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Joe Mama's makes the grade in Oakland

| Monday, June 11, 2012, 8:52 a.m.

The cooks at Joe Mama's Italian Deluxe in Oakland go through 300 pounds of dry pasta every week.

That's not hard to believe when you consider that the traditional yet funky Italian eatery is open every day until midnight, and sits in the heart of Oakland.

"We get a lot of Pitt students," says executive chef Brad Kohut, who has been with the Joe Mama's company almost five years. "We are best known for our pasta, and the students love our ravioli. We easily put out 50 pizzas, over 100 pastas, and 75 entrees on a busy night.

"One thing you got to be in this kitchen is prepared."

Joe Mama's has been sitting at the corner of bustling Forbes and Oakland avenues since 2001. Reminiscent of a 1950s diner, complete with the neon signs and red-and-white checkered tablecloths, Joe Mama's can seat 150 -- and sometimes as many as 180 -- in two spacious dining rooms, one upstairs and one downstairs. The owners of Joe Mama's also own Fuel & Fuddle, next door, and a new burger restaurant in Fox Chapel called Burgatory.

"Most of our food is made from scratch," says Kohut, "but we do make 30 gallons of marinara at a time because we go through so much of it. Our desserts are also homemade."

Kohut, 33, is a Penn-Trafford graduate who started working as a short-order cook when he was 15. Even though one of his older brothers worked as a chef for a long time, Kohut didn't know he would enter the culinary field until after he graduated from Penn State with a degree in hospitality management.

"I actually went for an engineering degree first," he says with a laugh. "But I learned most of my stuff at Penn State while working under chef Pete Herncane in State College. He helped me learn how to make soups, and one of the first soups he taught me to make was vichyssoise."

The best advice Kohut ever received from Herncane was "keep it simple."

"I thought that if I used a lot of ingredients, it would taste good," Kohut says. "I had a lot to learn. The vichyssoise was simple but so good. I started simple and worked my way toward more sophisticated things."

The menu at Joe Mama's reflects Kohut's desire to keep the items authentic, and to use as much organic and local produce as possible. For starters, there's crispy calamari, fresh tomato bruschetta, zucchini fries, Italian nachos, baked artichoke dip and mozzarella sticks. There are several fresh salads, sandwiches, wraps and pizzas. The popular pasta dishes include penne alfredo, four-cheese ravioli, spaghetti with a half-pound meatball, bacon linguine, and shrimp scampi.

"We have a garden on the roof, and it's the first year for it," says Kohut, who lives in Regent Square with his wife, Katie, and their three young children, Elizabeth, Charlie and Emme. "There are four different kinds of tomatoes, 11 basil plants, mint and rosemary. We get our produce from Paragon in the Strip, and they use a lot of local and organic farms. Sysco is our main purveyor, and we also get dry pasta and Italian cheese from Sunseri in the Strip."

Entrees feature garlic chicken with roasted tomatoes and mozzarella; chicken and prosciutto parmesan; sun-dried tomato-glazed salmon with linguine; pan-fried tilapia, and eggplant parmesan.

Kohut oversees a kitchen staff of 18, including talented sous chef Eric Duffy. He says that the most important quality for a successful chef is organization.

"It's one thing to be able to put a handful of ingredients together and make it taste good," he says. "It's another thing to make the same dish many times, as well as many other dishes for hours on end, without leaving a three-foot radius. To get through a Friday night dinner rush, you must be organized."

Although organization is important, Kohut says that's not the first thing he looks for when hiring a chef.

"I look for someone who takes pride in their work and has a strong work ethic," Kohut says. "You can teach someone how to be organized and can teach someone the skills necessary to be a chef, but taking pride in your work comes from within."

Being a chef is stressful, Kohut acknowledges, and he works long hours -- sometimes 40 hours just in one weekend. But he says the positive aspects of his job far outweigh the negative.

"I like being creative, and I also like the fast-paced nature of the business because it doesn't allow time to get bored," he says. "I can't sit behind a desk all day, and there's no flexibility in the 9-to-5 corporate world.

"But the best thing about being a chef is eating all the time. I'm constantly trying stuff at work to make sure the food is good. That definitely does not get old."

As a busy chef and dad, Kohut has a hard time relaxing. He still cooks at home, and even when he goes camping with his family, he enjoys the challenge of cooking everything over a campfire. If Kohut weren't a chef, he says he would probably be a carpenter.

"I enjoy designing things," he says. "I designed the kitchen for the new restaurant (Burgatory). I would like to design restaurants in the future."

Pasta Fresca

Executive chef Brad Kohut is sharing his popular Pasta Fresca recipe. It's an easy, healthy vegetarian dinner that utilizes end-of-the-season tomatoes and fresh spinach. The dish uses whole wheat pasta rather than the traditional pasta.

He suggests serving this satisfying meal with a good white wine such as a pinot grigio or a sauvignon blanc.

• Water

• Salt

• 8 ounces whole wheat spaghetti (about 4 ounces dry)

• 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh minced garlic

• 1/4 cup premium olive oil

• 1/2 cup chopped tomatoes

• 1 tablespoon basil chiffonade

• 1 cup fresh baby spinach

• 1/2 cup cubed fresh mozzarella

• Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• Fresh shredded parmesan cheese, for serving

• Springs of fresh parsley, for serving

Place a pot of generously salted water on high heat and bring to a boil. Add the whole wheat spaghetti and boil for approximately 7 minutes until al dente, or just tender, stirring occasionally to prevent the pasta from sticking together.

Meanwhile, sweat the garlic in the olive oil over medium heat until the garlic starts to sizzle and becomes fragrant, for about 2 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and basil, sauteing briefly until the tomatoes start to break down, for 30 to 60 seconds.

Add the spinach and toss, then add the fresh mozzarella and toss. Remove from the heat.

Drain the spaghetti, add to the pan, and toss.

Season with salt and peppr, and toss.

Place on a serving dish and garnish with fresh shredded parmesan cheese and fresh parsley.

Makes 1 serving.

Additional Information:

Joe Mama's Italian Deluxe

Cuisine: Traditional Italian

Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight daily

Entree price range: $9.95-$18.95

Notes: Major credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible. Full bar. Half-price selected items from 11 p.m.-midnight. Daily food and happy hour specials. Sunday brunch from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Address: 3716 Forbes Ave., Oakland

Details: 412-621-7282 or website

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