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Girasole keeps foodies clamoring for Italian fare

| Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 9:28 p.m.

The best culinary lesson Jennifer Gerasole ever learned was to only use high-quality ingredients -- and to keep the cooking simple.

As the executive chef of Girasole in Shadyside, that advice has served her well in the 10 years the authentic, family-owned Italian restaurant has been open.

Husband Gino Gerasole, his brother, Vito, and their parents, Jimmy "Pie" and Patti Gerasole, all serve in one capacity or another in the 48-seat restaurant that's so popular customers have to call ahead just to be put on a waiting list.

"When we opened, we thought we'd just offer simple pastas and salads," says Jennifer Gerasole, 36, a 1998 graduate of the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts and a native of Brookline. "We never expected to be this busy. We work at the speed of light back there. It's crazy, but you get used to it."

Girasole's philosophy -- to serve traditional and innovative Italian cuisine in an upbeat atmosphere -- has never wavered, according to Patti Gerasole.

(Girasole means "sunflower" in Italian. The family name is spelled differently because the original Italian name was misspelled by an immigration official as Gerasole many decades ago.)

"We wanted to create an atmosphere where people feel that they are coming into our home," Patti Gerasole says. "Our little restaurant is inviting and warm, not only because of the interior decor, but also because of the friendly and sincere personalities within.

"I think of it as the personification of the sunflower -- happy, sunny, cheerful, lively, hearty, healthy, looking forward."

The narrow space at Girasole on Copeland Street is crammed full of small, bare copper tables that sit flush against the interior stone walls. Diners walk down a few steps to enter the rustic restaurant, which is usually noisy on any given night.

"We can do 250 to 300 dinners on a busy night," says Jennifer Gerasole, an Aspinwall resident and mother of three. "We do have outside seating in the summer, and Sunday is a good day to come. "

Jennifer Gerasole worked at Il Pizzaiola in Mt. Lebanon before Girasole opened, and had experience in the restaurant industry in Myrtle Beach before moving back to Pittsburgh in 1997. Many of the recipes at Girasole come from the traditional Italian dishes that Patti Gerasole grew up with, but the seasonal recipes are Jennifer's. Another chef, Chris Corimski, creates the daily specials.

"A lot of our recipes use the same concept but different ingredients," Jennifer Gerasole says. "Patti is a fantastic cook. Everything we make is fresh and depends on what's available."

Italian foodies will find lots to love at Girasole, from the fresh salads and paninis to the pastas and "primi" dishes. Some of the pastas include baked polenta topped with mozzarella, escarole and beans; potato gnocchi in a marinara sauce; spinach and ricotta ravioli; torchia with rapini, white beans, fennel and miniature meatballs; and a squid-ink linguine with lobster and shallots.

An Italian omelet of the day is on the menu, as well as a fresh chicken, fish, and meat of the day. A delicious breaded eggplant stuffed with ricotta, prosciutto and pine nuts and served in a marinara sauce is also featured; and the brodetto, an Italian fish stew with spicy sausage and saffron is very popular.

Patti Gerasole says her talented daughter-in-law is "the leveler" at their restaurant. Jennifer Gerasole does a lot of the catering, and also cooks in people's homes at private parties.

"We're all very emotional, and she handles stress very well," Patti Gerasole says. "Her organizational skills are wonderful, and she's very creative."

Familial pride is a common feeling for Patti Gerasole, a Plum resident, who says her entire family is all about food and the food industry. Oldest son Vince Gerasole is a CBS reporter in Chicago. His daughters, Isabella and Olivia, won a James Beard award when they were 8 and 10 for Spatulatta.com , a website where kids teach kids how to cook. The girls, now 12 and 14, wrote their own cookbook that was published by Scholastic in 2007.

"They were here last week for a visit," Patti Gerasole says.

She acknowledges that the restaurant business is stressful and requires a lot of hard work, but the Gerasole family enjoys what they do. Expansion plans are not "out of the realm of possibility," she says.

"The best thing about Girasole is that we can celebrate every day with the incredible people who come through our doors," Patti Gerasole says. "We are very grateful for our fantastic customers and friends. The best part, for me, is that we have our family around us all the time. It's our home."

Spinach Spaghetti

Girasole executive chef Jennifer Gerasole is sharing her popular Spinach Spaghetti recipe. It's a wonderful, vegetarian, end-of-summer dish that utilizes nature's local bounty of fresh corn and tomatoes with colors that pop on the plate.

"You can also add grilled chicken or sauteed shrimp to the dish," she says. "A lot of people ask us how to make this. It's a very popular recipe."

Gerasole says the recipe is so simple, even children can make it. She suggests serving this dish with a nice pinot grigio.

• Water

• 1 pound spinach spaghetti

• 1 cup corn, cut from from 2 ears of fresh corn

• 1/4 cup premium olive oil

• 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

• 1/4 teaspoon salt

• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

• 1 cup diced tomatoes

• 1 cup diced buffalo mozzarella (can find at Pennsylvania Macaroni Company or Giant Eagle Market District)

• 1/3 cup chopped basil

• 1 tablespoon butter

Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil. Cook the pasta for 12 minutes.

While the pasta is cooking, add the corn to the water and boil with the pasta.

In a mixing bowl, combine the olive oil with the garlic, salt, pepper, tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil and butter.

Drain the pasta and corn and add to the mixing bowl. Serve at room temperature.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Additional Information:

Girasole

Cuisine: Traditional and modern Italian

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4-9 p.m. Sundays

Entree price range: $12.95-$21.95

Notes: Major credit cards accepted. Not wheelchair accessible. Daily specials in addition to the seasonal menu. Full bar with all-Italian wine list. No reservations accepted, but offers call-ahead seating to be put on a waiting list.

Address: 733 Copeland St., Shadyside

Details: 412-682-2130 or website

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