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Chef finds Cure in Lawrenceville

| Sunday, April 8, 2012

After eight years of operating his own butcher shop and small cafe in Santa Cruz, Calif., chef Justin Severino was on the verge of signing a loan document for a much larger space that would have kept him in the Golden State.

And he just couldn't do it.

"It would have cost $3 million to do this in the Bay Area. I won't say how much it cost here, but it was a whole lot less," Severino says.

"Here" is Cure, his 50-seat restaurant in Lawrenceville, where Severino promulgates at least two definitions of the word "cure."

One is the curing he does after butchering and preparing his meats, including pancetta, a traditional Italian bacon he makes from pork belly.

The other is the cure the restaurant provides for a diner's hunger. But the restaurant also seems to provide a cure for Severino's hankering for high-quality, locally grown food with a definite flair.

"Sometimes, people try too hard with food," says Severino, 33, of Mt. Washington. "Sometimes, the best food is five ingredients -- as long as the ingredients are high-quality."

Severino, a native of Ashtabula, Ohio, began learning the importance of high-quality ingredients when he trained at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, from which he graduated in 1999. Then he worked for six years under expert California chefs before opening Severino's Community Butcher in 2005 in Santa Cruz.

But his and his wife's families were back in the East. The two returned to Pittsburgh in 2007 to be closer to relatives. Severino worked as sous chef at Eleven and executive chef at the 350-seat Elements restaurant before opening Cure.

"It was an adjustment, but I really love it," he says of his new situation. "I feel there's a lot of change in Pittsburgh."

Severino says there's a growing movement of diners who want to know where your food comes from. "Once they get the concept of local food, they think, 'What part of the animal am I missing?'" he says.

Now Severino considers himself part of "something unique and different that had some potential" in an up-and-coming neighborhood. The section of Lawrenceville where Cure sits is seeing an influx of new food-related businesses, such as Allegheny Wine Bar and Wild Purveyors. And he sees a collegiality of like-minded chefs in the area who are attempting to offer a higher level of culinary arts in comfortable settings.

Cure offers from-scratch foods, often served family-style. Severino's polenta dish, for instance, is served in traditional Italian fashion, on a wooden serving board. But he has raised the dish to a higher level by including pancetta and lavender.

Severino buys as much locally grown and raised produce and meats as possible. Among the pork products he has made from scratch and offered to diners are his Boudin Blanc (white chicken) sausage and Boudin Noir (blood) sausage dishes; the latter, for $28, is paired with sauerkraut and violet mustard.

But Cure offers many non-pork dishes, including fish, chicken and vegetarian dishes like mushroom risotto. A duck breast dish for $28 includes spiced red cabbage, parsnip and cocoa. The spaghetti and chicken meatballs for $16 include tomato sauce, capers, golden raisins and anchovies.

Severino created many farm meals in California that were held in barns. He's planning to do an Outstanding in the Field dinner Aug. 26 at Blackberry Meadows, a Community Supported Agriculture farm in Natrona Heights. And he ultimately hopes to hold farm meals in the future somewhere in the area.

Severino's affinity for farms is partly why he chose the decor of horizontal barn wood walls, chicly accented with earth-toned paisley banquette upholstery. The tables and chairs in Cure are refinished vintage pieces. Because the 80-year-old refinished tables had to be bolted to the uneven original hardwood floors for stability, Severino couldn't move the tables for larger parties. So, he devised leaves to insert between the table surfaces for additional diners. The leaves bring the total for potential diners to 58, including four stools in the kitchen area.

The decor helps create what Severino calls "a warm, inviting environment where people are having fun."

Adding to the fun are whimsical porcine figurines, including the statue of a pig that's often placed outside the restaurant, a ceramic pig's head on the wall and figurines on a shelf.

"We're, in a way, starting to cultivate a new culture of food in Pittsburgh," Severino says. "People in Pittsburgh are so hungry for it."

And for that hunger, Severino has the Cure.

Polenta with Pancetta and Mushrooms

Justin Severino has fond memories of family gatherings in his hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio, where traditional Italian dishes were served family-style.

Severino, whose heritage is mostly Italian with a bit of Native American, says he ate polenta twice a week. He prefers to serve polenta in traditional Italian peasant fashion, family-style on a large wooden board. But he has put his own tasty, modern twists on the traditional dish by using mushrooms, pancetta, beet greens and lavender.

"We do a lot of family-style service," Severino says of Cure. "It allows people to share. There's a whole lot more to a meal than just the food."

For the polenta:

  • 3 ounces olive oil
  • 2 large shallots, minced
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 5 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 cup coarse ground cornmeal (polenta)

For the mushrooms:

  • 3 ounces pancetta (Italian pork-belly meat, or Italian bacon, available at Parma Sausage)
  • 1/4 pound maitake mushrooms (oyster mushrooms can be substituted)
  • 1/2 ounce olive oil
  • 1/4 pound baby beet greens or Swiss chard

For the lavender-olive sauce:

  • 1/2 cup oil-cured olives
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried lavender flowers
  • 3 ounces olive oil

To assemble:

  • 2 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 2 ounces creme fraiche
  • 2 1/2 ounces Taleggio cheese (available at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co.)

To prepare the polenta: Heat the 3 ounces olive oil in a thick-bottom pot over medium heat, then add the shallots and garlic. Saute over medium heat until the shallots and garlic are soft and sweet. To this, add the milk, taking care not to scald. Gradually add the cornmeal to the mixture, whisking constantly. When the mixture thickens, continue mixing with a wooden spoon to avoid burning the bottom. The process will take about an hour. If preparing the other elements of the recipe takes more time, the polenta mixture can be set aside at this point.

To prepare the mushrooms : Chop the pancetta into small cubes, and pull apart the mushrooms. Heat the 1/2 ounce olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook at a lower temperature until it is crispy and transparent. When the pancetta is crispy, turn up the heat so the cold mushrooms, when added, do not lower the temperature of the ingredients in the pan. Add the mushrooms and beet greens, and stir until wilted .

To prepare the lavender-olive sauce: Puree the olives, lavender and 3 ounces olive oil in a blender until smooth .

To prepare for the table: Blend the Pecorino Romano cheese and creme fraiche into the polenta. Spread the thickened polenta on a large, clean wooden board. Place a long slice of the Taleggio cheese on top of the polenta, then garnish the edges with the pancetta-mushroom mixture. Health-conscious cooks can drain the pancetta mixture before garnishing. Top with the lavender-olive sauce.

Serve with red wine.

Makes 4 servings.

Additional Information:


Cuisine: Extra-local urban Mediterranean

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. or later Fridays and Saturdays, closed Sundays and Mondays

Entree price range: $12 to $28

Notes: BYOB. Reservations necessary on weekends. Major credit cards accepted. Offers cooking classes, demonstrations and other special events.

Location: 5336 Butler St., Lawrenceville

Details: 412-252-2595 or website

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