Cooking Class: Bravo Franco's Salmon and Mussels Poached in Saffron-Fennel Broth

| Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, 2:24 p.m.

When Pete Lauterbach was cast in his high-school senior play, he and fellow Seton-Lasalle High School seniors would run lines at the home of classmate Joe D'Amico.

One of the perks was having D'Amico's father, Franco, available to make food for the students after he came home from his restaurant.

Once, the elder D'Amico put together Italian hot sausage, grilled peppers and onions and an egg fried with garlic in a crusty roll and gave it to Lauterbach.

“It was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten in my life,” Lauterbach says. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

Lauterbach, 47, now of North Strabane, Washington County, not only fell in love with food at that point, he wanted to make it his career. He subsequently trained at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island and became a teaching assistant. Lauterbach earned an associate's degree in culinary arts, then a bachelor's degree in food-service management. He worked for both D'Amico and at Tambellini's on Seventh Street, which was owned by D'Amico's sister.

“He inspired me,” Lauterbach says of D'Amico. “His cooking was outstanding. He taught me, and he's responsible for me owning this restaurant.”

Eventually, Lauterbach became a co-owner with Franco D'Amico at Bravo Franco Ristorante on Penn Avenue, Downtown. These days, D'Amico is no longer involved with the business. Instead, Lauterbach's brother, Mark is bar manager and co-owner, and his mother, Carole, works the front of the house.

The atmosphere is Old World, with tone-on-tone neutral wallpaper, limestone tile and swagged draperies framing the front window. Classical music plays quietly in the background, but contemporary light fixtures illuminate the rooms. The mood is calm, but the action in the kitchen�often is not.

“We cook everything to order,” Lauterbach says. “Everything is made fresh. We make our own desserts and our own dressings. I always thought it was wasteful not to cook everything to order.”

Entrees include such Italian-American specialties as Lobster Ravioli for $18.95, Shrimp Scampi in white-wine garlic sauce for $26.95 and Chicken Piccata with capers, lemon and white wine sauce for $19.95. Bravo Franco serves Veal Osso Buco as its house specialty, for $32.95, as well as steaks such as Porterhouse, for $42.95.

In a nod to the hot-sausage sandwich that inspired Lauterbach's culinary career, appetizers include Stuffed Italian Hot Peppers, with sausage stuffing and topped with hot and sweet sausage, for $8.95.

Bravo Franco's executive chef is Josh Ross, 38, of Downtown. Ross, a South Park native, trained briefly here at the former Pennsylvania Culinary Academy, then worked at the former London Grille at the Galleria in Mt. Lebanon before landing at Bravo Franco 14 years ago. He has stayed, he says, because “I really have a good friendship with Pete. I love him and his family — his brother and his mom. I'd rather not go anywhere else unless I open my own restaurant.

“I love being Downtown,” Ross says. “It's like being on Broadway.”

The staff hustles to make sure theatergoers have their meals on the table in time to make an 8 p.m. curtain.

“I've pretty much perfected the method for getting people (to the theater) on time,” Ross says.

But the staff also might be serving some of the many celebrities who have performed in the city. They have included the Rolling Stones, Andrew Lloyd Weber, the late Marvin Hamlisch, actor F. Murray Abraham and Billy Joel, who “left singing a little ‘Rigoletto,'” Lauterbach says.

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

Salmon and Mussels Poached in Saffron-Fennel Broth

Josh Ross, executive chef at Bravo Franco Ristorante, Downtown, created this from-scratch seafood dish the restaurant has featured all summer. The saffron, fennel and white wine give a mellow balance of piquant flavor to the seafood, making it ideal for a summer dinner at home or the beach.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

2 cloves garlic, minced

14 cup minced fennel bulb

12 cup julienned shitake mushrooms

1 pinch saffron threads (about 6-8 threads)

1 boneless, skinless salmon filet (6 ounces to 8 ounces)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 pound mussels (about 12)

1 cup chicken stock

12 cup white wine

4 to 6 asparagus spears, cut on a bias

1 green onion, sliced end-to-end

1 teaspoon fresh Italian flatleaf parsley, minced

Microgreens, optional

In a 10-inch straight-sided skillet, add 1 tablespoon of the butter, garlic, fennel, mushrooms and saffron.

Season salmon with salt and pepper and place it atop the vegetables in the skillet so the salmon does not stick. Arrange the mussels around the salmon; add the chicken stock and wine. Cover the pan and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the mussels open, for about 3 minutes. (An alternative method of preparation is to heat the oven to 350 degrees and finish in the oven for 7 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the salmon.)

Remove the pan from the heat or oven and add the asparagus. Re-cover the pan so the salmon may steam to cook through.

Using a metal fish spatula, transfer the mussels and salmon to a desired serving dish. Return the pan to high heat and add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter, green onion and parsley. Cook for about 1 minute and pour the sauce over the salmon and mussels. Garnish with microgreens, if desired.

Makes 1 serving.

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