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Penn Brewery chef puts specialty pierogies on menu

| Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 11:59 p.m.

Greg Schrett would like to be known as the Pierogi Master of Pittsburgh.

As the executive chef of the newly reopened Penn Brewery in the North Side, Schrett is taking his love and knowledge of the traditional Polish pastry in new directions.

"I got a little cult following here," he says with a laugh. "My stuff is more out there. I want to see where I can go with it -- to see if people can stretch their minds around eating a turkey dinner inside of a pierogi. Our most popular item on the menu, besides the schnitzel, is the buffalo chicken pierogies."

The Penn Brewery is a good fit for Schrett, 39, a native of Buffalo with Polish and German ancestry who grew up watching his great-grandmother and mother make all kinds of European food.

"I made fresh kielbasa and sausage growing up," says Schrett, a Cranberry resident who lives with his wife and 9-year-old daughter. "When I was a teenager, my friends all said that I should be a chef."

Schrett moved to Florida after graduating from high school but didn't take his friends' advice until after he enrolled in junior college for art and found he didn't like it.

"I dropped out and got a job at Chili's," he says. "I took some culinary classes in Florida, but later moved to Pittsburgh and graduated from Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. I've worked in five different states and at least two dozen places."

Penn Brewery's restaurant first opened in 1989, after an extensive, three-year renovation of the former Eberhardt and Ober brewery in the Deutschtown neighborhood in the North Side. General manager Mary Beth Pastorius, whose husband, Tom Pastorius, bought the condemned buildings, says it took that long to "get it all together."

"Tom's ancestor founded the first German settlement in America, and we lived in Germany for several years" says Pastorius, 60, a former home economics teacher. She and Tom, 65, live in Sewickley and have two adult sons. "Tom made all of the wooden tables and benches for the restaurant. This is our personal take on the authentic German beer hall."

Tom Pastorius sold his majority interest in the brewery and restaurant in 2003, but stayed on as CEO five more years, until he decided to retire in 2008. The restaurant closed a year later, much to the couple's dismay.

"Tom came out of retirement to save the brewery," Pastorius says. "He bought it back in November 2009, and we reopened in May of this year. Tom is so happy to be back -- the brewery is his passion. It's been very encouraging and heartwarming to see how many people have come back. We've been busy since the day we opened."

Schrett had worked at the restaurant from 2004-06, leaving to become the chef at a Zelienople retirement community for the next four years. But Schrett, a self-described beer lover, found that he missed the brewery and the quick pace of the restaurant. When he heard that Penn Brewery was going to reopen, he called Mary Beth Pastorius.

"He was the most creative and talented chef we ever had," she says. "He's perfect for Penn Brewery because he loves beer and knows his beer. He's very good at pairing beer with food.

"We're trying to have all of the special, iconic offerings that we've always had, and prepare for the future," she says. "We've even gotten more vegetarian friendly. Greg made a vegetarian bratwurst that took him weeks and weeks to create. Vegetarians now have a choice besides veggie burgers."

The menu is a joint effort between Mary Beth Pastorius and Schrett, who say they read each other's minds when it comes to recipes.

"During Lent, we have a beer-battered fish pierogi, and in the fall, we will have a sweet potato-and-marshmallow pierogi," Schrett says. "We also have a pulled pork barbecue pierogi, and will be introducing the Thanksgiving pierogi in October. That has turkey and mashed potatoes inside the pierogi, with pureed cranberry sauce on top."

Dinner entrees include schweinebraten, or slow-cooked pork loin with caraway seeds; schnitzel (breaded pork cutlet sauteed in butter); Hungarian goulash; a German sausage platter; a Polish platter and several sandwiches.

"People get good value for their money," Pastorius says. "We buy local -- our meats come from Hi Lo Farm in West Sunbury (by Butler), and Silver Star in McKees Rocks has been making our frankfurters, bratwurst and kielbasa."

Penn Brewery has about 180 seats in the main and downstairs dining rooms, and Schrett says he and his six cooks can easily serve 500 dinners on a busy night.

"It's crazy, busy, and a thing of beauty," he says. "I wouldn't survive five minutes wearing a suit and tie. I've been cooking for 23 years -- I can't do anything else. I just love it."

Buffalo Chicken Pierogies

This delicious appetizer is a tangy mixture of roasted chicken, Frank's Hot Sauce and blue cheese inside a pastry that's boiled and then fried. The pierogi dough comes from chef Greg Schrett's great-grandmother and uses sour cream to add a little more richness.

Schrett says Penn Brewery sells a ton of these appetizers, and they would be a wonderful addition to a neighborhood party. They're a bit labor-intensive, but if you like pierogies with a bit of a kick, these are well worth the time invested.

Schrett suggests serving these spicy pierogies with a good, hearty beer.

For the Buffalo Chicken Filling:

• 1 whole chicken, skin on

• Seasoned salt, to taste

• 2/3 cup Frank's Hot Sauce

• 2/3 cup blue cheese crumbles

For the dough:

• 5 large eggs, whisked

• 2 cups sour cream

• 1 stick butter, melted

• 8 cups flour

• 1 tablespoon salt

• 1 tablespoon baking powder

• Water

For frying:

• 3 large white onions, sliced and separated

• 3 sticks butter

To prepare the filling: Liberally coat the chicken with seasoned salt and roast at 350 degrees for at least 1 hour, until the meat registers 165 degrees on a meat thermometer. Pull the meat and skin from the bones and run through a grinder or chop with a knife. Put this in a bowl and mix with the hot sauce and blue cheese crumbles.

To prepare the dough: Mix the whisked eggs, sour cream and butter in a large bowl. Add the dry ingredients and knead together to form an elastic dough. Do not overwork the dough, or it will be hard to work with.

Portion into 3 pieces, wrapping 2 of the pieces in plastic to prevent drying out. Roll out dough on a well-floured surface to 1/4-inch thick. Using a 4-inch circle cutter, cut the dough and remove the extra pieces. You should have 60 pierogi pieces.

Fill each piece with about 2 tablespoons stuffing and seal the edges with a little water. Pinch tightly so the pierogi will not break open in the water.

After filling all of the pieces, bring a pot of water to a boil. Drop several pierogies into the water and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, then remove from the water. Do this step until all of the pierogies are cooked and ready for frying.

To finish: Heat 1 stick of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat and add 1 sliced onion.

Saute the onions for 2 to 3 minutes, and then add 20 pierogies, frying in batches if needed. Fry until brown on both sides, about 5 minutes.

Repeat the process twice, with 20 pierogies at a time.

Makes 60 pierogies.

Additional Information:

Penn Brewery

Cuisine: German and Eastern European

Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Kitchen closes one hour earlier.

Entree price range: $10.95-$17.95

Notes: Major credit cards accepted. Free parking available in garage behind building or on a lot across from the building. Authentic German-style beer brewed on the premises. Specialty pierogies made fresh daily.

Address: 800 Vinial St., North Side

Details: 412-237-9400 or website

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