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Chef at Downtown's Bigelow Grille emphasizes organic, natural food

| Friday, April 27, 2012, 2:59 a.m.

Anthony Zallo, executive chef at the Bigelow Grille, Downtown, has a mission.

He wants to teach people to eat the way our ancestors ate, and so he serves mostly organic and natural food.

"My main concern is what I put into people's bodies," says Zallo, 42, who has been a chef for 25 years. "I only serve the best possible food. ... I refuse to serve processed food in our restaurant. Everything is made in-house from scratch, using the best ingredients we can find."

Zallo, the child of Italian immigrants Raffaele and Claudia Zallo, learned how to cook the old-fashioned way, he says.

"I grew up with it," Zallo says. "In my family, feeding the family is a big deal. I got my first chef's knife for Christmas when I was 14."

The Bigelow Grille prides itself on serving "authentic regional cuisine." With hardwood floors, creamy mustard walls and green cloth chairs, it's a casual yet elegant place where diners can feel at home in jeans and a sweatshirt or more formal attire. The award-winning, 80-seat restaurant is adjacent to the Doubletree Hotel and Suites and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner 365 days a year.

"It never stops," says Zallo, who is married to Bridgett, a trained pastry chef, and has three children. "We do banquets out of here, everything. There are 11 cooks in the kitchen, including two sous chefs and a pastry chef."

Zallo has been at the Bigelow Grille for two years, after owning his own restaurant, Abrio, in the South Hills for five years. The 1986 graduate of Seton LaSalle High School attended Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, but didn't graduate.

"I went abroad to France and Italy for four years," he says. "I was young and dumb, but I wanted to travel."

The Bigelow Grille is the only restaurant representing Pittsburgh in the Taste of the NFL, a fundraiser that raises money for food banks across the country. The restaurant's former chef, Kevin Sousa, was chosen several years ago, and Zallo inherited it from him. Former Steelers linebacker Andy Russell works with Zallo at the event, which takes place every year during the Super Bowl.

"It's a big honor — they fly us down there, and I do several demonstrations and cooking classes," Zallo says. "I'll be making the goat cheese pierogies with crispy pork belly this time."

The restaurant serves only sustainable seafood — that which is found abundantly in the ocean and is not over-harvested — from Samuels and Sons out of Philadelphia, and Euro Foods out of Cleveland. It receives produce from Cherry Valley Organics in Burgettstown.

Zallo creates the menu, which changes every two to three weeks.

"I go with what we can get season-wise," Zallo says. "We feature local produce as much as possible."

His menu is not an extensive one, but is well thought-out and detailed. The appetizers are hearty and unusual, such as goat cheese pierogies, boneless quail with sweet and sour sauce, shaved fennel and apple salad, lobster bisque, crispy calamari with Thai barbecue, tempura organic tofu, pan-roasted mussels and grilled, smoked gouda with fig molasses.

Entrees include homemade gnocchi with wild mushrooms and gorgonzola cream sauce, spaghettini with roasted gulf shrimp, seared scallops, Tasmanian king salmon, organic chicken breast with autumn squash risotto, double-cut pork rib chop, organic beef short rib and dry-aged New York strip steak.

Gnocchi with Wild Mushrooms, Gorgonzola Cream Sauce and Toasted Walnuts

Anthony Zallo, executive chef at the Bigelow Grille, Downtown, chose to share his homemade gnocchi recipe with Cooking Class.

Zallo's mother, Claudia, makes all of the gnocchi that the restaurant serves. Gnocchi is a big seller on the menu, he says.

"Gnocchi is really, really simple," he says. "This cream-based recipe is really common in the north of Italy, while in Southern Italy, it's more tomato-based. The key is not to overwork the gnocchi mixture."

For the gnocchi:

• 13/4 pounds large Idaho baking potatoes, scrubbed

• Water

• 1 large egg, beaten

• 1 teaspoon salt

• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

• 1 teaspoon melted butter

• 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided

For the Gorgonzola and Wild Mushroom Sauce:

• 1 teaspoon butter

• 1 teaspoon finely chopped shallots

• 1 cup wild mushrooms (or any mushrooms that are available)

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• 1/8 cup white wine or water

• 1 cup heavy cream

• 1/2 cup gorgonzola cheese

• 1/8 cup toasted chopped walnuts, for serving

To prepare the gnocchi : Place the potatoes in a large pot with enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook, partially covered, for about 35 minutes, until the potatoes are easily pierced with a skewer but the skins are not split. Drain the potatoes and let them stand just until cool enough to handle, and peel the skins off.

Press the peeled potatoes through a potato ricer. The potatoes could also be passed through a food mill fitted with the fine disc, but a ricer makes fluffier potatoes and, therefore, lighter gnocchi. Spread the riced potatoes into a thin, even layer on the work surface, without pressing them or compacting them.

Gather the potatoes into a mound and form a well in the center. Beat together the egg, salt, pepper and melted butter (Photo 1) , and pour into the well. Using both hands, knead the potato and egg mixtures together, gradually adding enough of the flour, about 1 1/2 cups, to form a smooth but slightly sticky dough.

It should take no longer than 3 minutes to work the flour into the potato mixture. The longer the dough is kneaded, the more flour it will require and the heavier it will become. As you knead the dough, it will stick to your hands and to the work surface. Repeatedly rub this rough dough from your hands and scrape it with a knife or dough scraper from the work surface back into the dough as you knead.

Dust the work surface lightly with some of the remaining flour. Cut the dough into six equal pieces and set off to one side of the work surface. Place 1 piece of dough in front of you and pat it into a rough oblong. Using both hands, in a smooth back-and-forth motion and exerting light downward pressure, roll the dough into a rope 1/2 inch thick, flouring the dough, if necessary, as you roll to keep it from sticking. Slice the ropes into 1/2-inch-thick rounds.

Sprinkle the rounds lightly with flour and roll each piece quickly between your palms into a rough ball (Photo 2) , flouring the dough and your hands as needed to prevent sticking. Dip the tip of your thumb in the flour. Take one ball of dough and, using the tip of your thumb, press the dough lightly against the tines of a fork as you roll it downward toward the tips of the tines. As the dough wraps around the tip of your thumb, it will form into a dumpling with a deep indentation on one side and a ridged surface on the other.

Cook the gnocchi in salted boiling water until they float, for about 3 minutes, and toss with your favorite sauce.

To prepare the sauce : Heat a heavy saute pan to medium heat and add the 1 teaspoon butter, shallots and mushrooms (Photo 3) . Season with salt and pepper and cook until slightly brown and tender. Deglaze the pan, using water or wine. Add the heavy cream and gorgonzola cheese.

Cook at medium heat until the sauce coats the back of a spoon, for about 5 minutes. Add the cooked gnocchi and toss. Sprinkle with walnuts (Photo 4) . Serve immediately.

Makes 2 servings.

Additional Information:

Bigelow Grille

Cuisine : Regional cuisine with European and Asian influences

Hours : Breakfast: 6 a.m.-11 a.m. daily. Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. Dinner: 5-11 p.m. daily

Entree price range : $21-$39

Notes : Daily specials. Full bar. Suggested wine pairings on request. Handicapped accessible. Accepts major credit cards. Reservations accepted.

Address : One Bigelow Square, adjacent to the Doubletree Hotel and Suites, Downtown

Details : 412-586-1850 or online.

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