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It's all in the freshness for Vivo Kitchen -- from food to atmosphere

| Saturday, June 2, 2012, 3:29 p.m.
Ramps, Fiddleheads and Gorgonzola.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Ramps, Fiddleheads and Gorgonzola. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Owner and chef Sam DiBattista with his Ramps, Fiddleheads and Gorgonzola at Vivo Restaurant in Sewickley.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Owner and chef Sam DiBattista with his Ramps, Fiddleheads and Gorgonzola at Vivo Restaurant in Sewickley. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

Sam DiBattista calls himself a "playful" executive chef. He has such an enthusiasm for fresh ingredients, that he and his staff at Vivo Kitchen spontaneously respond to whichever ingredient comes in the door, be it a case of newly picked blood oranges or dandelion greens.

After the staff confers on what to do with what they have, the result is a dish that "comes out as something you've never seen before," he says, such a duck entree with blood-orange marmalade, or chicken cacciatore served over dandelion greens, parsnips and blue potatoes.

DiBattista, 53, the owner of the former Vivo in Bellevue, which served diners there for 11 years, opened the next generation of his culinary offerings as Vivo Kitchen last August on Beaver Street in Sewickley. The new restaurant, accessible through an iron-gate stone patio, serves alcohol, unlike the previous Vivo. A new bar at the back of the restaurant recycleD marble tops from the old restaurant's tables, which, in turn, had been used for 50 years in another restaurant. The patio has several more tables and chairs for al fresco dining.

"It feels like you're really outside," he says. "I just like the rhythm of the streets," which is the reason he plays no music outside.

Inside, the restaurant can serve about 50 diners at tables and the bar. The interior is fresh and modern, with grouted circular tiles of cork on the floor, modern lights on the ceiling and contemporary art comprising end slices of old album covers on the walls.

But it's the food that's the main attraction -- food made from ingredients as fresh as DiBattista can obtain them.

His eggs, for instance, come courtesy of an 8-year-old Sewickley Heights resident who raises chickens. DiBattista's wife, Lori, raises vegetables on a plot in the Heights. The couple lives in Bellevue.

The ingredients culiminate in dishes such as the aforementioned Chicken Cacciatore With Dandelion Greens and Parsnips at $18, to Grilled Lobster and Shrimp With Yuzu Hoisin dipping sauce, for $36. Also at the top of the menu offerings at $36 are the Elysian Fields Lamb Chops With Pumpkin Seed Pesto.

DiBattista was born in Castiglione, in the Pescara province of Abruzzo, a region of Italy. His parents brought him to Coraopolis when he was 3.

As a teen, DiBattista began cooking for pay at the Pittsburgh Hilton under the late chef Nick Fusco, a family friend. After graduating from Cornell High School, DiBattista joined the Marines, where he continued cooking. He served a tour of duty in Okinawa, where he observed and began appreciating the Asian philosophy of food preparation and presentation.

"If it's super-fresh, overwhelming the flavor doesn't make sense," DiBattista says of the ingredients he uses. Now, he's among a group of Pittsburgh-based chefs who support each other in offering creative, fresh and flavorful food.

He and his sous chefs often will accompany entrees with fresh, crunchy vegetable medleys, such as sugar-snap peas, carrots, radicchio, red onion and cilantro, which is "not a particular cuisine, but it's fresh ingredients that work well together," DiBattista says.

"A good chef knows if you have steaming vegetables, you've killed it," he says. "I'm a big fan of raw."

Ramps, Fiddleheads and Gorgonzola Appetizer

Sam DiBattista, executive chef at Vivo Kitchen in Sewickley, is fond of fresh food that is robust in flavor. This savory appetizer nicely balances the earthy, fresh flavors of ramps (a wild onion that resembles a green onion with broad leaves), fiddlehead ferns and mushrooms against the sharper, salty flavors of gorgonzola cheese, two varieties of salt, and spicy, but not hot, pepper.

The dish is uncomplicated and quick to prepare, but DiBattista warns, "You don't want to overcook good, fresh ingredients."

  • Pinch of Italian long, black pepper or a similar floral-spicy pepper
  • Pinch of gray sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 5 ounces bacon, coarsely chopped, for garnish
  • 5 ounces ramps, coarsely chopped
  • 5 ounces mushrooms, coarsely chopped (DiBattista uses Pennsylvania oyster mushrooms.)
  • 5 ounces fiddlehead ferns (Seasonally available at the Penn's Corner Farmer's Alliance farmers market on Penn Avenue in the Strip District; 5 ounces rough-chopped asparagus can be substituted.)
  • 4 sections (1.25 ounces each) gorgonzola cheese or 2 sections (2.5 ounces each) (5 ounces total)
  • Pinch of kosher or regular sea salt, for garnish

Grind the Italian or floral-spicy peppers with the gray sea salt with a mortar and pestle and set aside.

Place the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet and heat (see Photo 1). Put in the bacon and stir-fry until golden brown (Photo 2). Remove the bacon from the oil with a slotted spoon and set aside to drain.

Then, place the ramps (Photo 3), mushrooms (Photo 4) and ferns into the oil and carmelize until golden brown.

Place half of the sauteed vegetables (Photo 5) over each of the four sections of cheese (Photo 6) on four plates. Garnish with the bacon and ground pepper-salt mixture and a pinch of kosher or regular sea salt.

Makes 4 servings as an appetizer or 2 as a light entree.

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