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Passion for good food rules at Cioppino Restaurant in Strip District

| Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 10:55 p.m.

Greg Alauzen, executive chef of Cioppino Restaurant in the Strip District, believes he has the best of both worlds.

The 43-year-old enjoys the fast pace of working in the city and creating the delicious, yet simple, entrees that Cioppino has become known for. But when the award-winning chef is away from Cioppino's immaculately clean and expansive kitchen, he is really away. Alauzen lives with his wife, Deborah, and their two teenagers, Cole and Madison, in a 134-year-old farmhouse on 97 acres in Eighty Four, Washington County.

"Yeah, we bought an old farmhouse and completely restored it," says Alauzen, who says the commute is about 40 minutes each way. "We did everything ourselves -- that's stress-relief for me."

Cooking has been Alauzen's passion for the past 27 years, and he is no stranger to the Pittsburgh culinary scene. The Bridgeville native began at Fatigati's as a 15-year-old when he realized he wanted to become a chef.

"I always had an interest in cooking, and my mom and grandmother taught me the basics," he says. "At Fatigati's, I thought maybe cooking (for a career) would be all right."

Alauzen graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in 1987 and interned at Maxim's of Paris in New York City. He returned to Pittsburgh and worked at the Duquesne Club for a year, but was lured back to New York for two years, working under Charlie Palmer at Aureole. Alauzen had his own restaurant, Culinary Renaissance in New Jersey, for the next six years.

"I was also a consultant for the Steelhead Grill, and then became the executive chef there for seven years," Alauzen says.

It was during those years -- in 1999, to be exact -- that Alauzen became one of 15 finalists in the James Beard Foundation competition for Best Chef -- Mid-Atlantic. But Alauzen shrugs off the honor.

"I was fortunate that I had good people guiding me," he says. "It's a hard field and it takes a lot of hard work. I've been fortunate in this industry."

After a three-year stint as executive chef at Eleven, Alauzen landed at Cioppino Restaurant, which opened two years ago. The sleek and elegant 160-seat restaurant, with its scarlet walls, wooden tables and chairs, brown concrete floor and muted lighting, quickly became the hot spot for foodies, Downtown business people, tourists and locals. A plush mahogany cigar bar, boasting a separate entrance and separate bar menu, gets very busy, says Alauzen, who has a sous chef and four cooks working with him.

"We do anywhere from 180 to 200 dinners a night, and we're only open for dinner," he says.

Alauzen's philosophy -- "keep it simple, use quality ingredients, and the right techniques" -- is evident throughout the contemporary American menu with Mediterranean influences. The menu changes four to six times a year, and Alauzen uses local ingredients as much as possible, such as Elysian Fields lamb, free-range chicken, and produce from the Strip District and local farms. Seafood is flown in from Hawaii, the West Coast and Philadelphia.

"The menu is my own, and everything is made fresh daily with seasonal ingredients," he says.

Cioppino's menu is refreshingly simple. Starters include oysters on the half shell; lobster risotto; tuna tartare with white truffle oil; beef carpaccio with capers and roasted peppers; and steamed clams and mussels in white wine.

Seafood entrees feature grilled wild king salmon with summer succotash; seared tuna and chilled taglioni; Alaskan halibut with asparagus-mushroom salad and chive oil; crab cakes, and sea scallops with risotto. Steaks are always popular, he says, as are the Elysian Fields lamb and pasta specialties -- baked gnocchi and vegetable cavatelli.

Pastry chef Meghann Walsh creates the mouthwatering homemade desserts, which include lemon panna cotta, vanilla bean creme brulee, tiramisu, amaretto cherry cheesecake and beignets.

"We do have daily features where I like to try out things," Alauzen says. "I talk to customers a lot, and see what the best-selling items are."

When Alauzen interviews prospective chefs, he looks for individuals with a good work ethic who are passionate about food. Important qualities for a chef, in his opinion, are professionalism, creativity, dedication and passion.

"Keeping good help -- that's the hardest part of this job," he says. "Cooking isn't easy; you have long hours and have to to work weekends and holidays, but if you get to the right level, you can make an OK living. And it's something you'll always know."

Alaskan Halibut with Mushroom and Asparagus Salad and Chive Oil

Cioppino executive chef Greg Alauzen is sharing his popular Alaskan halibut with mushroom and asparagus salad and chive oil recipe. This delicious summer dish is simple to prepare, and the fresh chive oil is a wonderful accompaniment to the hearty, pan-seared halibut steaks.

Alauzen suggests serving this meal with a good chardonnay or sauvignon blanc.

For the Chive Oil:

• 1/4 cup chives, roughly chopped

• 1/4 cup flat parsley leaves (float in bowl of water, drain and dry, and then roughly chop)

• 2 cloves garlic, peeled, smashed and roughly chopped

• 1 lemon, washed

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, 1 pinch each, more if needed

• 1/2 cup premium olive oil, plus more for serving

For the halibut:

• 2 tablespoons blended oil (75 percent soy; 25 percent extra virgin olive oil) or enough to coat bottom of pan

• 4 (6- to 7-ounce) boneless Alaskan halibut steaks

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• 1-2 tablespoons unsalted butter

For the Mushroom and Asparagus Salad:

• 1 to 2 tablespoons blended oil (75 percent soy; 25 percent extra virgin olive oil)

• 1 cup shiitake mushrooms, brushed clean, stems removed, and sliced

• 1 cup oyster mushrooms, brushed clean, bottom of stems removed, and sliced into bite-size pieces

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• 1 bunch asparagus (thin)

• Water

To prepare the Chive Oil: In a blender, add the chives, parsley and garlic. Using a zester, put the lemon zest into the blender, then cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice through a strainer into the blender. Add a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper.

Start the blender and slowly add the oil (see Photo 1) . After all of the oil is incorporated, blend on high for a smooth puree. Check the seasoning and adjust if necessary. This sauce can be made ahead of time.

To prepare the halibut: Heat a large saute pan to very hot and add the blended oil.

Season the fish with salt and pepper and add the halibut to the pan, flesh side down. Don't move the fish; let it sear. Use a spatula to lift the halibut slightly to check whether it has caramelized. When caramelized, after 2 to 3 minutes, flip over (Photo 2) .

Add the butter and place in a pan in a 400-degree oven for about 5 minutes, or until the fish feels firm.

To prepare the Mushroom and Asparagus Salad: Heat a saute pan to very hot, then add blended oil and saute the shiitake and oyster mushrooms (Photo 3) in separate batches until nicely caramelized, for 3 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Reserve and keep warm.

Trim the bottoms of the asparagus, and blanch to al dente in boiling salted water, then shock in an ice bath. Cut on the bias into 2-inch pieces. The asparagus can be prepared ahead of time.

To plate: Combine the asparagus and warm mushrooms, and season with salt and pepper, 1 teaspoon Chive Oil and 1 teaspoon premium olive oil (Photo 4) . Stack in the center of the plate, then place the halibut atop or on the side of the vegetables and spoon more sauce around the perimeter (Photo 5) .

Makes 4 servings.

Additional Information:

Cioppino Restaurant

Cuisine: Contemporary American with Mediterranean influences

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays

Entree price range: $16-$38

Notes: Major credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible. Reservations suggested. Live entertainment Thursdays and Fridays. Cigar bar with separate entrance. Validated parking available at garage on 24th Street. Full service bar with speciality drinks.

Address: 2350 Railroad St., Strip District

Details: 412-281-6593 or website

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