March 18, 2015
Pittsburgh’s pie guy
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.
“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.”