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Monroeville's Gia Visto puts a modern spin on classic Italian

| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Reivew
Ingredients for Gia Visto's braised pork shanks.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Gia Visto executive chef Eric Delliquadri, co-owner Jill Varmecky and sous chef Scott Page with their pork shank dish.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Brown the pork shanks in a skillet for the Gia Visto dish.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Sautee the carrots, onions and celery for Gia Visto pork shank dish.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Add tomato sauce and white wine to the carrots, celery, and onion mix and continue to cook.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Pour the onions, celery, carrots, tomato sauce and white wine over the pork shanks in a deep dish.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Pour water over the Gia Visto pork shanks to three-quarters covered. Add thyme, peppercorns and bay leaves. Cover with foil and place in 300-degree oven for four to five hours.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Gia Visto pork shanks after being removed from the oven after cooking four to five hours.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Plating the Gia Visto pork shanks with farro risotto and grilled asparagus.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Gia Visto's pork shanks with grilled asparagus and farro risotto.

Two years after chef Jill Varmecky quit her job at a Monroeville restaurant, the landlord of her former employer gave her a call: La Cucina Dolce was closing. Was she interested in opening her own restaurant in that space?

Varmecky of Oakmont jumped at the chance, enlisting the help of an investment partner, Michael McKay. Then, she called a former La Cucina Dolce co-worker: Eric Delliquadri of Murrysville, who quit his job to head up Varmecky's new restaurant kitchen as executive chef.

“I knew Eric would be a good fit here,” says Varmecky, who worked with Delliquadri two different times. “My husband, Bryan, and his wife — we all knew each other.”

Then, she called other former co-workers, asking, “Do you want to get back together again?” Several servers and dishwashers did, also quitting their jobs to join the new restaurant.

Varmecky appropriately named the new venture Gia Visto, which means “deja vu,”or “already seen,” in Italian.

Customers of the former La Cucina Dolce may, indeed, have already seen many of the employees as well as the interior of the restaurant, which has the same whimsical dining chairs with spoon-shape back spindles left by La Cucina Dolce. But Gia Visto staffers and family members, as well as McKay and his family, spruced up the space with terra-cotta paint and upholstered banquettes and built some slate walls.

“We're indebted to their kindness,” Varmecky says. “Everyone wanted to see us back together. … It is a true Pittsburgh story.”

It's something of a family story, too. Varmecky's husband, Bryan Ergler, is a chef who helps out on weekends. Sous chef Scott Page of Greensburg is engaged to server Jen Imro. And Varmecky's aunt, Donna Schellhammer of Wilkins, also works at Gia Visto.

While Varmecky and Delliquadri continued the Italian culinary theme, they updated the menu to include more modern Italian dishes. The Crispy Eggplant appetizer for $8.95 is stacked in a tower, and the Fresh Bucatini Pasta and Shrimp alla Puttanesca, which costs $20.95, uses roasted tomatoes instead of tomato sauce.

Grilled Hanger Steak With Goat Cheese and Pancetta Roasted Potatoes and Rapini continues the modern Italian spin on steak for $24.95.

“We try to make our own mark on the food, just for something unique,” Varmecky says.

Varmecky, a native of Johnstown, came to the area to study at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. While there, she lived with her “Aunt Donna.” Varmecky also trained at Le Cordon Bleu, meeting and working with Delliquadri at Longvue Country Club in Penn Hills 12 years ago.

After both left to work other jobs, they rejoined forces at La Cucina Dolce, both leaving in 2009.

“It's nice working together,” he says.

“I call it the return of the Beatles,” says frequent Gia Visto customer Gary Kinkela, 49, of Plum. “They got the band back together.”

Sandra Fischione Donovan is a contributing writer to Trib Total Media.

Braised Pork Shanks

Gia Visto executive chef Eric Delliquadri says Italians love to use a lot of pork in their cuisine. That's because “the other white meat” is flavorful and conveys a hearty sweetness to the other foods it is cooked with, such as tomato sauce.

Delliquadri puts a modern Italian twist on braised pork shanks, braising them with wine, tomato sauce and fennel, a favorite Italian herb, and topping them with gremalata, a garnish typically used on osso bucco.

The result is a tender pork dish with a savory taste that pops in what frequent Gia Visto customer Gary Kinkela calls “layers of flavors.”

For the gremalata:

14 cup chopped parsley

1 tablespoon chopped mint

Zest of one lemon

1 tablespoon crushed hazelnuts

For the braised pork shanks:

4 pork shanks, about 2 pounds each

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

3 medium-size carrots, roughly chopped

4 ribs celery, roughly chopped

1 medium-size onion, roughly chopped

6 whole cloves

1 cup tomato sauce

1 cup dry white wine

1 bunch thyme, whole

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons fennel seed

Water

For serving: Faro risotto, potatoes or regular risotto

To prepare the gremalata: Combine all of the ingredients and set aside.

To prepare the pork shanks: Season the pork shanks thoroughly with salt and pepper. Using a large saute pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil on medium-high heat and brown the shanks well on all sides (which should take about 15 to 20 minutes). Remove and set aside the shanks (see photo 1). Add another 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and saute the chopped carrots, celery, onions and cloves until slightly brown, scraping the bits from the pan (photo 2). Add the tomato sauce and wine (photo 3).

In a roasting pan, place the four shanks and the sauteed vegetable mixture (photo 4). Add water so three-quarters of the shanks are covered (photo 5). Tightly cover the pan with a lid or aluminum foil. Place in a 300-degree oven for three to four hours, or until fork-tender.

Remove the shanks from the pan. Strain the vegetables from the liquid and reserve. Place on a plate with faro risotto, potatoes or regular risotto and roasted vegetables. Top the shanks with the braising juice and gremalata (photo 6).

Makes 4 servings.

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