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Bigelow Grille chef Anthony Zallo heads to Dallas for Taste of NFL fundraiser

| Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011

Anthony Zallo will be arriving in Dallas this week with 550 pounds of gnocchi and 150 pounds of wild mushrooms to represent the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Taste of the NFL fundraiser before the Super Bowl.

The executive chef of the Bigelow Grille, Downtown, expects to sell out of his Gnocchi with Wild Mushrooms and Gorgonzola Cream Sauce just as he did last year with his pierogies.

"The Pittsburgh booth is usually one of the more popular stations, and we have the longest lines," says Zallo, 43, who has been cooking on behalf of the Steelers for five years and has worked as a professional chef for 26 years. "This year's event is to be the biggest one yet, so we will be busy, and it will be a bit more stressful."

A Taste of the NFL showcases chefs in each of the 32 cities in the National Football League. Each chef is teamed with an active or retired player from their respective team. The chefs are chosen based on originality, quality of their menu, restaurant ratings, reviews and the chef's community involvement. The Saturday night event, which will be attended by 3,000 people at the Fort Worth Convention Center, has raised more than $16 million over the past 20 years for hunger-related charities.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Taste of NFL.

"I like to think that our booth is so popular because of my culinary expertise, but I know that a lot of people want to meet the legendary Steeler Andy Russell," Zallo says. "Andy is so great when it comes to giving his time to this cause. He's inspiring, without a doubt."

Russell, a linebacker who played for the Steelers from 1963-1976 and played in the team's first Super Bowl win, has been involved with the event for 14 years. The Nevillewood resident calls it "a meaningful effort to stop hunger in America."

"I appreciate working with Anthony -- he's a terrific guy, and I have a great time," says Russell, who is married and has two children and seven grandchildren. "My job is to sell my helmet to the highest bidder, and if we win the contest, the money goes directly to the food bank in Pittsburgh.

"It's all about Steeler Nation, and there are fans all over the world," he says. "We see people from Saudia Arabia and Japan. There are Steeler bars in Rome and Moscow. People love our city, our people, and the attitude."

Zallo decided to make the gnocchi dish this year, because he thought it would be "a great representation of my heritage, the Bigelow Grille, and Pittsburgh." He considers the gnocchi, which his Italian mom, Claudia, makes by hand, to be a signature item for the restaurant.

In addition to the hundreds of pounds of Mom's gnocchi and wild mushrooms, Zallo will be bringing 20 gallons of heavy cream, 3 gallons of white wine, 3 pounds of garlic, 3 pounds of shallots, 15 pounds of walnuts and 30 pounds of gorgonzola cheese.

"My mom started making them the beginning of January," says Zallo, who lives in Bethel Park with wife, Bridget, and their three children. "She does one batch a day and has been freezing them at her house."

Zallo won't be flying to Dallas with that load of food. He, along with sous chef Mike Pfarner, and his brother, head bartender Michael Zallo, are driving to the Super Bowl this week.

"The media interest is a lot bigger," he says, "but I don't care about being in the public eye. The benefit is helping kids to eat. That's why I do it."

Zallo's voice catches in his throat as he continues.

"I have a hard time even talking about it," he says. "When I see how many kids are starving, it's sad. One year, a boy told me he and his brother took turns eating breakfast -- one would get to eat breakfast one morning, and the other would eat it the next morning. It's amazing to me that hunger and food insecurity are on the rise in today's America."

Last year's gift from Taste of the NFL -- $10,000, plus $3,400 from the wine event in Pittsburgh -- provided nearly 47,000 meals for children.

Monthly autographed NFL merchandise and items donated by chefs are auctioned online. Details: .

Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank

• Has received $43,260 from Taste of the NFL since 2001, the year the food bank's records became computerized.

• Will distribute 23.5 million pounds of food this year.

• Since August 2008, has been serving an average of 2,500 new households every month -- 25,000 more people in 2010 than in 2009.

Gnocchi with Wild Mushrooms and Gorgonzola Sauce

For the gnocchi:

  • 3 pounds russet potatoes
  • Water
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 egg, extra large
  • 1 pinch salt

For the Sauce:

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon minced shallots
  • 1 1/2 cups wild mushrooms, wiped clean, tough stems removed
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup grated gorgonzola cheese
  • 3/4 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

To prepare the gnocchi: Boil the potatoes until they are tender. While still warm, peel and pass through a food mill or ricer onto a clean, dry countertop or extra-large cutting board.

Bring 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil in a 3-gallon pot. Prepare an ice bath with 6 cups ice and 6 cups water. Make a well in the center of the potatoes and sprinkle with the flour. Place the egg and salt in the center of the well and, using a fork, stir into the flour and potatoes, just like making pasta. After the egg is mixed in, bring the dough together, kneading gently until a ball is formed. Knead gently for another 4 minutes until ball is dry to touch.

Roll the baseball-size ball of dough into 3/4-inch diameter logs. Cut the logs into 1-inch-long pieces. Drop the gnocchi into the boiling water and cook for 1 minute, or until they float.

To prepare the sauce: In a large saute pan, melt the butter and saute the garlic, shallots and mushrooms until tender, for about 4 minutes. Add the white wine, reduce for 1 minute, and then add the cream. Reduce for another 4 minutes, and stir in the gorgonzola. Add the gnocchi to the pan, toss well, and top with the toasted walnuts.

Makes 4 servings.

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