Gretchen McKay

Illustrated Men: Chefs and their Tattoos

Painful and permanent, tattoos used to be the mark of bikers, sailors and hard-core rock ‘n’ rollers. Today, just try finding someone under the age of 35 who doesn’t have at least a little ink under their skin.

And if you’re a hot young chef? No doubt your arms, legs, chest and — in the case of one local culinary artist — even your neck are a wild and colorful road map of where you’ve been and still hope to go, along with designs and ideas you find interesting.

“Chefs definitely get more tattoos than the average person,” says Jason Lambert of Oakland’s Black Cat Tattoos, the artist behind much of Pittsburgh’s kitchen ink, “and they also tend to get more and bigger tattoos.”

What’s the deal with chefs and tattoos?

Are chefs, whose livelihoods depend on creativity, simply more expressive than regular folks? Or are they simply more macho (and therefore impervious to the pain associated with tattoos) because the fast-paced job is difficult, uncomfortable and also dangerous with all those knives, hot pans and open fires?

Here, we let five of Pittsburgh’s most decorated chefs tell the stories behind their tattoos:

 

Keith Fuller, 31

Chef/owner, Root 174 (opening in July), Regent Square

Chris Kasprak/Post-Gazette

 

I was in the punk rock scene and very rebellious as a kid, so since I was 14, I wanted to be completely covered head to toe. I got my first the day I turned 18, a horrible tribal tattoo on my right arm. I just wanted one so bad and to see what it felt like. I threw up.

After that, I started a religious sleeve on my left arm because I love that kind of art. It’s so beautiful. Then I crossed the collar line, which back then was a big thing.

In 1999, I got my throat and neck tattooed with a pair of birds — a red robin on the right and a blue jay on the left, because I always liked nautical birds and old-school sailor stuff. There were bets on the table I’d only get the outline done before I wimped out, but I did it in one eight-hour sitting. I ended up making $150. Six months later, I got a sacred heart on my throat. Then I started on my hands.

I was pumped, but I don’t think my boss in Philadelphia at the time was. He was like, “You’re screwing yourself here. What do you want to be?” Two years ago I had my neck redone with the word “loyalty” under my chin. It means I will never break my word to relatives or the people I work for or who work for me.

I’m about 70 percent covered. My mother cried every day at the beginning, and still does. But I’m like, does it really matter now, Mom? The only parts I wouldn’t do are the places you expect, and my face or hairline.

None of them felt great — the loyalty tattoo felt like someone was sawing my tongue off — but I enjoy the process. It teaches you to learn to convert pain into something else.

Tattoos have been glamorized by TV, and ours is a profession where it’s easy to have them. We work hard and play hard and are a little bit macho. And we’re all artists, so expressing yourself on skin is the same as expressing yourself on a plate.

Back when I first started, people held their children away from me and I heard so many more comments. They’re more accepted now, though I still get some stares in the suburbs. I’m like, if you look at me and think because of the tattoos I’m a criminal or a thug, I don’t want to know you. It’s sort of a little test.

I’m a big nerd who plays the Magic card game and Dungeons & Dragons, so in an ode to my nerddom, I have a zombie Pikachu and Ash Ketchum on my chest. I also have a lot of Star Wars tattoos — a rebel assault symbol, Darth Vader eating a cheeseburger, and on the back of my left leg, Steve Buscemi as Darth Vader, which was the No. 1 viral photograph of 2010 on Geekologie’s website. I also love video games, so I have “game nerd” across my hands. Chuck Norris is above my left ankle. Everyone loves Chuck Norris.

Because I’m a cook and have a green thumb, I got “cook grow” on my fingertips. On my ankle is Colonel Sanders with devil horns and chicken bones, because people freak out when they find a claw in their bucket. Chicken have feet, you know, but fast food has gotten people away from knowing their food source.

When I’m doing everyday things, I actually forget that I’m tattooed. It’s like when you wear glasses and are like, “Where are they?” And there they are, right on your face.

 

Kevin Sousa, 36

Chef/owner, Salt of the Earth, Garfield

Chris Kasprak/Post-Gazette

My brother Tom paid for my first tattoo when I was 16 and growing up in McKees Rocks. He had a Speed Racer, so I got a Racer X. It wasn’t until I was about 19 and had more of a disposable income that I really got into it. Now, I have so many I can’t count them individually. The only prime real estate left is my right thigh.

My mom expressed concern when I started getting them on my lower arm. “You’ll never find a job, you’ll never be successful,” she told me. But I didn’t have any desire to get an office job. I always thought I would be an artist. In fact, when I was 25 I had to decide whether I wanted to spend $15,000 on a tattoo apprenticeship or make a down payment on culinary school. Now I realize that I’m not that great of an artist.

When I was coming up — before athletes made it part of the pop culture — tattoos were more unusual. I had to cover them up when I was at Pennsylvania Culinary, and in 1998, when I was doing an externship at Boulders Resort in Carefree, Ariz., I had to roll my jacket sleeves down and wear Nike tennis wristbands.

But we’re past the “bikers and convicts” mentality. Tattoos aren’t expected, but they’re also no longer frowned upon. When I went on my first interview, in short sleeves, with chef Bill Fuller [of Big Burrito Restaurant Group], he was like, “You’re my guy for Kaya,” almost because of what I looked like.

There’s no real rhyme or reason why tattoos are more prevalent in the service industry. It’s just a thing. When you look at some of the best chefs on the planet, though, that’s the draw. Some young chefs actually say, “I need to get more tattoos.”

Culinary schools teach old-school professionalism, but all that goes out the window when you see an Iron Chef with full sleeves.

Also, the technology and ink is better today, along with the teaching of new artists. Back in the day, there weren’t that many with good reputations in the city. Now everyone is clean and it’s a “real” profession. Tattoo shops aren’t seedy joints where you’re afraid you’ll get a disease.

Our clientele at Salt is pretty liberal, so they don’t mind that everyone here is pretty tattooed. Once you taste our work, you realize it’s not what you look like that’s important. Personally, I’d rather hire somebody with a lot of tattoos than stinky dreadlocks or bad hygiene or who smells like patchouli.

I just know it’s something I’ve always liked. I remember seeing bikers as a kid and being enamored with the rock ‘n’ roll look of it.

I have well over 100 hours in tattoos — my left ankle to my hip alone took about 40 hours. Probably more have stories behind them than don’t, especially the bigger ones. My entire back, for example, is covered in a koi fish that represents the struggle.

A few are just about the art. My right arm is almost totally aesthetic, a blend of traditional Japanese and American imagery that has no real meaning other than it was done by a really good friend.

My food-related tattoos? The symbol for salt on my left hand and a chili pepper on my right. The kewpie doll on my left arm came from a jar of Japanese mayonnaise. I also have a large, old-fashioned knife with “Cooking ain’t easy” on my forearm and a test tube to symbolize an Alchemy dinner.

On my chest is a very large tattoo of a traditional American skull with wings, roses and spider webs with the words “blue collar,” because that is the ethic of so many cooks.

I have place and time tattoos that I wouldn’t get now, but I don’t regret them because for me, it’s more about the real estate than the image. It’s a cool timeline.

 

Dustin Gardner, 27

Executive sous-chef, Casbah, Shadyside

Chris Kasprak/Post-Gazette


 

I grew up in a super-Christian, very conservative household, so when I got my first tattoo at 18, just after I graduated from high school, my mom was not so happy. It was a koi fish on my right leg that’s covered up now because it was poorly done; I just randomly picked a local joint, went in and did it. There was no real reason other than I just wanted one and liked the design and what it stood for. Two months later I was back. Then, I just got addicted to it. Now, if I get a new tattoo, my mom doesn’t even notice anymore.

Probably 20 percent of my body is covered — shoulders, elbows, feet, arms. But I can still cover my tattoos up if I have to. There’s nothing violent; they’re all kind of happy. Every chef is obsessed with pigs, so the pig on my left arm, labeled with all the primal cuts, is my favorite. I also have pots, forks and a chef’s knife.

I think the reason so many more people in the culinary field have tattoos has to do with really famous chefs like Nate Appleman, who cooked at A16 in San Francisco. I’m the most tattooed chef at Big Burrito, so I sometimes get random looks when I walk through the dining room. But the restaurant is OK with it, and, honestly, I wouldn’t want to work where that would be an issue. In this industry you generally can get away with it, because tattoos don’t translate to the plate. Still, I’m waiting to do my hands until I have a real name in the industry.

Not everyone likes them. Just the other day, I was walking down the street with my girlfriend, who works at Soba and also has tattoos, and this little kid saw me and said, “Mom, I want a tattoo.” And she was like, “No, you don’t!”

The first tattoo cost $40. Now a session with Ben at Pale Horse in the South Side costs about $350. I’ve probably spent $2,000 in my left arm, and 25 hours, eight hours at a time. I’m not going to lie — the pain is always terrible. You just bite a pillow.

I usually go into a shop with an idea of what I want but let the artist come up with the design because tattoo art is like cooking: You want to let the chef create what he likes.

There’s this weird badge of honor in having a tattoo. The difference between people with them and those who don’t is that tattooed people don’t ask you where your tattoos are.

 

Zach Winghart, 29

Chef/owner, Winghart’s Burger & Whiskey Bar, Market Square

Chris Kasprak/Post-Gazette

My mom actually took me to get my first tattoo, a stupid little Chinese symbol on the back of my neck, the week I turned 18. It was the word “harmony” in Chinese. I couldn’t wait to get it.

People told me, “Don’t get a tattoo! It’ll be gross and nasty when you get old!” My answer was: You’re gonna be, too, so what does it matter? It’s the same wrinkling.

A lot of my tattoos refer to my heritage and blond hair and blue eyes. I have the family crest from Wurttemberg, Germany, under my left arm and a dog from the Irish Book of Kells on my right wrist. Thor’s hammer is on my right shoulder. Some see that one and think it’s a white power tattoo and that I’m racist, but I promise you I’m not. But I am Swedish.

My sister Rachael Buczinski did the two-dimensional Blackbeard’s pirate flag on my left arm. She wanted to be a tattoo artist, and I let her practice on me. I also have a totem of a killer orca from the Pacific Northwest on my left shoulder and an Egyptian ankh, with the eye of Ra, on my chest.

Tattoos are expensive, so for a beautiful sleeve, you have to have money. That’s why it’s almost a status symbol in the counterculture. Either you’re an artist or you’re doing something right.

One reason I think tattoos are more acceptable in the restaurant business is that when you first get started in the back of the house, you’re not dealing directly with the public. Then, when you’re a chef, it doesn’t matter if you have a lot of tattoos because people are there for the food. You’ve also got to understand the restaurant culture. It’s like a giant party. And there’s not too much judgment from your peers.

Still, when I first started getting tattoos, I thought I should live my life better than someone without any if I wanted to be taken seriously.

I don’t know what it is about our generation and tattoos. Maybe it’s just that social walls are being broken down and it’s no longer taboo. The more you see something, the less impact it has. I actually trust people with tattoos more because they’re open with themselves and can take that jump with something so permanent. You have to be comfortable in your own skin to get a tattoo.

 

Steve Lanzilotti, 27

Executive chef, Brik Room on Carson, South Side

Chris Kasprak/Post-Gazette

I didn’t get my first tattoo until I was 20 and working at Outback Steakhouse busing tables. I grew up in Upper St. Clair, so obviously there were none in my high school. I guess that makes me the oddball of the area.

I started with a star on my left elbow. There was no real meaning behind it; I just really wanted one. I wasn’t sure what exactly, because it was on a whim and knew it should be something artistic. Within a year there was another star on my right elbow, and after that, an Italian flag on my left arm to symbolize my Italian heritage.

I’ve been at it seriously for about four years now. My right arm, which took about a year-and-a-half, has progressed almost to a full sleeve with mostly Asian-style tattoos. I started with a koi fish on the upper part, then added a dragon on my forearm, a Japanese warrior mask on the back and a lotus flower on the inside of my upper arm. It’s one flowing piece that works together.

I’ve always been interested in art in general. But I really like the Asian style because of the story lines. The story behind the koi fish, for example, is that if it’s strong enough to swim up the river, it turns into a dragon. If you have courage, you can overcome life’s difficulties.

Yes, it hurts, but if you want art on your body, you have to go through pain. You learn to grit your teeth. It’s more the time it takes than anything. My only day off is Sunday, when not too many shops are open.

My mom doesn’t mind all the ink. But my dad, whenever I say I’m thinking of getting another one, just rolls his eyes and says “Aren’t we done yet?” I think it’s just a generation gap. He’s worried that while I like them all now, I might not when I’m 50 or 60.

Honestly, I don’t think I’m going to mind. When I’m 60, I’ll have had my career and won’t be trying to impress anyone on job interviews. I’m not going to have to worry about presenting an image.

I’ve worked under chefs who don’t like tattoos and made me wear my uniform with my sleeves rolled down so no one would see them. This place is a little more casual. Even older clients understand we’re on the South Side. We’re the young school. We’re more expressive.

Tattoos today are so popular that probably more people my age have at least one instead of none. It’s about being an individual — all tattoos are different.

A tattoo no longer means you’re a bad boy. It’s a sign of creativity and self-expression, whether there’s an emotional meaning attached or it’s just art.

 

Taking the low road

Joshua Boggs and his equally fleet-footed twin, Justin, have run races on every imaginable terrain since embracing the sport in high school. But their mad dashes to the finish — Joshua insists because he’s a few minutes younger he’s also the faster brother — have always had one thing in common: the course’s beginning, middle and end were above-ground.

Not this time.

Runners sprint to the finish line of the Runnin' Outta Our Mine race. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Oh, the Runnin’ Outta Our Mine 5K on Feb. 19 in Wampum, Lawrence County, finished in the sunshine. But for the rest of the 3.1-mile run, the 28-year-old Boggs brothers and 500-plus other runners found themselves where no one in running shoes and a race bib had ever gone before (at least in Pennsylvania) — underground.

Staged in a retired limestone mine along Old Route 18, it was the state’s first underground race, and only the second in the U.S. Setting the standard is the annual Children’s TLC Groundhog 5/10K Run in Kansas City, Mo., which this year drew more than 3,500 runners from across the nation. It’s held in SubTropolis, a former limestone mine that in the 1970s and ’80s was repurposed into the world’s largest underground business complex.

The natural environment of a mine provides controlled year-round temperature and humidity (it hovers around 55 degrees), so it’s not unusual for these vast subterranean spaces, after they’ve been abandoned, to be reused for the preservation of paper and film or vehicle storage. Bill Gates, for instance, keeps his vast Corbis photographic collection 300 feet underground at Iron Mountain Storage, a former limestone-mine-turned-storage-vault near Butler.

Wampum’s Gateway Commerce Center — abandoned in 1946 — stores microfilm, computer tapes, film (including the “Star Wars” triology) and other records in secure vaults, along with hundreds of vehicles.

Mines also have been used for agriculture — Creekside Mushrooms grows its famous Moonlight brand white button mushrooms 300 feet underground, in a former limestone mine in Worthington, Armstrong County — as well as recreational activities. Like hot-rodding in darkness and mud? Mines & Meadows ATV Riding Resort offers four-wheeled spelunking through an abandoned limestone mine less than a mile from Gateway Commerce.

Occasionally Hollywood comes calling, such as in 1985, when a former mine shaft in Gateway served as a location for George Romero’s horror classic, “Day of the Dead.”

A race, though, is a whole different can of worms, mostly because the tiny computer chips that runners strap onto their shoe or ankle to register their time won’t work underground. Plus, where do you put all those people and how do you keep them from getting lost in the 2.5 million-square-foot mine?

Veteran runner/race organizer Jim Pitts of Sharpsville, Mercer County, though, is a pretty creative guy.

“We used a clock start, and had it end outside, so the chips didn’t matter until you finished,” he explains. As for observers, each had to sign into the cave and stand behind a yellow barrier tape.

The idea for the underground race took off last October, after Mr. Pitts, 40, ran into old high school buddy Michael Wish, who owns Gateway’s archival and vital records entity Underground Archives, at the Monster Stomp 5K in New Castle. The men had bumped into each other at races over the years, but this time they actually got to talking. Mr. Wish had been mulling the idea of a race inside the mine to raise money for charity; after chatting with Mr. Pitts, warehouse manager for Kraynak’s in Hermitage, he realized he just might be able to pull it off.

More than 500 runners took part in the Runnin' Outta Our Mine race at the Gateway Commerce Center in Wampum, Lawrence County. The five-kilometer event was held entirely underground. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Soon they had a meeting with Mr. Pitts’ friend Herb Cratty, owner of Miles of Smiles Timing Services in Ellwood City, which provides electronic timing devices to hundreds of races a year. Before long, Gateway’s customer service rep Allison Frickanish helped draft a business plan, organizers had lined up more than 20 sponsors and Nikita Falen, a senior at Lincoln High School in Ellwood City, was tapped to sing the national anthem.

Less than a month after opening up to entries in mid-December on smileymiles.com, with virtually no advertising, the race was sold out.

“We had to turn hundreds of people away,” said Mr. Pitts, with calls coming from as far away as New York and North Carolina.

Well, duh: “It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Ellwood City’s John Antinossi, 66, who’s been running for 26 years.

Aside from timing, the biggest challenge was parking, requiring runners to be shuttled to the site on school buses. It also wasn’t the most lung-friendly race, thanks to the faintest hint of fumes from the hundreds of campers, RVs, boats and cars parked in “rooms” along the course, and a giant dust cloud kicked up by the Bobcat leading the way. Some also worried the cave’s uneven surface would make for a slower event (think “trail” instead of “track”). Pictures of the mine on Gateway’s website show a brightly lit, polished concrete roadway and white concrete block walls. Yet the course — carefully mapped out on paper before being marked with yellow police tape — pretty quickly turned into a dimly lit, and occasionally cramped, twisting maze of soft dirt and gravel.

Aubrey Pursel of Hermitage had planned on running the 3.1 miles barefoot. But the gravel was “so bad,” he said, giving his soles a rueful glance, he only made it about 80 percent of the way without shoes. Not fast enough to win one of the trophies made from a hunk of limestone mounted on wood, the 37-year-old consoled himself with the obligatory slice of post-run pizza and Eat’n Park Smiley cookie.

John Titus, 44, interim minister of First United Church of Christ in Harrison City, fared better, placing seventh in his age group with a time of 21:22:70. “The footing was a little challenging but it was relatively fast,” he said. (In case you were wondering, Joshua Boggs of Columbiana, Ohio, came in second overall with a time of 16:56:80, or .9 seconds ahead of his brother.) Winner Joshua Hayden of Pittsburgh, 29, clocked in at 16:26:10.

Also on the plus side: none of the snow, whipping winds or frigid temperatures associated with a February run in Pittsburgh. Many runners, in fact, stripped down to T-shirt and shorts. And did we mention no hills?

“I’m really excited!” said Rachel Louik, 25, of Shadyside, who ran with boyfriend Jason Smith, 28, a cross-country coach at Avonworth High School. “It’s so nice to be underground, on a flat surface.”

The race proved so successful, with about 530 finishers raising more than $9,000 for Family House, Venture Outdoors and New Beaver Borough Food Bank, that organizers already have penciled in a date for next year. Limited to 600 runners, it will be held on Feb. 18, with registration (hint: you better be quick) opening sometime in November. Check smileymiles.com for details.

“Everyone did a good job, and people really had fun,” said Mr. Wish.

A cut below: In the basement of Downtown’s Koppers Building, a convivial barber keeps customers coming back

Ron DeMutis cuts hair in the basement of the Koppers Building, Downtown Pittsburgh/Post-Gazette

Retired public relations executive Larry Werner has been sporting the same no-nonsense businessman’s haircut since at least the Kennedy administration, if not longer: short around the sides and neck, smoothly tapered on top.

It’s so basic a cut that even a beginning cosmetology student could do it. But Mr. Werner trusts the 20-minute job to only one person.

Since the mid-1980s — it’s been so long now, he can’t remember the exact year — Ron DeMutis has cut his hair in the small barbershop tucked in the basement of the Downtown Koppers Building. The experience is such a habit that he doesn’t just make the long drive from Franklin Park to town every two weeks; he also schedules trips to Florida around his long-standing appointment.

OK, so maybe he’s had his hair cut once or twice by one of the shop’s two other barbers when Mr. DeMutis has the nerve to go on vacation. (Barbers need a break, too.) But quite reluctantly.

“Guys are funny,” says Mr. Werner, 77, with a chuckle. “I don’t like anyone else cutting my hair.”

The $15 price ($20 if you want to splurge on a wash and cut) might seem an obvious draw, but for Mr. Werner and many of the shop’s other regular customers, it’s really more about the man holding the scissors, and the old-school, men-can-be-men atmosphere the shop exudes.

Mr. Werner grew up going to small barbershops like this — convivial, no-frill places where guys congregated to shoot the breeze while they got a cut and shave. So when Jerry Voros, who hired him in 1984 to run the PR department at Ketchum, told him about the subterranean shop on Seventh Avenue, he made an appointment. He’s never looked back

“Ron’s just such a great conversationalist, with a great sense of humor,” says Mr. Werner. “I always hope someone is in the chair when I get there, so I can sit and listen to the conversations going on.”

“He keeps you interested,” agrees Mr. Voros, who at age 80 and 20 years into retirement still gets his hair cut there once a month. Just as endearing, says the Pittsburgh resident, is how he talks to every customer on the same level, be he a wealthy CEO or young college grad barely scratching out a living. Sit in his chair and you’ll get updated on his daughter in Florida or what his three granddaughters are up to. But he’ll also want to hear (and will remember) what’s new in your life, too.

Mr. DeMutis’ business card advertises the shop as a “hair styling center.” But it’s not a place where men get styled so much as neatened up. There’s no hairstyle books to thumb through while you wait for one of the shop’s five black styling chairs to free up –the counter holds copies of Maxim and Playboy — or flat-screen TVs to watch the game. Clipped hair is sucked from customers’ collars with an old-fashioned hair vacuum. For those who need supplies afterward, glass cabinets display no-fuss products from Rofflers.

Every once in a while a customer will ask for a modern do. Just the other day Judy Warchol, a certified cosmetologist who has worked with Mr. DeMutis for 26 years, did a Justin Bieber haircut for the little son of a regular customer.

But generally, it’s a constant stream of buzz cuts, flat tops and business cuts. Mr. DeMutis and his staff, which also includes Richard Dowdle, give straight-edge shaves and trim goatees, mustaches and beards as well.

A change in hairstyles has led many old-fashioned barbershops to go the way of the vinyl record.

“We’re literally a dying breed,” admits Mr. DeMutis, 64, who on a busy day can trim upward of 15 heads with the “clipper and comb technique.” A cut takes about 20 minutes. “Guys are passing on, and new ones aren’t going into the barber business.”

Mr. DeMutis, a Carrick High School grad, didn’t grow up wanting to cut hair. It just so happened that the South Side building where he took accordion lessons was a block away from the now-defunct Steel City Barber Academy, and the owner of the school went to high school with his father.

“So he talked my dad into it,” he says,

His first job after graduating was at a shop in Castle Shannon; by 1970, he was working in a shop in the Triangle Building on Smithfield Street, Downtown. He moved to the Koppers Building in 1972 to work for barber Carmen Rizzuto. The shop opened in 1929, the same year as the green-roofed skyscraper that rises 475 feet above Seventh Avenue. And like the building’s limestone exterior and urbane lobby — designed by Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White — it reflects the sleek Art Deco style.

It hasn’t always been so: shortly after Mr. DeMutis started working for Mr. Rizzuto, the original marble walls and elaborate woodwork came down and dropped ceilings bearing fluorescent lights went up. That 1970s look lasted until Beazer Co. took over the building in 1988, and in the process of abating asbestos decided to make over the shop to its original Art Deco style.

Mr. DeMutis, who purchased the barbershop from Mr. Rizzuto in 1993, doesn’t advertise, so new customers typically arrive in one of three ways — word of mouth, a Google search for “traditional barber” or on the heels of their bosses, friends or fathers.

“A lot of guys don’t like going to chains (salons),” he says.

Paul Horan, 43, of Pine, a founding principal of NAI Pittsburgh Commercial real estate company, is typical. His father, Justin, who headed the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce from 1975 to 1994, was a DeMutis regular. When his son got out of school and started working Downtown, he became one, too.

What Mr. Horan appreciates most is Mr. DeMutis’ personality and the easy relationship he enjoys with his customers.

Priest and his dad bond in the family tradition of hunting

The sun had barely started its creep toward the heavens when the Rev. Father Mike Zavage positioned himself against a tree, his .284 Winchester hanging at the ready on his right shoulder. Gusty winds made the 18-degree air feel more like an ungodly 2 degrees, but the 28-year-old priest was smiling, happy to finally be in the woods on this, the ninth day of deer season.

Insulated boots and gloves kept his extremities from turning to Popsicles while he stood, silent and still, for hour upon hour in the hillside hunting spot he’d scouted months before, when these state game lands in Greene County were still green with leaves. Warming his soul was the fact that his father, also named Mike, was trekking through the snow somewhere nearby.

Mr. Zavage had already bagged an 8-point buck the day before in the same stretch of woods, so his job this wintry day was to drive deer out of the brush toward his son and fellow hunter Mike Venesky, 25, of Baldwin Township.

“You want to try to create a shooting lane,” Mr. Zavage explained in the pre-dawn darkness, as the hunting party tuned their walkie-talkies to the same channel. It would be two long and chilly hours before they’d actually use them, and then only to agree that it was time to change locations.

Deer hunting for many is a solitary sport, but in the Zavage household it has always been a shared experience. Father Zavage, parochial vicar at St. Anne Catholic Church in Castle Shannon, was born on the first day of buck season in 1982 and has been hunting with his dad since he was 12. His father, in turn, learned the sport at the same age from his father, Andy, who owned a grocery store near Uniontown.

“In Fayette and Greene counties, that’s what all the young men did,” said Mr. Zavage, 55, a coal miner-turned-mechanic who for the past 34 years has worked for Cumberland Coal Resources. “It’s a tradition for the area. You turn 12 and take hunter’s safety.”

Back when he was a kid in the ’60s, the group typically included a half-dozen or more dads, uncles and brothers all going out together, Mr. Zavage remembered. All but one of his brothers is now deceased. So the fact his only son is out here with him, well, “it’s good you can pass it on,” he said.

Deer hunting is popular enough in this corner of the state that countless boys (and some girls) take off school on the opening day of buck season, which this year fell on Nov. 29, the same day doe season began. But a priest who hunts? Some might find that upsetting; St. Frances of Assisi, after all, is the Catholic Church’s patron saint of animals.

Father Zavage understands he’s more the exception than the rule; he knows of only one other priest who shares his passion for deer season, and this year he had to pass up the chance to join Father Zavage because of a funeral. Yet when you grow up in Greene County — God’s country, as he likes to tell his parishioners — hunting isn’t so much a hobby as a way of life.

Hunting is also a way for men who find it difficult to tell one another how much they care to demonstrate it. In his Father’s Day homily this past June, Father Zavage recounted for his congregation how last year, his father couldn’t hold a gun because he’d had shoulder surgery. Instead, he spent many hours over several days trying to drive deer toward his son. On the last day of hunting season, with his help, his son bagged a button buck.

“My dad is not a man of many words, but his actions definitely speak louder than words,” he said in his sermon. “Not only did he not get to hunt, but he had to walk miles every day to push the deer to me.”

If that’s not love, what is?

Father Zavage argues there are two kinds of hunters: those looking to get the biggest trophy buck they can and those who do it only for the venison. He and his father fall into the latter category.

“I feel that if you kill a deer, you’re obligated to eat it,” he said. “I am insulted when someone throws the meat away.”

To that end, anything they kill ends up on the kitchen table in form of chili, steaks, stews, roasts and a jerky so delicious that all three of his sisters fight over it.

True hunters, Father Zavage added, should be viewed as stewards of the environment in that they’re helping to thin overpopulated deer herds in a humane and controlled fashion. If people didn’t hunt, many of those deer would end up starving to death, he said.

Truth be told, he said with a laugh, vehicles are probably more dangerous to the deer population than his rifle, which was passed down from his grandfather. “My mom hit an 8-point buck in a parking lot,” he said.

To wit: Neither he nor Mr. Venesky got a single shot off during more than eight hours of hunting, despite changing locations several times and Mr. Zavage’s tireless deer drives. But that, he noted with a sigh, is just the nature of the sport.

“It’s hit or miss every time,” he said.

No hunter likes to get “skunked,” of course, so it helps that the Zavages view hunting as a team sport; whoever gets the first deer then has to push. They also share in each other’s victories. Father Zavage wasn’t there to help his father drag the 140-pound buck he bagged out of the woods, but he still considers it a notch in his hunting belt.

“It’s kind of like hockey,” he said. “My dad got the goal and I got the assist. We’re supporting each other in the woods.”

Even when both come home empty-handed, Father Zavage said he and his dad can’t help but have a good time. The experience of being out in the woods, with nothing but your thoughts and prayers to keep you occupied, is as spiritual as being in church.

“There’s a lot of solitude I find very calming,” he said. “It’s my time with God and nature.”

Sauce fundraiser benefits Italian earthquake victims

The world reacted in horror when a 6.3 magnitude earthquake rocked the medieval city of L’Aquila in central Italy on April 6, killing more than 300 residents and injuring more than 1,500. The devastation was particularly tough for Josephine Coletti of Ben Avon.

The retired teacher grew up in the village of Opi, one of 12 hamlets that compose Fagnano Alto, a commune 7 miles from the quake’s epicenter and the epicenter of the big aftershock on May 8, which caused more walls to crumble. (That rumble registered 5.8 on the Richter scale.)

Mrs. Coletti is concerned, of course, for her husband Joe’s family, who still live in the region and are on constant alert for the next big aftershock. But her heart also goes out to the 60,000 the earthquake left homeless.

“People are absolutely scared to sleep inside, even if their houses are agibile,” or habitable, she says. That goes for the house she visits at least once a year, which her great-grandfather built more than 150 years ago.

Yet, what can a good Italian girl do to help from the other side of the ocean? Especially now that the headlines have faded from the front pages of U.S. newspapers? Cook, of course — but for a price.

So many friends and neighbors go gaga over her homemade pasta sauces that in May, Mrs. Coletti decided to offer them for sale as a fundraiser for the residents of Fagnano Alto. Not that she’s uncomfortable knocking on doors or writing letters to ask for donations — in the past three months, she’s raised more than $9,000 doing exactly that. But she also understands she’d be able to approach people much more easily if she could offer them something tangible in return.

“It’s easy,” she says. “If you make a contribution, you can choose from my sauces.”

What a selection. There’s her simple-but-classic marinara, of course, which tastes of fresh tomatoes, parsley and extra-virgin olive oil, and an olive-studded puttanesca, a spicy sauce said to have gotten its name from the Neapolitan prostitutes who created the dish. Donors also have their choice of five more sauces, all of which, Mrs. Coletti points out, are made with the best ingredients.

Her vodka sauce, for example, includes top-notch pancetta and butter, while her sun-dried tomato sauce is made with tomatoes she not only picked by hand in Ohio and let ripen on her back porch but also dried in her home dehydrator. Other varieties include an authentic Bolognese meat sauce, which she simmers for four hours; a portabella mushroom sauce made with organic tomatoes; and a tomato-cream sauce that gets its sweet perfume from butter, carrots, celery, onions and San Marzano tomatoes. And heavy cream, of course.

You get six quarts of your choice for a minimum tax-deductible contribution of $200, 1 quart per $50 donation. All proceeds, when they’re distributed later this fall, will benefit the municipality of Fagnano Alto.

All right, so even Mrs. Coletti concedes it’s a bit pricey. But remember: It’s a sauce fundraiser, not a sauce sale. “And every little bit helps,” she says.

To date, she’s raised nearly $5,000 through her sauces in addition to her straight cash donations. But that, she says, “is just a drop in the bucket.” So many of the region’s cultural sites were so badly damaged or destroyed, including Romanesque churches, palazzi and other monuments from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, that it will take millions of dollars to put it all back together, if that’s even possible.

“People are still in post-disaster stress mode because the shakes continue,” says Mrs. Coletti, sighing. “And because at least 13 churches were destroyed, they’re having Mass in a tent.” Raising money through her sauces, then, “makes me feel good.”

Father and son help bring back the Black Amish apple

NEW WILMINGTON — Like the four generations that proceeded him, Lyle Johnston has spent a lifetime growing what he considers the world’s tastiest apples on the fruit farm his great-great-grandfather Josiah Johnston planted in 1861. In all, he’s got some 50 varieties spread across 17 of the farm’s 147 acres, including sweet-sour Jonagold and aromatic Honeycrisp, a relatively new apple developed at the University of Minnesota that has taken the apple-eating community by storm.

Yet it’s not all about what wins the apple popularity contest. Tucked in among the branches are a few “odd-ball” heirloom varieties that, if not for the efforts of dedicated farmers like Mr. Johnston, 58, and his father, Ralph, might have disappeared from the commercially grown apple landscape. One of the most unusual is a tart, purplish-red apple that speaks, at least in name, to the buggy-riding plain people who settled in this corner of Lawrence County in the mid 1800s.

The Johnstons have been growing Black Amish apples for the last six or seven years, and only on two of the thousands of apple tree branches that hang so heavy with fruit this time of year behind the farm’s store on state Route 18. (That’s right, branches, not trees.) So it’s understandably a small crop: just two pecks this year, or roughly 50 apples.

Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more enthusiastic about old-time apples than the senior Mr. Johnston, who built the original Apple Castle farm market in 1950 and, at age 88, each day still drives himself the five miles from his apartment in town to work with its honey bees.

“It’s just nice to know you have an apple that might have dropped on Isaac Newton’s head,” he says.

Actually, the English physicist is thought to have been bopped on the head by a Flower of Kent, a pear-shaped cooking apple that is now also largely gone from cultivation. But we get the point. There’s something special about an apple that Johnny Appleseed himself (aka John Chapman) might have planted in one of his nurseries.

Whether Mr. Johnston’s grandson Steven, 25, who’s currently putting a degree in agribusiness management from Penn State to use at Brown’s Orchard near York, Pa., will share his love of “antique” apples when he someday boomerangs home is anyone’s guess. But Slow Food Pittsburgh is certainly a fan, which is why this rare regional apple — Apple Castle is the sole commercial orchard in Western Pennsylvania believed to grow it — is the guest of honor at the fifth Urban Applefest and Apple Pie Baking Contest Oct. 23 at the Union Project in Highland Park. Other featured apples include Northern Spy, Stayman, Cortland and Connell Red, a hardy sweet red apple that was developed in the 1940s in Wisconsin and grown locally in John Daugherty’s Murrysville orchard.

To help conserve and promote heirloom apple varieties in the U.S. and bring them back to consumers’ tables, SFP also is sponsoring the Black Amish for reintroduction next month as part of a national program called Renewing America’s Food Traditions. In November, North Carolina’s Big Horse Creek Farm will send 10 trees grafted onto dwarf root stock to orchards in Pittsburgh.

While apple trees can be grown from seeds, it’s inadvisable if you want fruit that’s a carbon-copy of the original, as modern apples are hybridized; like children, apple trees born from pips only inherit some of their parents’ characteristics. Bringing a long-absent apple variety back to life, then, is a years-long process that takes as much skill as it does effort because each individual leaf bud has to be carefully grafted onto a host branch and then nursed through four or five seasons before you get a crop.

The elder Mr. Johnston, though, has proven himself pretty expert over the years at splicing together a twig with a bud on it, called a scion, and rootstock with a pocket knife, despite hands made shaky by age. One of the two trees on which he’s grafted Black Amish buds — given to him by Davis Huckabee, a retired minister and heirloom apple lover with a big back yard in Salem, Ohio — holds at least two other varieties on its limbs, including the tart Fall Rambo, identified as one of Johnny Appleseed’s favorite varieties.

Not that creating a new apple like Honeycrisp is a walk in rubber muck boots in the park.

“It takes maybe 1,000 crosses to find one with potential,” says Lyle Johnston, as his father demonstrates how to slice a bud from a branch and then make a matching cut in the host tree. He shoots him a look of admiration. “But he’s good.”

Lucky he has a knife of his own in the pocket of his blue jeans, because when asked if the Black Amish is a better apple for eating or baking, he has to jog his taste buds with an on-the-spot taste test.

“I don’t even remember,” he confesses with a sheepish grin, offering me a wedge of the crisp yellow flesh. The answer: it’s slightly tart and very crunchy, or not that far afield from the sweet-sour Jonagolds he calls his favorite. His father, on the other hand, prefers Mother Sweet, an eating apple cultivated in Massachusetts in the 1840s.

But what’s that saying about variety being the spice of life?

Or as Lyle Johnston puts it, “It looks good, it cooks good, it eats good, and I’m glad to have it on my farm.”

An Italian home-cooking cookbook that you better believe

Elsa DeChellis DiCicco is the quintessential Italian grandmother, a slip of a woman with a big hairdo and even bigger smile who doesn’t take no for an answer when it comes to her cooking.

“What, you’re not hungry?” she asks, pushing a plate of tea sandwiches across the dining room table, despite the fact that a half-dozen already have made their way into my stomach.

With the city in the midst of a heat wave, it’s too steamy to turn on the stove in her Coraopolis kitchen. Yet it’d be unthinkable for a woman from Abruzzo — or anywhere in Italy — to invite guests into her home without also feeding them. Hence, the late-afternoon lunch of chicken salad, fresh fruit and Italian cookies.

Mangia, mangia!

It’s tough to say no to someone who feels so passionately about food. The final count, then, is seven sandwiches, plus a handful of strawberries, a pizzelle and two cups of sweetened espresso because according to Mrs. DiCicco, it’s not Italian coffee without a little zucchero.

“We all defer to her,” says her daughter, Jayne Keffer, with a smile. She lives across the street and has stopped by to chat. “Whatever she says goes.”

If the topic is Italian cooking, you’d best pay attention because to have tasted Mrs. DiCicco’s cooking is to love it, say those who know her. The 95-year-old’s sauce di Pacentro, prepared with ground pancetta and minced hot pepper and served atop light-as-air homemade gnocchi, is the stuff of legend, her son Bob proudly points out. So, too, are her anise-infused pizzelles, made so often when she was younger that she sizzled her way through six of the Italian cookie irons.

“She’s truly a wonderful cook and takes great pride in cooking for family in friends,” says Irene Daily. She has sampled dozens of the cookies as director of volunteer and community services at Heritage Valley Sewickley, where Mrs. DiCicco has logged almost 19,000 volunteer hours since 1959.

No one could blame the petite great-grandmother of 10 if she kept close the family recipes, perfected over the years in the kitchen of the house she built in 1954 with husband, Italo. Yet all three she makes me that day are among the more than 200 in “Elsa’s Blue Ribbon Dinners,” a spiral-bound cookbook she self-published late last year ($25 at amazon.com).

Nearly a decade in the making, it contains more than a dozen complete meal menus arranged by season (Winter Wonderland) or event (Super Bowl Party). In a nod to her native Pacentro in the province of L’Aquila, where her parents Maria and Anthony DeChellis owned an estate with olive trees, orchards and a vineyard, there’s also a chapter devoted to pasta and Italian specialties: everything from crostini and lasagna campagnolo to “famous” tripe and a yummy-sounding sunburst eggs (cooked sunny side up in marinara spiked with hot sauce).

“Each dinner is a story,” Mrs. DiCicco says in a voice still tinged with a lilting Italian accent, “because in Europe, that’s how you eat. A complete meal.”

Lest you assume she only knows regional Italian cooking, the cookbook features other cuisines, including a recipe for chili that won her a blue ribbon — at age 90 — in a 2005 cook off co-sponsored by KDKA radio and Kuhn’s Market. It’s still occasionally served in the cafeteria at Heritage Valley Sewickley. Administrators were so delighted to see one of its own win a contest that they quickly put it on the menu.

Preparation ranges from easy to intermediate, and a few of the recipes aren’t recipes at all but instructions on how to prettily arrange items on a plate or bowl. But that’s what makes it so charming. Chatty and informal, it reads like a food diary your grandma added to over the years, with colorful snapshots grandpa took of his favorite dishes thrown in for good measure.

“The aroma of this coffee is irresistible,” she notes in a recipe for cafe espresso. With penne rigate, she advises serving salad “and good wine.”

As if Italians would do anything but.

Mrs. DiCicco started compiling the recipes at her son-in-law John Keffer’s urging. Introduced to her homemade cuisine on an Easter break from Penn State University, he quickly developed what would be a lifelong love affair with her cooking: in the early years of his marriage to Jayne, he’d stop by his mother-in-law’s house on his way home from work for a clandestine first dinner.

How do you do it? he asked again and again. Eventually, she decided to tell him, writing out a few of her favorites in longhand before switching to a typewriter.

After Italo’s death in 2002, she couldn’t bring herself to work on it for nearly two years. By 2004, though, she was once again plugging away, even if her 90-year-old eyes were having trouble seeing the keys, and finding new typewriter ribbons was next to impossible. To keep her motivated, Mr. Keffer, a one-time borough mayoral candidate and member of the local water and sewer authority, bought her a desk top computer on which she taught herself to use Microsoft Word.

“We told her to keep tapping, that she couldn’t break anything,” Mrs. Keffer recalls.

It wasn’t easy, mastering the new technology; early drafts tended to jump between fonts with varying margins. Yet Mrs. DiCicco proved herself a feisty and determined nonagenarian. Kind of like the guy who invented the software that made writing so much easier.

“That Bill Gates, he’s such a genius,” she tells me more than once during our visit.

A bigger challenge was turning something she did almost by instinct into a precise science of measurements, ingredients and step-by-step instructions. Like lots of good cooks, Mrs. DiCicco learned by watching her mother and grandmother prepare the family’s meals and so “never measured.”

Tragically, Mr. Keffer wouldn’t live to see the cookbook he inspired. In 2007, while driving home from a December wedding in New Jersey, he was killed in a car accident.

Once again, Mrs. DiCicco’s work slowed to a crawl. So to bring her out of her funk, her son Bob, an attorney who lives in Glen Arm, Md., suggested turning it from a memoir into a self-published cookbook they could share with others.

With other family members helping to edit, proof and organize the copy, Mrs. DiCicco regained her focus and in 2009, the book — with dozens of Mr. Keffer’s photographs — made its debut on amazon.com. It has since sold a couple hundred copies.

What people also seem to like, says Bob DiCicco, is the book’s authenticity and use of fresh ingredients.

“There’s that connection with the Old World, and how things used to be,” he says.

Mrs. DiCicco has another explanation.

“Italians are all good cooks because they like perfection,” she says. “They taste it, and if they don’t like it, they don’t serve it.”

Zucchini Puffs

Zucchini is almost too plentiful this time of year. This appetizer is a great way to put the veggie to good use. They fry up surprisingly light and have just enough cheese flavor that kids will gobble them up. They’re just as good at room temperature as hot from the frying pan.

  • 2 small zucchini, shredded
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/2 cup fresh grated Parmigiano cheese
  • Salt and white pepper
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • Quality vegetable oil for frying

Place zucchini in colander. Sprinkle with salt. Let stand 15 minutes to drain excess liquid. Combine eggs, parsley and cheese in a bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper. Squeeze zucchini to remove excess moisture. Add zucchini to the egg mixture. Add flour and baking powder, and stir to mix.

Heat oil in a large skillet over high heat until hot. Drop the zucchini mixture by the tablespoonful into hot oil. Shape with spoon. Cook zucchini mixture until puffs are light golden.

Remove with a spoon to a paper towel to drain. Repeat until you have used all the batter. Serve hot or cold as hors d’oeuvres.

Serves 4 to 6.

— “Elsa’s Blue Ribbon Dinners” by Elsa DiCicco (elsasbest.com, $24.95)

Elsa’s Famous Sauce di Pacentro

Peperoncino (hot red pepper) flavors many dishes in Abruzzo. My 16-year-old son called this sauce “incredible.”

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup ground pancetta
  • 1/2 cup chopped red onion
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 red bell pepper, minced
  • 1 fresh hot pepper, minced
  • 2 15-ounce cans stewed tomatoes, crushed
  • 28 ounces tomato puree
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh basil
  • 3 whole McCormick cloves
  • 1/2 cup minced flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/3 cup grated pecorino cheese

In a large sauce pot, heat oil and pancetta over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, bell pepper and hot pepper. Saute until tender. Stir in crushed stewed tomatoes, tomato puree, basil, cloves, parsley, bay leaf, rosemary, salt and pepper. Lower heat and simmer for 35 minutes, stirring periodically. (Do not burn the sauce.) If sauce is too thick, add water. This sauce can be served in many ways. For meat flavor, add to sauce, cooked meat, cooked meat balls or cooked chicken. Simmer 15 minutes.

Stir in grated cheese just before serving.

Makes about 6 cups.

— “Elsa’s Blue Ribbon Dinners” by Elsa DiCicco (elsasbest.com, $24.95)

Crema Veneziano

This silky-smooth, Venetian-style custard is sometimes cut into squares and fried in bread crumbs. Mrs. DiCicco goes a bit sweeter, serving it with whipped cream and strawberries. We ate it for breakfast, chilled with raspberries and blackberries spooned on top.

  • 1/4 cup corn starch
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 1/4 cup milk
  • 3 egg yolks, well beaten
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 cup dairy whipped cream
  • Sliced strawberries

In a sauce pan, combine corn starch and sugar. Stir in milk. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens. Take 1/4 cup of the hot mixture and stir into egg yolks, the stir egg yolk mixture back into saucepan with milk. Cook and stir mixture constantly for 2 minutes.

Mix in butter, vanilla and almond extract. Cool completely or refrigerate.

Stir in whipped cream and top with sliced strawberries. Or, if you prefer, pour into a 9-inch ready-baked pie shell and decorate with strawberries.

Serves 6 to 8.

— “Elsa’s Blue Ribbon Dinners” by Elsa DiCicco (elsasbest.com, $24.95)

Meet the ‘Blonde Elvis’ of Mount Oliver: Tribute artists are alive and well

Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

Dan Casne makes his living redesigning and rewinding electromagnets used on overhead cranes in steel mills. It’s a technical job, and not a bad-paying one. But his true calling just might be singing.

He discovered this when he was well into his 50s. Watching karaoke one night at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in Mount Oliver about eight years ago, a member cajoled him to take his turn on stage.

“Sing some Elvis,” he remembers the guy telling him.

An affable man with a personality as outsized as his biceps — Mr. Casne is a former amateur weightlifter who could bench 350 pounds — he good-naturedly complied.

He can’t remember what song, exactly, came out of his mouth, just that it was good enough that partygoers asked if he’d do another Elvis number at an upcoming event. The one song he promised stretched into a set of seven or eight.

“I thought it would be the first time I ever did something like that, and the last,” he recalls chuckling. “But they loved it.”

Before he knew it, Mr. Casne, 61, who lives in Allentown, was not just getting all shook up in front of crowds, but became part of the Rat Pack-inspired musical act, The Legends. In the process, he was making many a middle-aged heart go aflutter with the swiveling hips and spangly costumes that marked Elvis Presley’s Vegas years.

The musical phenomenon known as Pittsburgh’s Blonde Elvis — he wears long yellow locks instead of a coal-black pompadour — was born.

It’s not as outlandish as it sounds: Elvis actually was a dishwater blond who dyed his hair black, thinking it looked better on film.

Given that Pittsburgh’s population is the oldest among large metropolitan areas outside of Florida, and that people tend to like the music they grew up with, it’s no surprise a tribute act to one of America’s greatest cultural icons — even one with the wrong hair color — would strike a chord.

“Oh, it brings back the memories,” says retired Port Authority bus driver Jerry Contristano of Baldwin Borough, who’s been attending Mr. Casne’s shows for five years.

Oldies are popular enough that tribute acts — it’s a diss to call them impersonators — abound in local venues. Gateway Clipper Fleet recently started offering Friday lunch cruises with rotating headliner “stars”: Chris Denem singing Neil Diamond, Cathi Rhodes as country music singer Patsy Cline, Randy Galioto as Elvis and Bo Wagner, who does a Frank (Sinatra) & Dean (Martin) revue.

Mr. Casne’s success is ironic because he paid no mind to The King while growing up and is married to someone who’d rather listen to anything but.

“I prefer Hank,” admits his wife, Jo Anne. As in country legend Hank Williams Jr., who Mr. Casne also imitates on occasion at the theater he built five years ago expressly for that purpose.

He’s not an impersonator per se. He sings Elvis “his” way and has his own moves.

“I just get up and do what I do.”

‘Little Vegas’

If the sight of a blond Elvis singing “Blue Suede Shoes” in a studded bell-bottomed jumpsuit and yellow aviators is a hoot, Casne World is a verified howler.

Needing a place where he and his buddies could perform, Mr. Casne in 2005 ended up buying the 20,000-square-foot VFW building on Hays Avenue in which he got his start and, working nights and weekends with the help of Charles Krebs, Elaine Mitts and Gail Mervosh, transformed its 22 rooms into a mini-Graceland.

Actually, it’s friends who’ve likened the 1929 hall to Presley’s famed mansion in Memphis: Mr. Casne prefers the term “Little Vegas.” Whatever its name, it can only be described as over-the-top.

Up top, there’s a performance hall with space for 275 guests (150, if you want people to dance), tiki hut-like bars and twin dressing rooms for the talent (his has the bigger star). Elvis posters and a display of sequined jumpsuits brighten the walls.

The hall’s original 25-foot bar is downstairs in the game room, along with a pool table, leather sofas and projection-screen TV. Still to come is a 20-by-50-foot movie theater, a library, a full gym, bedrooms for the kids and grandkids.

Then there’s the lush private living quarters, the centerpiece of which is Mr. Casne’s cathedral-ceilinged bedroom and Egyptian-themed office. The fruit of 16 years of collecting, it has 8-foot replicas of the columns of Luxor Temple mounted on the walls, shelves full of reproduction statuary and miniature obelisks etched with hieroglyphics. Wondering what a full-sized replica of King Tut’s throne looks like? He’s got one of them, along with an 8-foot sculpture of the jackal-headed god Anubis.

His performances are more down to earth, what longtime fan Nancy Stabryla of North Baldwin describes as “personable.”

“He comes to your table and welcomes you, and you almost feel like family,” she says. The singing, she adds, “is excellent.”

“He’s phenomenal,” agrees her husband, Ed, retired from Neville Chemical Co. “If we’ve been there 10 times, we’ve seen 10 different shows. I’m serious, you’d be shocked.”

“I just put on a costume, jump on stage and have a good time,” Mr. Casne says.

Other tribute acts

Singer/songwriter Chris Denem wins similar praise for his Neil Diamond performances. He did his first tribute show to the pop singer in 1976 at age 19, at the New Kensington Holiday Inn with a seven-piece band.

Raised in a musical household in Penn Hills — his father, Ralph Scherder, is a classical pianist — Mr. Denem was an early fan of Mr. Diamond’s work.

“When he first came onto the scene, I thought, ‘That’s me. I can do that,’ ” recalls Mr. Denim, who also plays and records his own music. “So I started picking up his songs, and everything else just happened.”

In the 30 years since, the Butler resident has done hundreds more for crowds who sometimes confuse him for the real thing.

“When he does ‘America,’ you get chills,” says Mr. Stabryla, who has seen him perform numerous times.

Like Mr. Casne, he shies away from the word “impersonator.” He prefers to think of his work more as a tribute than a copy.

“It was just a natural fit for my voice and personality,” he says.

The fact he just happens to also look like the guy and has many of the same mannerisms? Pure happenstance, he insists, the result of genetics rather than wigs and makeup.

Many of his fans are older, but not all.

“The young girls like him because he’s cute,” says Barb Tanski, owner of Buttercup Woodlands Campground in Renfrew, Butler County, where he entertains campers at least twice a year.

Nor are they disproportionately female. Jerry Harrison of Butler estimates he’s seen him perform more than 40 times over the years with his wife, Kathy, including a couple of times in his own backyard for private parties.

Mr. Denem’s take on Diamond is so good, there are certain times when, if you turned your back to him, you’d think the “real” Neil was behind you, he says.

“He puts his heart and soul into it,” Mr. Harrison says.

Cathi Rhodes’ tribute to Patsy Cline is similarly heartfelt and dead-on, which is why Barb Ragen traveled all the way from Latrobe to see her aboard the Gateway Clipper’s Majestic on a recent Friday and made sure she was the second one on the ship.

“I follow her around to all the county fairs, too,” says Ms. Ragen, who works for Excella Health at Latrobe Hospital. “She’s so friendly to everyone, and her show is outstanding.”

The host of “Polka Carousel Show” and “CrossRhodes’ Bluegrass/Folk Music” on WBCW and WHJB radio stations for almost 10 years, Ms. Rhodes, 58, has countless acting and dancing gigs under her white rhinestone belt. The South Greensburg native also can sing. Really well.

It’s tough, walking in the cowboy boots of such a country icon. (Ms. Cline was the first female solo artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.) Her interaction with the crowd, though, eases the way.

“I don’t want to have this big expanse between us,” she tells the crowd when she takes her place at the microphone, giving her red-and-white fringed shirt a little shake. “So shake a leg.”

Long before she reaches “Crazy” on the set list, people are dancing.

Other oldies but goodies

The Blonde Elvis performs with the Rat Pack at Casne World, 325 Hays Ave., Mount Oliver, on Aug. 21. Tickets ($25) include dinner and beer but must be purchased in advance by calling 412-481-3121; doors open at 6 p.m., with dinner at 7 p.m. Info: blondeelvis.com.

The Gateway Clipper Fleet’s Golden Triangle Lunch Cruise will feature Mr. Wagner’s Frank & Dean revue on Aug. 29 and select Mondays through December, and A Portrait of Patsy Cline by Ms. Rhodes on Aug. 27.

Tickets cost $36.37. Information: gatewayclipper.com. For additional Patsy Cline performances, visit cathirhodes.com.

Upcoming performances by Mr. Denem include free concerts at the Robin Hill Park gazebo, 1000 Beaver Grade Road, Moon, at noon Aug. 18, and at Leo & Sons Grill 31, corner of Diamond and Main streets in Mount Pleasant at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 20. Info: http://chrisdenem.com.