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Iovino's a dish of pride, joy for chef-owner

| Sunday, Aug. 29, 2010

Owning a restaurant is like having another child, according to Jeff Iovino of the award-winning Iovino's Cafe in Mt. Lebanon.

There's the initial excitement and pride, and then comes the hard work. On the Friday night of the major blizzard in February, Iovino says he shoveled the sidewalk every half-hour until closing.

"I easily put in 80 hours a week and then some," says Iovino, 37, who opened the upscale cafe with his wife, Carol, in 2006. "You can't turn it off. But we knew what we were getting into. We had both been in the business a long time. There's a lot of pressure to be the best and keep the menu creative."

Iovino grew up with a love for cooking, and good, fresh food, thanks to his family. He says his maternal grandmother, who was born in Italy, was so into gardening, she turned her entire backyard into one, big vegetable garden.

"She always had fresh tomatoes, beans, peppers, lettuce," he says. "My parents worked so much that my sister and I were making dinner in grade school. I always liked to do that. I started out as a dishwasher in high school at Bado's, which is right across the street from Iovino's Cafe."

A graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School, Iovino went to the prestigious Johnson & Wales University at the South Carolina campus and graduated in 1998. He was the opening chef at Olive or Twist, Downtown, and worked at Soba for four years before opening his cafe.

"There's nothing more exciting than the opening night of a new restaurant," Iovino says. He and Carol have two children: Grace, 9, and Luke, 7. "When we first opened, there was a honeymoon phase, and we started off gangbusters. But in 2008, the economy got bad. What's ironic is that, at least in Mt. Lebanon, business got back to normal after the election."

Iovino credits his father, financial planner Rege Iovino, for helping him with financing for the restaurant.

"He asked for only one thing -- for the name to be what it is as a tribute to his father, Sam," Iovino says.

The 45-seat narrow cafe is beautifully yet simply decorated, with cream linen tablecloths draped over wooden tables, ecru walls and hardwood floors. A single, fresh gerbera daisy sits in a glass vase at each table, illuminated by the sunshine streaming through the large front windows.

"It's supposed to be light and fun," says Iovino, who finds time to coach his son's peewee football team. "When people work all week, they come here and let us show them what we can do. We have a good mix of customers and a lot of locals."

Iovino's is known for two signature dishes: marinated flank steak with an iceberg lettuce wedge and homemade blue cheese dressing; and pan-seared scallops with linguine, spinach and mushrooms in a sweet porcini cream sauce.

The menu features appetizers like fried zucchini blossoms, spicy tempura tuna, and roasted tomato hummus. Entrees include grilled Mediterranean bronzini with zucchini and red potato hash; seared breast of duck with a duck confit risotto; grilled veal tenderloin with goat cheese and sweet potato puree; crimini and goat cheese ravioli; and a vegetarian Thai red curry.

"We put a lot of emphasis on fish, and on healthy entrees," he says. "We have some gluten-free dishes, and our entrees are all made to order. I change the menu every week, based on availability of produce and seafood."

He obtains his seafood from Samuels & Sons in Philadelphia, and uses Green Grocer in McKeesport for his produce. The rest of his items come from the Strip District.

As far as a cooking philosophy goes, Iovino says he tells his staff to stay clean and focused.

"I think resilience is the best quality a chef can have," Iovino says. "You have to be able to take the ups and the downs mentally and physically. This business does kick you around a bit, but there's a lot of gratification, too."

Iovino's Cafe has been a BYOB establishment from the beginning, but Iovino is proud to say he just received a liquor license and has a full bar. He is slowly phasing out the BYOB feature.

The best part about owning your own restaurant, for Iovino, is the ability to have full control.

"In this business, you may not get rich, but you'll always have a job," he says. "This is what I was meant to do."

Marinated Flank Steak and Lettuce Wedge with House Made Blue Cheese Dressing

Chef Jeff Iovino is sharing his popular Marinated Flank Steak recipe because it's a simple, flavorful dish that's perfect for the transition from summer into fall. The flank steak should be marinated overnight, or at least for several hours, before grilling. This dish goes well with a hearty red wine, or a robust beer.

• 2 1/2 pounds flank steak, excess fat and silver skin removed

For the marinade:

• 3/4 cup balsamic vinegar

• 1/3 cup soy sauce

• 1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil

• 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped garlic

For the Blue Cheese Dressing:

• 1 cup crumbled blue cheese

• 1 cup sour cream

• 1/2 cup buttermilk

• 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

• Pinch each of salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the sweet potato chips:

• 2 sweet potatoes

• Vegetable oil

To assemble:

• 4 slices pancetta

• 1 head iceberg lettuce

Score the flank steak, making 1/8-inch cuts into the meat in a lattice pattern. This allows the meat to absorb the marinade. Pour the marinade over the steak and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

Once marinated, grill the steak on a medium-high grill to your desired temperature.

To make the marinade: Whisk together the marinade ingredients until emulsified.

To make the Blue Cheese Dressing: Mix the dressing ingredients thoroughly, making sure the blue cheese is not too chunky. Set aside.

To make the Sweet Potato Chips: Peel and thinly slice 2 sweet potatoes, frying in oil until crispy.

To assemble: Dice the slices of pancetta and roast in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes. Drain off excess fat and let cool.

Cut 1 head of iceberg lettuce into 6 wedges. Place a lettuce wedge on each plate and pour a generous amount of dressing over it. Slice the flank steak about 1/4-inch thick and place around the wedge. Place the pancetta over the dressing and lettuce, and garnish with sweet potato chips.

Makes 4 servings.

Additional Information:

Iovino's Cafe

Cuisine: American with international influences

Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. Dinner: 5-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays

Entree price range: $18-$32

Notes: Major credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible. Reservations recommended for weekends. Just received a liquor license and has a full bar, but BYOB, with a $4 corkage fee per person, accepted for now.

Address: 300A Beverly Road, Mt. Lebanon

Details: 412-440-0414 or

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