rely on a friend of a friend to put them up in an extra bedroom while they searched for a cheap apartment. They ended up above a doctor’s office in Queens, where her mother — a nutritionist with a doctorate in Brazil — found work cleaning houses and working for tips as a coat check girl. They furnished the apartment with items their neighbors had discarded at the curb.

Gisele Fetterman spent her early childhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She immigrated with her mother, Ester, and brother, Delfim, to the U.S. in 1989, when she was 7. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

Gisele Fetterman visits the West Zone neighborhood she grew up in during an August 2018 visit to Rio de Janeiro. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

At first, Ms. Fetterman found trash-picking puzzling; in Brazil, she said, nobody ever throws anything away. But soon enough, whenever they heard garbage trucks rumbling down the block, “that’s when we went shopping,” she said. Her mother, who moved to North Braddock to be close to her daughter and her family, still has some of those original pieces in her home.

Gisele Fetterman’s parents, Delfim Almeida and Ester Resende, pictured in her hometown of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

In 1990, the family moved across the Hudson River to more affordable Harrison, N.J. Studies show that children of immigrants experience more poverty and don’t do as well in school. But Ms. Fetterman, who learned English by watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” said her family always managed to get by because of her mother’s sacrifices, even if they had to be invisible and avoid the spotlight. Smart and hardworking, she was inducted into the National Honor Society in high school.

“Kids adapt,” she said.

Other than being teased occasionally about her “unibrow,” she had no problem making friends with other ESL students. She marched in her middle school color guard, acted in school plays and dipped ice cream at Baskin-Robbins after school and on weekends. But she was never completely at ease until she became a permanent resident in 2004. Until then, she knew she could be deported at any time. “You pay taxes and work so hard, so it was like, ‘What do you mean you won’t want us here?’” she said. She became a U.S. citizen in 2009.

Her brother became an artist in New York City. She studied math at Kean University in New Jersey before deciding she’d really rather be a holistic nutritionist. She earned her degree at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition for Holistic Nutrition while also volunteering as a “hugger” at a home for babies going through withdrawal and feeding the homeless at a Salvation Army canteen in Newark, N.J.

“I always knew her future would be bright,” said her mother, because she’s a glass-half-full person. “She wears rose-colored glasses and wants people to see through those glasses.”

One person greatly influenced by Ms. Fetterman is Destinee Holmes, who met her when she was 10 through a Big Sister mentoring program in Newark. Ms. Holmes, who is studying criminal justice at Essex County College, still talks to her at least three times a week.

“She’s just a beautiful person who wants the best for you,” said Ms. Holmes, noting how she helped her navigate a skin disorder. “You can trust that she’ll always be there for you.”

After graduating from the institute in 2007, Ms. Fetterman worked as a nutritionist focusing on food justice and access. She often organized pop-ups where she distributed free furniture and other nonperishables that businesses had donated to Newark residents in need.

“I was food insecure growing up,” she said, “so knowing that even one less person isn’t is really special to me.”

A PERFECT FIT

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman gets help putting on his tie from his wife, Gisele Fetterman, in their hotel room before leaving for his swearing-in ceremony Jan. 15 in Harrisburg. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

It was a 2007 article in a magazine called ReadyMade that introduced her to Braddock. Relaxing at a yoga retreat, she read about the heavily tattooed mayor in shorts who was trying to revitalize a forgotten town. As someone who also had chosen to live and work in a town that many had written off, she felt a connection.

Gisele and John Fetterman on their wedding day in 2008. The couple eloped to Burlington, Vt., and picked a justice of the peace out of the phone book. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

“It stayed in my head,” she said, and so she wrote a letter to the borough about the work she was doing and how it might translate to Braddock. Impressed that somebody had actually taken the time to put pen to paper, Mr. Fetterman called and asked her to visit. She accepted, and a month later they were exchanging strategies and ideas at a reception at the library.

It wasn’t quite love at first sight. But there was something about the 6-foot-8 man that just felt … right. Mr. Fetterman felt it, too.

“She charmed everybody,” he said, including his parents, who were in town visiting.

Braddock, Ms. Fetterman decided, was nothing like the sad, abandoned town she’d read about. “It just needed more love.”

Their relationship blossomed, and they eloped to Burlington, Vt., in June 2008, picking a justice of the peace out of the phone book. On their wedding night, they discovered they were having a baby. Karl is now 10, and they also have Grace, 7, and August, 4.

To those who don’t know them, they make a most unlikely pair, and not just because the differences are so visually striking.

She easily tears up and is constantly kissing babies. He rarely cracks a smile in public.

Stylish, with a weakness for boots, she has amassed an enviable wardrobe of thrift store and sales rack finds that ensures she looks chic even when she’s handing out diapers. He wore cargo shorts to their wedding.

She was raised vegetarian and their kids don’t eat meat either. He loves a good cheeseburger.

And she’s happy to be the front woman for her many projects and events. An introvert, he’d much rather work quietly behind the scenes.

What makes the relationship work, they said, is a shared commitment to lending a hand to those who need it and passion for social justice. “He’s just good,” Ms. Fetterman said of her husband.

“She’s the real leader,” he insisted, adding, “I’m jealous everyone loves her, for good reason.”

A FRIEND TO EVERYONE

Gisele Fetterman, with her daughter Grace, then 4 months, attends a 2011 protest to support breastfeeding in public. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

It’s virtually impossible to find anyone with a bad word to say about Ms. Fetterman.

“She just says ‘yes’ without thinking about what she’s committed us to?” offered Ms. Michaels, who worked with her on the Hello Hijab project at For Good Pittsburgh, which makes tiny hijabs for Barbie dolls to teach kids about religious and cultural differences.

Gisele Fetterman circled this tweet on her Instagram story to show some people’s reaction to her childhood as an undocumented immigrant. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

David Esch of Aspinwall said he learned everything he needed to know about Ms. Fetterman last year, when her Free Store volunteers won the Jefferson Award for Public Service Team. Rather than go up on stage with her team to accept the award, she stayed in the shadows, allowing them to bask in the limelight. “It’s just how she’s wired,” he said of her generosity.

On social media, she fields a lot of vitriol from posters criticizing the fact she’s an immigrant, he said, adding that it’s unbelievably offensive and hurtful. But after many tears, she’s learned not to take it personally, he said. Instead, she tries to get her detractors to understand her point of view. “She just wants to do her projects.”

Leonard Hammonds got to know her through the nonprofit Hammonds Initiative, which offers mentoring programs to at-risk youths.

He can’t wait for the rest of Pennsylvania to become acquainted with her as she looks to expand her programs as the state’s second lady. Free Store 15104 has already inspired nine spinoff locations, and she also is interested in criminal justice reforms, especially making children’s visits to inmate parents less traumatic by allowing them to wear street clothes and meet in a warmer visiting room.

She also supports her husband’s 67-county recreational marijuana listening tour and has made no bones about being a participant in the state’s new medical marijuana program because of her own back pain caused by two herniated discs. She tweeted on Feb. 15, “I was one of the 83,000. Thank you, @GovernorTomWolf.”

She doesn’t care if you hold the highest title or are homeless, Mr. Hammonds, of Penn Hills, said. “She treats everyone the same and looks for nothing in return.”

Baby shower volunteer Cathy Welsh of Turtle Creek pointed to her knack for organizing and getting community members to work as a team. She orchestrated the event in just a matter of days because she has such a large network of supporters and has a reputation for building bridges.

The Fettermans, from left, Karl, 9 at the time this photo was taken, John, Grace, 7, Gisele and August, 4, take a walk Jan. 8 on the Westmoreland Heritage Trail in Trafford. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Not that it’s always about getting stuff. Ms. Fetterman also is very aware of people’s feelings and emotional needs, Ms. Welsh said, “even if it’s just a hug.” She got plenty after her 16-year-old son Jerame Turner was killed in a double shooting in November 2017.

Gisele Fetterman wears a pin that reads “Immigrant” before John Fetterman’s swearing-in ceremony Jan. 15 in Harrisburg. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Living in the lieutenant governor’s mansion in Fort Indiantown Gap, about 20 miles northeast of Harrisburg, Ms. Fetterman said, would not have been appropriate for their family. So her husband is commuting back and forth. It’s been tough to squeeze in much “us” time between her volunteering and the kids’ various activities. Just the other day, Mr. Fetterman said, they slipped away for a lunch of summer rolls from Green Mango in Wilkins. “But we ate in the car,” he said.

There’s no defined role or handbook for the second lady of Pennsylvania, a title Ms. Fetterman playfully refers to as SLOP. So it’s hard to say what’s to come in 2019. She’d like to see a more honest dialogue about what it means to be an immigrant in the U.S., of course, so people won’t see her and others like her as “that illegal.” Greater opportunities for the residents of Braddock and other underserved, marginalized communities are also paramount.

And she’d like to affect the food environment legislatively, so no one ever has to go hungry.

“If she’s got it to give, she’s going to give it to you,” said Free Store volunteer Jeanette Embry. “She’s teaching us all how to be a better person.”

Superior Motors demonstrates “Braddock is a destination”

Chef Kevin Sousa, owner of Superior Motor Restaurant, pours liquid nitrogen as he and his staff begin to start serving in the restaurant Thursday, July 26, 2018 in Braddock. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

On what some thought would be the one-year anniversary of its failing, Superior Motors in Braddock is humming along on all cylinders.

Even before the 80-seat restaurant across the street from Edgar Thomson Works celebrated its first birthday on July 15, it was named one of the best new restaurants of 2018 in the country by Food & Wine magazine. Chef Kevin Sousa’s exquisite modern American cuisine also has earned accolades from The New York Times.

In the process, the restaurant has created traffic jams on a once-desolate stretch of Braddock Avenue and put much-needed tax dollars into the borough’s coffers. It has made it less scary for others to do business there, too.

Patrons walk to Superior Motors in Braddock Thursday evening.(Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Just down the street, Crazy Mocha is developing a cafe and other food operations in the long-vacant Cuda Building. Brew Gentlemen continues to go gangbusters. The Mexican food truck Brassero now shares a home with Studebaker Metals in several connected structures that once housed the Braddock Free Press newspaper and Guentert’s Bakery. And just this month, Kristen Michaels of Edgewood and Gisele Fetterman, the wife of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, opened The Hollander, an incubator and co-working space for local women entrepreneurs in the old Hollander pharmacy building.

“Things are happening,” says Patrick Jordan, whose Barebones Black Box theater shares space with Superior Motors in a former Chevrolet dealership.

“It’s been a triple win for everyone,” John Fetterman agrees. “It demonstrates Braddock is a destination.”

Kevin SousaKevin Sousa, owner of Superior Motors, front, and sous chef Jack Martin, prepare dishes in the Braddock restaurant.(Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Pittsburghers might have doubted that the restaurant would succeed in such an unlikely location. Investor Gregg Kander, an attorney from Squirrel Hill who ended up raising money needed to get the project back on track after some bad press and countless construction problems, says he, too, would have hesitated but for the restaurant’s social mission.

In addition to hiring locals and giving borough residents 50 percent off meals, Mr. Sousa made good on his promised career training for Braddock townspeople. Four residents are taking part in a nine-month program that started in January, and he hopes to have an even bigger class next year.

“It fills my heart that it’s really working,” Mr. Kander says. “You just see diversity. And the staff has learned skills and” and has opportunities to go to other places.”

Superior Motors has dished up some pretty impressive meals in the process. The late Anthony Bourdain included it in a Pittsburgh episode of “Parts Unknown” on CNN, and Food & Wine magazine honored the restaurant in April.

Mr. Sousa never doubted it would be a success because of its history-making Kickstarter campaign in January 2014, which raised more than $310,000 in 33 days. That’s even when building problems put the brakes on construction —  it took three years — and drove up the cost to $1 million.

“What we’re doing is so ballsy [that] people just want to see it,” says Mr. Sousa, 44.

Most restaurants, he says, see their numbers level off after the initial hype of opening. Superior Motors does upward of 700 covers in a week, and many of his guests are repeat customers. Most are locals, but it’s not uncommon for some diners to drive more than a hour to get there; just last week, a couple drove in from Annapolis, Md., for dinner.

The restaurant’s success, Braddock Council President Tina Doose says, has helped to shed a different light on the community.

“It’s made it more inviting to some who would never have thought of it as a place for dinner,” the longtime resident says. And it’s added to the town’s growing artistic and cultural vibe, drawing newcomers into the community.”

Now, she adds, “investors know that Braddock exists.”

Count Mr. Kander among them. For his second project, he’s remodeling the former Ohringer’s furniture store building at Seventh Street and Braddock Avenue into housing for 35 artists. He also is raising money to create studio space and programs for artists in a second location.

“There’s a lot of buzz along Braddock Avenue, and Superior Motors was key in that,” he says.

Most of the Barebones’ audience eats at the restaurant before or after seeing a show, so for Mr. Jordan, it has been an especially good reciprocal relationship.

“We have each other’s backs and a true appreciation for what makes each business special,” he says.

The restaurant will celebrate its one-year anniversary Tuesday in its new courtyard with a “gratitude” party from 6 to 11:30 p.m. Tickets cost $65, and will include tacos and wood- roasted clams and mussels, multiple live music acts and a water-balloon toss. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Braddock Free Store, which was opened by Gisele Fetterman.

It precedes another neighborhood celebration. On Braddock Community Day on Aug. 11, the Braddock Civic Plaza at the intersection of Braddock Avenue and Fourth Street officially will open with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11 a.m. Equipped with free Wi-Fi and tables and chairs, the 1.1-acre green space will serve as a gathering space for residents and will accommodate farmers markets, food trucks and music shows.

Despite Superior Motor’s meteroic rise, Mr. Sousa has no plans to further expand or open a second restaurant. His only goal, he says, is to build equity and make guests’ dining experiences even better.

Leading a tour of the new courtyard, which houses the Braddock Community Bread Oven along with outdoor seating for the restaurant, the chef reflects on the past year.  He still gets choked up when he steps outside after dark, he says, and watches as hot blue flames shoot from the steel mill’s smokestacks into the night sky.

“I feel instantly transported to another time,” he says.

The backdrop of the hulking, belching mill, he concedes, might not be for everyone. But those who get it probably also feel chills.

“We worked really hard. More than ever, I’m proud to be part of it,” he says.

Finding God, and community, in a loaf of Easter bread

Slava Martyn never could have imagined that one day he’d find God, in Homestead, by baking bread.

With a pastry brush dipped in egg wash, he leans over the pan of uncooked dough in front of him. With the delicate yet precise hand of an artist, he paints the loaf’s bumpy surface until the entire top is slick and sticky with egg. Satisfied, he reaches for the next of the 20 or so pans lined up on the table.

It’s methodical work, making the rich and eggy Easter bread known as paska for St. Gregory Russian Orthodox Church in Homestead, and he does it without talking. But you can tell it suits the Russian-born Dr. Martyn. He gets plenty of practice paying attention to small details in his day job as a pediatric anesthesiologist at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

Just around the corner in the church’s brightly lit kitchen, laughter rings out. They’re a happy bunch, this small posse of women gathered around a stainless steel table with their Bulgarian priest, wearing the same pink hairnets as Dr. Martyn. They trade stories and laugh as Helen Sucevic dips her hand into a large container of dough. Grabbing a handful, the 69-year-old places the mixture on a kitchen scale and when satisfied it’s the perfect size, tosses the small ball onto the middle of the table. Another woman picks it up, rolls it into a skinny log, then slides it down the table to Dr. Martyn’s wife, Valentina.

In just a few seconds, she braids the log like a little girl’s hair into a thick, doughy plait, tucks the ends under, and then plops it into  a metal baking pan. Another plait goes on top.  After Dr. Martyn works his magic with the egg wash, he transfers the loaves into a revolving pizza oven to cook, 25 at a time.

As the bread bakes,  the egg wash will also, creating the Easter bread’s distinctive glossy sheen and deep chestnut color. 

Dr. Martyn, 52,  didn’t grow up religious. He didn’t even go to church until he, his wife and their baby son immigrated to Pittsburgh from Ukraine in 1996 through the green card lottery.  In the 1970s and 80s, the Russian Orthodox Church was severely repressed both in Siberia, where he grew up, and St. Petersburg, where he studied medicine.  While he believed in God, he wasn’t allowed to show it.

Then they settled in Greenfield. And Dr. Martyn’s mother, who’d immigrated with them, decided they needed to go to church. A friend told them about St. Gregory’s. The great influx of Slavic immigrants who came to work in the steel mills that once lined the riverbanks of the Monongahela saved their pennies to convert a Protestant church  below the train tracks into an Orthodox structure in 1913. They scrimped again when the new Homestead Mills claimed their land, and they had to build a new church up the hill on East 15th Street.  Something about the tiny parish just felt … right.

Within three years, Mrs. Martyn was singing in the choir. She says,  “God brings you to him.”

The couple joined the church’s paska-making crew a few years ago. They like how the word-of-mouth bread sales raise much-needed dollars for the church’s coffers, and upholds a cultural and religious tradition.

You have to give something back to God, and help a church survive, Dr. Martyn says.  “Tradition will disappear if you don’t support it.”

The pair had ready teachers in old-timers like Mrs. Sucevic of Baldwin Borough.  She’s been a member her entire life and has been paska-making the week before Easter longer than she can remember. She learned from her mother and namesake bubba, who immigrated in 1918 from the former Czechoslovakia to Colver, a small mining town in Cambria County.

She recalls how St. Gregory’s started its paska fundraiser 30 years ago with a member’s 100-year-old recipe, to complement the church’s annual nut horn cookie and nut bread sales at Christmas. Then the ladies got older, and making paska went by the wayside.

They’d start it up again about 10 years ago, when parishioners decided they weren’t raising enough money with their holiday bake sale.  They now sell about 150 loaves in the weeks leading up to Easter.

Recipes can vary depending on the culinary traditions of the baker.  Back in Ukraine, says Mrs. Martyn,  the bread is made with ricotta. But some ingredients are the golden standard: lots of eggs and butter along with sugar and milk. It’s a treat after the Lenten fast.

The bread itself is not terribly difficult to make. But it does take time. The dough has to raise before it can be divided into balls, and raise again after the logs have been braided into loaves. Then the loaves have to be constantly basted with butter as they go round and round in the rotating oven. It takes about four hours to complete the process.

The three parts of the braid symbolize the Holy Trinity, and there’s symbolism in the bread’s color, too, says Father Evgeni Peykov, who became priest last fall. The white interior represents the Holy Spirit, and raisins symbolize the blood of Christ and the wine taken during Holy Communion.

Many of the parishioners who buy the bread will bring it in a basket with other traditional foods to the church on Holy Saturday. That’s when Father Peykov celebrates Osvyashcheniye, or the traditional blessing of the meal to be eaten on Easter Sunday.

When your life is drastically upended, like theirs was when they left Ukraine for the promise of the U.S., it’s easy to feel cut off and alone, says Mr. Martyn. The church opened up their doors to them, and made them feel like they belonged.

In making paska, and keeping the Russian Orthodox traditions alive, he says, they’ve found a way to give back.

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


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.

McLaughlin Distillery crafts fine spirits in Sewickley Hills

Barrels at McLaughlin Distillery bear drawings and names of those who volunteer at the business. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Kim McLaughin crafts some mighty fine spirits in the abandoned party house he’s been renovating the past year in Sewickley Hills. It’s an avocation turned vocation that’s totally hip but not all that surprising for an easy-going outdoors-type whose roots are in rural farming.

Following a four-year stint in the Marines after high school, the New York native spent 22 years growing corn and alfalfa while raising 100 dairy cows, along with four kids, on a farm in tiny Lisbon, N.Y., on the Canadian border. All the while he dabbled in whiskey-making, following in the footsteps of Canadian relatives who always kept a barrel of spirits on the back porch.

After farming, Mr. McLaughlin had another outdoor job — lumberjack — before relocating to Pittsburgh in 2011 to work in public relations for Nine Energy Service. There he might have remained until retirement if the booming gas and oil industry hadn’t started to cool.

“I could see the writing on the wall,” says Mr. McLaughlin, 58, of Neville Island.

He leased a dilapidated house on Blackburn Road that would become McLaughlin Distillery in April 2015 to devote more time to his hobby at night and on weekends. When he was laid off in February, he decided to make distilling a full-time job, even though he’d never before sold his spirits. “But I’d given away plenty to friends and relatives,” he notes. “So I figured I’d make it legal.”

In exchange for cheap rent, Mr. McLaughin has been fixing up the two-story building with big dreams of opening a tasting room and maybe even an outdoor space for special events to showcase his moonshine, vodka, bourbon and two types of whiskey. But while the borough approved a conditional use for the distillery in February, officials did not allow retail sales, tastings or tours on site. So the bar room decorated with artist Claire Hardy’s original paintings sits empty as he looks for a new home with the same kind of casual, urban-hillbilly mojo.

“Somewhere exactly like this, hilly and wooded,” he says. “Not slick.”

Because it’s not a storefront, McLaughlin Distillery can’t have an official sign. No problem: Mr. McLaughlin has gotten pretty good at guerrilla marketing (an arrow hand-painted on plywood at the Mt. Nebo exit on Interstate 79 points drivers in the right direction), and he’s also gotten some serious love on social media. Their curiosity piqued by word-of-mouth recommendations, some customers just wander up the gravel driveway, which pleases him.

“Friends are always welcome to stop by,” he says with a grin.

One recent visitor was so enthused she “gave me a hug, and I don’t think she had a drinking problem, either.”

Kim McLaughlin once worked in the gas and oil industry, but when he was laid off he decided to pursue his long-time passion and join the world of craft distillers. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Others discover the distillery’s wares at farmers markets, food festivals and other places Pennsylvania products are sold; you can order it online at mclaughlindistillery.com for home delivery. Around town you’ll find his Sewickley vodka at Sewickley Speakeasy, and his Toasted Applewood and Grandma’s Rocking Chair whiskies at Rebel and Roost, Downtown; Bar 12 on Carson Street, South Side; and 99 Bottles in Carnegie.

Like most craft distillers, the self-taught owner is serious about his ingredients. He mills his own wheat (spent grain goes to local pigs) and also the boards he cuts from local white oaks to make staves for his homemade barrels.

No whiskey-maker in his right mind, he admits, is also a cooper. But Mr. McLaughlin is not your typical distiller. Using woodworking skills learned on the farm, he’s perfected the art of cutting, steaming and bending 24 seasoned staves into a 48-sided barrel, which he then chars “until it has alligator skin inside” for flavor. Grandma’s Rocking Chair Whiskey is aged for three weeks in bourbon barrels set atop — you guessed it — a motorized rocker. The motion, he says, “picks the flavor out of it.”

Mr. McLaughlin distills about 5 gallons of 90 proof spirits a day in a “hillbilly” column/reflux still he fashioned from components gathered from across the U.S., using mash made from corn and winter wheat. The high-quality moonshine might put a few hairs on your chest, but his vodka is distilled seven times for extra smoothness. He bottles everything in-house with the help of a half-dozen volunteers, who use a special homemade jig to line up the labels just so. As a reward, their names are printed on the barrels.

You’ll pay a premium for McLaughlin Distillery spirits ($30 for 25.3 ounces of vodka or moonshine, $55 for bourbon or whiskey), but Mr. McLaughlin says customers are willing to pay a little more for a local, craft product. His bourbon is sold out until mid-February, with more than 200 people on the waiting list.

At McLaughlin Distiller, Grandma’s Rocking Chair Whiskey is made, literally, in a motorized rocking chair. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

“It’s almost taken on a life of its own,” says Mr. McLaughlin.

Chronic bowel disease doesn’t deter Pittsburgh runner

Lauren Moran of Bloomfield puts on a belt that keeps her stoma bag in place before going for a run. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

A love of running did not come naturally to Lauren Moran.

If anything, the Baldwin native considered moving her legs forward in anything faster than a slow crawl as punishment — and she was on both the soccer and track teams in high school.

“I hated to run,” says Ms. Moran, 34, of Bloomfield. “For me, it was always the worst part of sports.”

She held firm to that belief after graduating from Edinboro University with a communications degree in 2004, and her friends started signing up for weekend 5Ks. “I just never had an interest,” she says.

Even if she had, Ms. Moran’s body might have resisted. The summer after her freshman year in college, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a severe form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Ten years and three major surgeries later — the last of which left her with an ileostomy bag — Ms. Moran has turned her body’s betrayal into motivation. Looking to get healthy, she decided to train with a runner friend for the 2014 Great Race. Crossing the finish was such an emotional high that she ended up running a leg of the 2015 Pittsburgh Marathon Relay. She’ll be on a relay team again this year with family members May 1, helping to raise awareness of Crohn’s.

Her friend and mentor, Emily Winn, is running the full marathon to raise money for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America in her honor.

“It’s come full circle,” says Ms. Moran, associate director of alumni relations at Duquesne University. “I’m in a whole new place because of running. My body can do different things.”

Learning to cope

There’s no one test that identifies Crohn’s disease with certainty; its symptoms “fit” a number of GI disorders, including celiac disease, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.

While no one knows for sure what causes Crohn’s, heredity and a malfunctioning immune system are thought to play a role. Stress and diet can aggravate the symptoms, which include diarrhea, abdominal pain and fatigue.

It wasn’t until her weight plummeted 15 pounds that Ms. Moran’s mother insisted she see a doctor. A “million” tests later, she was finally diagnosed.

Named after the physician who first described the disease in 1932, Crohn’s can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract, That means its severity and symptoms can vary from patient to patient. A chronic disease, it can develop at any age for the estimated 700,000 Americans who have it, although it’s most common between the ages of 15 and 35.

Ms. Moran didn’t think her diagnosis was a big deal; this was the era before smart phones and computers, so information was hard to come by. “I couldn’t understand why my mom was so upset,” she recalls.

Doctors advised watching her diet to see what foods triggered symptoms and started her on medication. By the end of her junior year, she was getting Remicade infusions every six weeks, but she got worse instead of better. In 2006, while a grad student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, she had to have surgery to remove about 12 inches of her large intestine.

Recovery was tough but within a few weeks she was well enough to take a job in Florida. With maintenance drugs, she stayed healthy for the next few years. “I thought, ’This is great!’” she says.

Lauren Moran of Bloomfield goes for a run. In college, Ms. Moran was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

One step forward, two steps back 

Only it wasn’t. By 2013, the flare-ups were bad enough that simply willing herself to get through the day didn’t cut it. Realizing another surgery was likely, she decided to move back to Pittsburgh to be close to family. Three months after starting her new job at Duquesne University, she was in so much pain she couldn’t sit. Once again she went under the knife.

When she woke up from the 11-hour surgery, she had a colostomy. In addition to the physical recovery, Ms. Moran faced the emotional burden of dealing with a colostomy bag. It was a huge hit to her self esteem.

What if it leaked? Would she smell? How often would she have to empty it, and what if her stoma (the opening on her belly) made a funny noise? How would she wear a bathing suit? And what would it mean for dating?

“There’s so much stigma around it,” she says.

Yet Ms. Moran kept her concerns to herself. As Ms. Winn, 27, of Lawrenceville, notes, ”She’s not the type of person to complain.”

Which is how she came to start running six months after the surgery. Finally feeling good and able to eat different foods again, Ms. Moran realized it was time to get some exercise if she didn’t want to pack on the weight. Ms. Winn had just run the 2014 Pittsburgh Half Marathon and was bugging her to start running with her. With some trepidation, she agreed to train for the Great Race that fall.

Exercise might seem like a bad idea for someone with major stomach issues, but according to several studies, regular workouts can lead to less fatigue and alleviate some symptoms of IBD.

At first, she couldn’t even log a mile along the North Shore and would only run solo. “But Emily kept pushing me and after about a month, I was able to meet her in the Strip District for runs.”

She slowly improved, and that September, with a running belt keeping her stoma bag in place, she ran the Great Race 10K. Tears flowed when she crossed the finish.

“It was such an emotional year, and I never thought I could run,” she says. “It was a huge accomplishment.”

One more challenge

While a stoma is insensitive to pain, the race left her with some bad bruising around the colostomy site and a sore belly. Later that fall, doctors gave her devastating news. the rest of her colon would have to come out.

“I’d come so far that year, and felt healthy,” she recalls. ”I couldn’t believe I had to go through this again.”

In January 2015, surgeons converted her colostomy to an ileostomy, an operation in which doctors make an opening in the lowest part of the small intestine and bring it outside the body. They also removed her rectum.

Recovery was extremely hard, but what kept her going was wanting to run again. “Lauren is not the type to dwell on the bad stuff. She always wants to enjoy the moment,” says David Doyle, a friend since high school.

A month out, she could walk 10 steps. By March, she was jogging again, with a new goal: Running the last leg of the 2015 Pittsburgh Marathon relay. Not only did she finish, she gave it her all.

“It was awesome,” says Ms. Winn, who ran alongside her. ”I was exhausted but she was this little ball of energy.”

A stoma bag keeps Lauren Moran’s ileostomy in place during a run. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

Ms. Moran had so much fun that she decided to train for a sprint-distance triathlon at North Park three months later. She’ll run the marathon relay again this year and is also gearing up for her first Olympic-distance triathlon this summer.

Her body has been through so much, but it’s also proven to be resilient, Ms. Moran says. She has to be careful about hydration. But running has played an integral role in her recovery. She hopes by going public with her disease, she’ll create hope for others.

“Other college students will go through this,” she says. “I want them to know they can still lead a healthy life.”

She’s even come to appreciate her stoma.

“How can something that keeps me alive not be beautiful?” she asks.

After family members’ suicides, woman heals her emotional wounds through running

Amy Jacobson of Penn Hills jogs along Madison Avenue on Pittsburgh’s North Shore during a training run with Steel City Road Runners. Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette

For months after her older brother Allan’s suicide in November 2002, Amy Jacobson was numb. It was as if the Maryland college student had fallen into a big black hole of nothingness where the only emotion that churned inside her body, after the initial shock wore off, was total detachment.

Allan had been the brainy kid in the family, and his death a month shy of his 25th birthday in their parents’ basement seemingly came out of nowhere. It was only in the unforgiving glare of hindsight, she says, that her family realized he’d been desperately unhappy. Adding to her family’s distress was the fact that her father, who’d become a paramedic after retiring from the Navy, had found him but couldn’t revive him.

To allow herself to feel, Ms. Jacobson now realizes, would have been to acknowledge the anger, guilt and shame so many suicide survivors struggle with after the death of a loved one. But that’s a recognition of today’s 34-year-old self; back then, the fact her brother had taken his own life simply didn’t compute.

“You get lost,” she recalls. “Our lives completely fell apart.”

But worse days were to come.

Six months later, her baby brother Sam — the life of the party who’d always seemed so confident and sure of himself — met the same tragic end. Then in July 2004, her father also died by suicide, sending her into what would eventually be diagnosed as active post-traumatic stress syndrome. “My life continued to unravel.”

This past autumn, she started the long journey of healing her emotional wounds in a way she never could have anticipated: with a random 1.6-mile run along Rodi Road in Penn Hills that would lead to her signing up for the Pittsburgh half marathon on May 1.

Running as a lifeline

Growing up, Ms. Jacobson didn’t have an athletic bone in her body. Sam was the natural athlete, a daredevil who excelled in everything from soccer and football to wrestling and cross country. She was too shy to put herself out there.

“I never had the confidence to try out for anything,” she says.

Which explains why the immense pride the Penn Hills secretary felt after that first run on Oct. 11 proved so overwhelming as to be addictive. True, she probably walked as much as she ran. And when she did pick up the pace, “I was slower than a turtle in peanut butter.” Yet it got her so fired up about running she’s now training with Steel City Road Runners to compete in her first 13.1-mile race. She’ll also run a 5K the day before as part of the Pittsburgh Marathon’s Steel Challenge.

“Running has become my lifeline,” she says. “It has given me a reason to push on.”

Climbing out of the darkness wasn’t easy. As a survivor, Ms. Jacobson says, people expected her to be strong, especially for her mother. She was anything but.

Amy Jacobson of Penn Hills with her brothers Allan, left, and Sam.

“My life was out of control,” says Ms. Jacobson, who moved to Pittsburgh from West Virginia five years ago, not knowing a single soul, and now works for an accounting firm. “I couldn’t regain my grip, and I had no idea what I was going to do, or why I got up in the morning. I wasn’t living. I sure as hell wasn’t happy.”

Ms. Jacobson’s encounter with suicide sounds exceptional. Yet it’s more common than you might think. Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S., says David Brent, endowed chair in suicide studies and professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. More than 41,000 Americans take their lives each year. And many more attempt it — approximately 12 people harm themselves for every reported death by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The risk is higher for family members of people who commit suicide because suicide typically doesn’t happen in a vacuum, says Dr. Brent, who directs the Services for Teens at Risk suicide prevention program at Pitt and Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Most often it co-occurs with issues of drug or alcohol abuse, impulsiveness or psychiatric conditions such as depression or bipolarism, all of which often run in families. Even so, the “absolute” risk of suicide for relatives is still statistically low, he says.

“Genetics isn’t destiny,” he notes.

Learning to be sensitive to changes in mood or behavior can make one more resilient, says Dr. Brent. So can grief therapy, along with lifestyle changes that help minimize stress, such as getting some exercise.

‘Runner’s high’

Ms. Jacobson says she instantly felt better when she put foot to pavement. The first few times she ran, in fact, she cried.

“Everything that I’d kept bottled up was released,” she says. “That feeling of accomplishment, of doing something I never thought I could do, it’s indescribable.”

There might be a word for it: endorphins. Experts have long recognized that exercise eases anxiety and improves mood because it makes your body release these morphine-like chemicals, says Howard Aizenstein, a professor of psychiatry at Pitt.

The effect is two-fold. In addition to reducing one’s perception of pain, endorphins can trigger a feeling of intense well-being during and after strenuous exercise that runners sometimes refer to as a “runner’s high.”

“They’re like natural opiates in the body,” says Dr. Aizenstein, with a drug-like effect that people can get addicted to.

Studies suggest exercise can also lead to an increase in the gray matter in the hippocampus part of the brain, which correlates with improved cognitive function. Exercise also presents opportunities for socialization and can boost self-confidence when people set, and achieve, goals.

In Ms. Jacobson’s case, running also has helped her shed more than 70 pounds she’d packed on after being diagnosed at age 19 with polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal endocrine disorder that leads to weigh gain, infertility and other problems.

Like many new to the sport, she started small last fall, jogging just enough to make signing up for the Jingle Bell Run on Dec. 13 not seem totally crazy. She surprised and amazed herself with a 34:34 finish. It was so incredible, that when she won entry into the half marathon during a week of giveaways, she decided to go for it. She started 2016 with a Steel City group run on New Year’s Day.

The running community, Ms. Jacobson says, has been an integral part of her road to success. “They’re so supportive and welcoming. For the first time, I feel a sense of belonging.”

It’s inspired her to pay it forward. This spring she started volunteering for the Western Pennsylvania chapter of The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org), a nonprofit. She’s committed to raising $5,000 for the 14th annual Out of the Darkness Walk in Pittsburgh on Aug. 27. “I want to take what I’ve learned and give back to others,” she says.

Which is considerable. Through running, she says, she’s learned you don’t have to accept what’s handed to you, that even when you feel like giving up, you can go on.

“It’s a metaphor for my life,” she says. “I have my ups and downs, good runs and bad, but no matter what, I keep putting on my running shoes and getting out there.”

So whatever her time on May 1, even if she has to walk some of her way to the finish line, she’ll feel victorious. Sam, she says, would be so proud of her.

“All of my hard work and persistence will have finally paid off, and I will be able to say that anything is possible as long as you don’t give up.”

Teacher with cystic fibrosis gears up to run Pittsburgh Marathon

Hannah Camic gets a look when she’s running that flies in the face of the chronic lung disease she was born with. She doesn’t smile so much as she glows, as if lit from within.

This is no small feat when you’re double digits into an early morning workout that could include as many as 20 miles before some Pittsburghers have had their first cup of coffee. It’s an absolutely amazing one when you consider her lungs are in constant battle with the thick, syrupy mucus that’s a hallmark of the cystic fibrosis she was born with 32 years ago.

Or that every time she’s in a group she puts herself at risk for life-threatening infections through cross-contamination.

Getting enough air can prove difficult, so she coughs. So much and so hard at times while she runs that a week before the Elizabeth Borough resident was to compete in her first Pittsburgh Marathon last May she bruised her ribs.

“I was the sickest I’d been in a year,” recalls Mrs. Camic, who teaches chemistry at Bethel Park High School. Her airway was so obstructed, she felt like she was breathing through coffee straws. “In my heart, I didn’t know if I should run.”

Her head was a different matter. She’d gotten so many encouraging messages while training with Pittsburgh’s Run to Cure CF team — during which she raised more than $19,000 for research — that to not lace up for the 26.2-mile race was, well, unimaginable. So despite her family’s reservations, and with coach Audrey Burgoon lining up support along the course, she went for it, knowing she’d labor for every breath as though the wind had been knocked out of her by a punch to the chest.

She was “beyond disappointed” with her time, but she finished, spurred on at the end by her younger brother, Levi, who ran alongside her the last four miles.

“Given how sick I was, it was somewhat miraculous, and I don’t say that about anything I do,” she says. “However, I did not feel that sense of accomplishment, joy and pride that I had experienced in other races and that I used as mental motivation throughout my training. But as you know, you just run the best you can with what you’re given, and I did do that.”

Or, you try again, as she did three weeks later at the Buffalo Marathon — and took 12 minutes off her time.  In all, she’s completed 52 races since her first 5K in 2013, all with her doctors’ blessing.  She’ll run her second Pittsburgh Marathon on May 1 with a time goal of 4:30 and fundraising goal of a little more than $12,600, bringing her three-year total to $50,000.

For someone with CF to cross the finish line, she says, is therapeutic in more ways than one. First, running is a good form of therapy in that it helps her lungs to clear out the gunk and stay strong. Perhaps more important, it allows her to deal emotionally with her disease.

“It’s a mental thing,” says Mrs. Camic, who logs upward of 30 miles a week. “When I’m out there running, I’m defeating cystic fibrosis,” a genetic condition that worsens with age. Life expectancy is about 38 years.

Mrs. Camic isn’t the first to heal the body and soul through running; there’s something about crushing miles that can make someone who feels bad, mad or sad suddenly feel better. But her resolve — many would call it grit —  is something for the record books.

It’s tough enough for any working mother to find the time for marathon training. Mrs. Camic has to work around a schedule that also includes four hours a day of treatment.

Hannah Camic reads a book while taking treatment for her cystic fibrosis in her home in Elizabeth. Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette

Every day at 4 a.m., she straps on a life jacket-like compression vest that vibrates, helping break up the mucus. It runs for 1½ hours. While it’s shaking, she uses a nebulizer to inhale a fine mist of four mucous-thinning medicines into her lungs. Afterward, the equipment has to be cleaned and disinfected.

She also takes “lots and lots of pills,” and when she’s sick, the list grows.

She repeats the process following dinner. If  her 5-year-old daughter, Noelle, is awake, they lie together or play games. If not, she watches TV, reads or grades papers. Sometimes she dozes during treatment, and her husband, Ed, takes over.

Depending on the day, her lung function can go up or down anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent after treatment. Regardless, she never misses a run and also cross-trains with weights and yoga. Even on days when she has a line threaded into a vein in her chest to administer antibiotics, she puts shoe to pavement — She figures she’s logged at least 100 miles with the tip of a catheter taped to her arm. A few weeks after last year’s Buffalo race, for instance, she had to get a line to treat an infection.

“Why not double up and have running be my medicine, too, and get that double boost?” she asks.

As for any runner, sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes two miles feels like 20. What propels her forward, she says, is Noelle. “She’s my motivation to keep going.”

Success, she adds, is even more appealing when the odds are against her. ”The greater the challenge, the greater the feeling of victory.“

Ms. Burgoon, her coach, chalks her success up to a runner’s ability to overcome adversity. “Some people who aren’t athletes look for excuses. She looks for a reason, and performs. Her positive approach to life in ingrained in her.”

Hannah Camic runs with her training group in Pittsburgh. Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette

Exercise, says Dr. Michael Myerburg of UPMC, who specializes in pulmonary disease, is the perfect treatment for people with CF because it can slow the rate of decline in lung function. In fact it’s so important, that it’s “one of the things we review when we see CF patients at clinic,” he says.

“Breathing heavy is a really good stimulus to clear mucus and keep the lungs clear,” he says. “So we really push exercise with everybody on every visit.”

Although she played soccer in high school and cheered at Bucknell University, Mrs. Camic never thought much about running until three years ago. Like many 20-somethings, she had a lot of weddings on her calendar and wanted a way to get in shape. A friend at school suggested the treadmill; one mile later, she decided to train for a 5K. “I got addicted,” she says. And she’s competitive for her age group, logging a respectable 7:27.33 this past July at the GNC Live Well Liberty Mile.

The stats on CF, Mrs. Camic admits, can be scary. That’s why fundraising for research is so important to her and also why she went public with her story last year; until then, no one but close friends and family knew she was ill.

“I have never wanted special treatment or to be viewed as a sick person.“

Her wish in joining the CF team and  sharing her experiences is that she’ll provide hope and encouragement to those affected by the disease. “I want to show them that having a family, a job and a very happy, fulfilling life is possible.”

While researchers have made tremendous progress in the treatment of some CF patients, they’ve not yet been successful with Mrs. Camic’s particular mutation. She could be looking at a lung transplant.

But when she’s running, some of those fears and sadness about the future fade away.

”Focusing on negatives does zero good for me,“ she says, ”so I try to focus only on the positives and those things that I can control. After all, cystic fibrosis or not, no one is guaranteed tomorrow.“

Saying good-bye to Pittsburgh’s beloved thumbprint cookie

Pittsburghers are passionate about their cookies. So when Macy’s announced last month that the Arcade Bakery would be closing along with its Tic Toc Room on July 31, a kind of panic ensued. 

What’s a holiday, or for that matter, any day of the month or week, without the bakery’s signature thumbprint cookies?

Piled with a 2-inch-high swirl of icing, the super-sweet butter cookies have been a guilty pleasure for Downtown office workers and others for decades. The thought of life without them was, for some, unimaginable.

“We really need u to save arcade bakery,” a fan tweeted to Mayor Peduto and Macy’s.

“Just realized that Macy’s downtown closing means Arcade Bakery is closing too and I AM DEVASTATED BY THIS,” wailed another.

Even professional cooks were anxious.

“Okay, who can get me a copy of the Macy’s thumbprint cookie? I’ll make you some if you get me the real recipe,” Big Burrito executive chef Bill Fuller tweeted on July 21. He added, ”@gtmckay this means you!“

Game on!

Here in the PG food section, we routinely play sleuth for readers who want, but can’t find, favorite recipes; for a cookie as famous and with as much pedigree as the Arcade Thumbprint, tracking down the list of ingredients ought to be a snap. I was wrong.

It was not in the PG archives. While plenty of readers had written to Kitchen Mailbox guru Arlene Burnett over the years in search of THE RECIPE, she’d never secured it. But that’s why there’s Google, right?

Sure enough, a quick search turned up a recipe and yummy-looking picture from some unnamed cookbook. ”Adapted from Macy’s Arcade Bakery and Cafe, Pittsburg“ read the head notes. The misspelling of my city should have been the first clue that Mr. Fuller would not be satisfied.

”Nope,“ he replied. ”I found that, too. It is ‘adapted from,’ has no mention of fillings, and completely ignores the icing factor.“

But surely a recipe had been preserved for posterity at the Macy’s headquarters in New York? The PR team was happy to look for it, and sent the request first to its bakery people and, when that search came up empty, to their archivists. Eight days later, they, too, delivered bad news. No dice on the thumbprint recipe.

Undeterred, I turned next to the folks at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District, which maintains more than 250 years of the region’s history in its exhibits and archives. Perhaps they could find it in an old Kaufmann’s — the department store before it was Macy’s — or regional cookbook.

Struck out there, too.

“Our archivists searched around our Kaufmann’s files and found a few cookbooks and other records, but none contained the recipe for the thumbprint cookies,” Ned Shano, the history center’s director of communications, wrote in an email. “Evidently, they kept the recipe pretty quiet!”

After learning of my dilemma, a colleague mentioned that she lived around the corner from a former Arcade bakery worker in Morningside — and he would be more than happy to talk to me.

Now 83 and retired for 20 years, Charles Rini spent some two decades working the overnight shift at the bakery, first as a mixer then as a breadmaker in charge of sweet rolls, Danish and treats made with puff pastry.

“I never saw daylight,” he recalled. “We had to have everything ready to go by 6 a.m.”

Of course, he knew all about the thumbprints, and even though he’d never actually been responsible for  baking them — the “ladies” were in charge of cookies — he was pretty sure he’d written down the recipe in one of his notebooks. He just needed some time to look. I crossed my fingers.

Less than 10 minutes later, Mr. Rini called to say he’d found the recipe, and I scribbled it down in my notebook.

But just to be sure, I decided to try to nab one of the cookies on the Arcade’s last day of existence to taste-test his recipe.

At 8:30 last Friday morning, I joined the line already snaking out the door at the bakery, only to discover the last of the thumbprints — 15 trays of 80 — had sold out shortly after the bakery opened at 7 a.m. The recipe, along with the cookies, seemed lost to history.

Or maybe not. According to one of the bakery ladies, Kevin Ulrich, chief thumbprint baker for the past 34 years, was in the kitchen. I headed back to find him pulling yet one more tray of thumbprints from the oven.

Back when he started work in the mid-1980s, thumbprints only came in chocolate and vanilla instead of the more than 40 varieties with cheesecake and s’mores bottoms that Pittsburghers learned to love over the years. He says, “It just went crazy,” with the bakery selling at least 700 of the cookies each day, and sometimes as many as 1,400.  “They were a phenomenon.”

(For the record, the Arcade’s thumbprints didn’t actually have the hallmark dent in the middle of the cookie. The icing was piled high on a flat surface.)

When I asked if he’d be willing to share the recipe, Mr. Ulrich kindly declined. “There is no recipe,” he said. “It’s all in my head.”

But I have one from Mr. Rini, I insisted, so surely you must have one, too. (When he heard it contained brown sugar, he laughed and shook his head, No.)

Even if he wrote the ingredients down and I carefully followed the recipe, he said, they wouldn’t taste the same.

“What your grandmother made, your mom can’t. And what your mom makes, you can’t,“ Mr. Ulrich told me.

”It’s true,“ said Cheryl Livolsi, the worker who’d led me back to the kitchen. ”Someone else made them when he was on vacation, and I spit it out after one bite!“

“It’s basically impossible,” Mr. Ulrich agreed. “A true baker doesn’t have a recipe.“

He was willing, however, to share with me one last cookie. It was delicious.

”It really makes me feel good when I hear that people love my cookies,“ he told me as I headed for the door.

So sorry, Mr. Fuller. Looks like we’re not going to be able to offer an exact recipe for the Arcade Bakery’s famous thumbprint cookies. But maybe you and our readers can start your own tradition with thumbprint cookie recipes.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-2263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Thumbprint Cookies

This recipe from an unnamed cookbook I found on the Web is “adapted” from Macy’s Arcade Bakery and Cafe. 

1⅓ cups granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups solid vegetable shortening, at room temperature

1½ cups butter, at room temperature

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon pure rum extract

8¼ cups cake flour

Decorating sugar in various colors, rainbow sprinkles, and/or finely chopped nuts

Position rack in center and in upper third of oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Have ready 2 ungreased baking sheets.

In stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, combine granulated sugar, salt, shortening and butter and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add egg and vanilla and rum extracts, and beat until incorporated. On low speed, add flour and mix just until dough comes together. (If it doesn’t look like all of the flour will fit into the bowl of the mixer, scoop the butter-shortening mixture out into a large bowl and, using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the flour just until combined.

Put decorating sugars, sprinkles and/or nuts in separate bowls. To shape each cookie, scoop up a heaping tablespoon of dough, or use a 1-ounce scoop, and roll between your palms into a ball. As balls are shaped, roll them in the decorating sugar, sprinkles or nuts, coating them evenly on all sides, and place them on baking sheet spacing them 2 inches apart. Using your thumb, make a shallow indentation in the center of each cookie.

Bake cookies, switching the pans between the racks and rotating them 180 degrees about halfway through the baking time, until a light golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven, transfer cookies to rack, and let cool completely. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.

Makes 5 dozen cookies.

Thumbprint Cookies

Charles Rini, 83,  who was a baker at Arcade Bakery for more than 20 years before retiring in 1994, wrote this cookie recipe down in a notebook years ago, even though bread and danish were his specialty. “The ladies made the cookies,” he says.

PG tested

1/2 cup shortening (not margarine)

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 egg, divided

1 cup finely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix all of the ingredients together except the egg white and the walnuts. Cream mixture for 5 minutes.

Beat egg white in bowl and set aside with nuts.

Roll dough into 1-inch balls. Roll dough balls in nuts then press in the middle with your thumb.

Place flattened balls on cookie sheet and bake until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Remove from oven, transfer cookies to rack and let cool.

When cool, top with icing.

Makes 2 dozen.

— Charles Rini, Morningside

Tuna noodle casserole: Yuck!

Tuna noodle casserole is a classic Lenten dish./Gretchen McKay

Everybody remembers a food from childhood that made them shudder, if not gag outright when Mom brought it to the table.

For me, it’s tuna casserole.

My three older brothers all loved the dish, but me — I found the creamy, fishy-smelling mixture of egg noodles tossed with condensed soup, frozen peas and canned tuna fish a complete aberration. A witches’ brew, if there ever were one.

The mere sight of my mother’s terra cotta casserole dish filled me with dread, because she only made two things in the giant pot: tuna casserole and beef stew, which contained something hated almost as much as those fishy noodles — cooked carrots. But I digress.

While I’ll gladly eat canned tuna in cold salads, I draw the line at cooked “chicken of the sea” dishes. There’s something about warm tuna fish that just feels wrong on the tongue. Plus it stinks. What’s appetizing about seafood is the fresh, clean smell of the sea. But canned tuna? It reminds me of cat food.

You can throw “noodle” in the title like many do to try to make the dish sound more appealing, but there’s no fooling us tuna-casserole haters. Even when the curly, cooked pasta gets nice and crispy on top, a bite is still going to include fishy-tasting fish. And that’s just … wrong.

I take great comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my aversion.

Last week, when a sample from a local catering kitchen ended up in the food room with a heart-shaped chocolate cake, I sent a newsroom-wide email to see who wanted some. Guess which freebie disappeared first.

Only two co-workers took the tuna bait. One because she hadn’t remembered to pack lunch and thought it would be a “nostalgic trip back to elementary school,” and the other because of tradition.

“Obviously you didn’t grow up in a conservative Catholic family,” said PG librarian Steve Karlinchak, who ate tons of the stuff while in college at Duquesne University and was quite disappointed to have shown up at my desk a few minutes too late. (He’s right; I’m Lutheran.)

When pressed, Steve admitted his mother never made or ate it. “I guess it’s one of those things you have to learn to eat,” he said.

My point exactly. Any dish you have to “learn” to stomach probably isn’t worth putting in your belly.

I get why so many mothers, including my own, worshipped at the altar of canned tuna in the 1960s and ’70s. Fresh fish wasn’t so widely available when I was growing up, and it certainly wasn’t economical for large families. I have six brothers and sisters, and feeding all those hungry kids three times a day required budgeting.

“It was an economical thing to make, and went a long way,” my mom tells me, when I call to ask her why she served it so often.

Not to mention easy for a working mother of seven whose husband traveled for business. “Back then I cooked as easy as possible,” she says. “I needed dishes I could make ahead.”

Her’s was a pretty simple preparation — a couple cans of tuna mixed with Campbell’s cream of chicken soup, wide egg noodles and peas. Some milk to make it extra creamy but no canned chicken broth, because that didn’t exist at our local A&P.

With Lent now underway, everyone’s talking fish. So I decided that perhaps I should give tuna noodle casserole — on the menu at several church fish fries — another chance. Now that I’m a grownup, maybe, just maybe, I might find I actually like the dish. Especially if I found a really great recipe. I mean, I no longer hate cooked carrots.

“Not Your Mom’s Tuna Casserole” from the new “Mr. and Mrs. Sunday’s Dinner” cookbook by Lorraine Wallace seemed just the ticket. Picture perfect, the panko-cheddar crust sounded like a delicious update, as did the veggies cooked in a homemade cream sauce. My husband, who loves the dish, couldn’t wait for me to become a convert.

Only I didn’t. While my parents and son’s girlfriend thought the casserole was wonderful, it failed to work its magic on me. One whiff, and I was transported back to childhood. I didn’t need more than a spoonful to confirm the obvious.

In the past 28 years of mothering, I’ve always told my kids there was one dish I’d never, ever make, no matter how poor or pressed for time or hungry we might be: tuna casserole. Last week’s experiment confirmed that.

But I might try the recipe with shredded rotisserie chicken.

Not Your Mom’s Tuna Casserole

An updated version of the American classic, Tuna Noodle Casserole./Gretchen McKay

PG tested

Nonstick cooking spray

12-ounce bag egg noodles

16-ounce can oil-packed tuna (I used tuna packed in water)

10-ounce package frozen peas, thawed and drained

3 cups shredded cheddar cheese, divided

1 tablespoon butter

1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)

1 celery stalk, finely diced (about 1/2 cup)

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

8 ounces baby bella mushrooms, quartered

1½ tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1½ cups chicken broth, homemade or canned

2 cups whole milk

1½ cups panko bread crumbs

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position oven rack in the middle position.

Coat a 13-by-9-inch casserole dish with cooking spray. (I used 2 smaller casserole dishes.)

Cook the noodles in salted water until al dente according to package directions. Drain and rinse the noodles in cold water to stop them from cooking. Once cooled, pour the noodles into a large bowl and add tuna, peas and 2 cups of the cheese. Toss to combine.

In large skillet over medium-high heat, melt butter. Add onion and celery and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, add thyme and continue to cook until onion and celery are translucent, about 2 more minutes. Add mushrooms, reduce heat to medium and cook vegetables until tender and the mushrooms’ juices have evaporated, about 5 minutes longer. Add Worcestershire sauce and stir it in, then sprinkle the flour over the entire skillet. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until flour is incorporated into vegetables, with no lumps. Add broth and stir to scrape up any brown bits. Slowly pour in the milk, stirring constantly to combine. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the mixture has thickened and is reduced by 1/2 cup, about 8 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Pour the vegetable sauce over the tuna-noodle mixture in the bowl and mix to combine. Immediately pour into the prepared casserole dish(es).

In bowl, toss panko with remaining cheese. Stir in olive oil. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the casserole. Bake, uncovered, until the casserole is bubbly and top is golden, 35 to 40 minutes. Serve piping hot.

Serves 8.

— “Mr. and Mrs. Sunday’s Dinner: More than 100 Delicious, Homemade Recipes to Bring Your Family Together” by Lorraine Wallace (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Jan. 2015, $24.99)

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.”