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Chef relishes success with Dinette

| Sunday, April 29, 2012, 12:01 p.m.

Sonja Finn began her culinary career at the now-defunct Baum Vivant when she was a teenager.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., she externed in North Carolina, then worked for a few years as a chef in San Francisco. She returned to Pittsburgh last April.

"I was excited about the revitalization of neighborhoods," says Finn, 29, who graduated in 1997 from Allerdice High School. "I knew I wanted to have my own restaurant before I was 30."

Finn is now the proud owner of Dinette, a small, casual eatery in Penn Circle South, in East Liberty.

She saw the place last May when it was just concrete and drywall, and envisioned her restaurant right down to the whimsical orange chairs and glass-top tables.

"I was drawn to the place because of all the windows," she says. Dinette is drenched in natural sunlight during the day from the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook Centre Avenue. "I signed the lease in July, construction began in August, and I opened Oct. 9."

Dinette has been so popular that Finn constantly is on the move, churning out more than 100 meals on the weekends.

"I had 65 meals a night in my business plan," she says. "We've been so successful. This is all we can handle. We're doing twice than what we expected."

She focuses on specialty, thin-crust pizzas and appetizers in her 40-seat restaurant, where the menu changes daily. Finn, also the head chef and manager, says the hardest part of owning her own restaurant is dealing with the unexpected things that come up.

"Like the new oven pilot that broke and the fryer caught on fire," the Squirrel Hill resident says. "The blender broke, and we've had numerous leaks. The heater was not working. Those sorts of surprises throw a wrench into your daily activity."

But the best parts are easy.

"I just love it -- the freedom to make food I want to make and treat employees the way I want to be treated," she says.

The open-air kitchen is a focal point for the restaurant, where customers can sit at the counter and watch their food being prepared. Finn says it's good for the cooks, too.

"It creates a nicer working environment," she says.

Finn began cooking with her Yugoslavian-born mother, Olivera Finn, when she was just 3 years old. Her dad, Seth, and mom are her best customers.

"I always enjoyed cooking, I just didn't know it would become a career," Finn says. "I just want to make really great food and have this be a fun place to come for friends and families."

Dinette goes through 150 pounds of flour every week for the pizzas, and another 25 pounds of flour for the well-received thin breadsticks that Finn makes. She makes 1,500 sticks a week.

"These have been extremely popular," she says. "People just love them."

Her philosophy is to use the best ingredients possible, with simple preparations and perfect execution.

"We get our produce from Penn's Corner Farm Alliance and our cured meats from Parma Sausage in the Strip District," Finn says. "We go to Turner Dairy for all our milk and dairy products. We get our flours from Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip."

Fresh flowers from West Virginia sit at every table, and tract lighting is used at night.

"I think we have a European feeling, likes places in Italy," she says. "It's fun, but functional."

Finn receives at least six calls a night, asking what the soup is that day.

"This can be a good place to go out to or to stop at on the way home," Finn says. "We close at 10 p.m. during the week, but people can walk in at 9:59 and get a full meal."

Bread Sticks

Dinette owner and chef Sonja Finn has shared her breadstick recipe with Cooking Class. She suggests keeping the yeast in the freezer to keep it fresh.

The breadsticks turn out delightfully crunchy and full of flavor, a nice addition to any meal.

"The semolina gives the breadsticks a little more crunch," Finn says.

You can find semolina at specialty grocery stores, such as DeLallo's in Greenburg, Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip District, Giant Eagle Market District stores and Whole Foods in Shadyside.

• 1 tablespoon active dry yeast

• 1 1/2 cups warm water (about 100 degrees)

• 3 1/8 cups high gluten bread flour

• 2/3 cup semolina

• 2 tablespoons olive oil

• 1 tablespoon kosher salt

Put the water in a mixing bowl. Sprinkle yeast over and let it stand for 3 minutes.

Whisk and let it stand another 4 minutes.

Add the remaining ingredients. Mix at medium speed for about 10 minutes.

Shape the dough into a ball. Cover it with plastic wrap (Photo 1) and let the dough rise for about 1 hour or until it's doubled in size.

Cut the dough using a pasta maker with a fettucine attachment (Photo 2), or use a knife to cut it into thin strips.

Coat a sheet tray with the oil. (Photo 3)

Space the strips of dough on the tray about a half-inch apart. (Photo 4)

Spray the strips lightly with cooking spray or oil.

Bake in an oven heated to 350 degrees for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.

Makes 6 dozen.

Additional Information:


Cuisine: Upscale pizzeria

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Entree price range: $13-$16

Notes: No reservations accepted. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Handicapped accessible. Select wine list and beer.

Address: Second level of EastSide, corner of Centre and Highland avenues, East Liberty

Details: 412-362-0202 or

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