Sunday, July 6, 2014

Brooklyn Brewery’s “Dinner on the Farm” Mash Event at Blackberry Meadows Farm

I’m a lover of all things local, especially when it comes to our booming brewery scene.  That said, I’ll abuse my liver with delicious craft beer from a variety of respectable breweries.  A prime example of this is Brooklyn Brewery. Incredibly lucky for us, they chose Pittsburgh (just one of 12 cities selected in ‘Merica and Europe) as one of their Mash tour stops.  What is The Mash you ask?  The Brooklyn Brewery Mash is a weeklong event in which Brooklyn collaborates with local bars, chefs, comedians, musicians, and more.  While we attended several stellar events, the highlight of The Mash and the focus of my latest ravings was Dinner on the Farm (a roaming dinner orchestrated by Monica Walch), which was hosted by Blackberry Meadows Farm.

There is something magical about driving out of the hustle ‘n bustle of the city to a farm like Blackberry Meadows for dinner.  Even more so knowing that Brooklyn Brewery Chef Andrew Gerson and his city lovin’ friends Chef Justin Severino of Cure and Chef Mike Poiarkoff of Vinegar Hill House (Brooklyn, NY) were leaving their brick and mortar eateries behind and preparing an outdoor feast for you on an 85-acre organic vegetable farm.

After parking in a field, we unloaded plates, chairs, and a vase of flowers (self arranged, thank you).  “Why are you bringing your own stuff?” you inquire.  Well, unlike other farm dinners I’ve attended, the focus was less about “stuff” and more about the actual farm and the idea of eating a delicious communal meal paired with cold Brooklyn Brews.  As a result, the cost of this event was quite affordable, allowing everyone from young professionals to families of six to attend (children were free).  The trade was needing to bring necessary items/utensils to allow for dining and lounging.  With friends in tow, we chose to divide and conquer, each of us agreeing to bring various items, including our own table.  Others opted to bring blankets and go the picnic route.

Our collaborative effort looked pretty darn beautiful.
With our table set, we filled our Mason jars with either the perennial fav’ Brooklyn Lager or the seasonally perfect Summer Ale.  Since there were no IPAs on tap (no Brooklyn Blast) I went with the lager.  I’m pleased to say, this brew with delightfully refreshing and still offered up some mild bitterness.  It was a great beer to imbibe upon while scarfing down an obscene volume of “small plate” action.  In addition to local delicacies like mushroom pate and an assortment of cheese provided by Wild Purveyors, Chef Serverino brought Cure’s infamous charcuterie spread to the farm.  The amount of cured meats and rabbit terrine (terrine=fancy chilled meat loaf, often featuring game meat…thanks Frenchies) I stuffed in to my endless pit of a stomach was worth the price of admission alone, folks. 
Brent Mangan pouring cold, delicious Brooklyn brews.
Rabbit terrine getting sliced for the charcuterie board.

Charcuterie...I want more.
Thankfully, we were given a food timeout and as we toured the farm.  We wandered from the green house to the barn and encountered a few cows and chickens along the way.  This was a wonderful way to meet the farmers of Blackberry Meadows and learn about their CSA program and farmers market locales.  By the end of the tour, it was evident that Blackberry Meadows is the product of hardworking hands and hearts. 

Inside the greenhouse.
Cutest cow ever?
I was happy to have some additional downtime between the tour and dinner.  It allowed us time to enjoy the sounds of a local band Union Rye, get our next round of Brooklyn brews, and…maybe play some Cards Against Humanity.  (Don’t worry; we were an appropriate distance away from small children.)

Local band Union Rye
After a short time, the main event started arriving on large banquet tables, family-style.  There was a bounty of farm greens including perfectly charred ramps and pepperoncini peppers.  The roasted potatoes and chicken were enriched with flavor thanks to Blackberry Meadows’ wood-fired oven.  Everything was simply prepared, yet expertly executed by three brilliant chefs, allowing the freshness of each ingredient to shine through with each bite.  

Trio of food geniuses: Chef Mike Poiarkoff (left), Chef Andrew Gerson (center), Chef Justin Severino (right)

Pepperoncini topped with freshly grated cheese.
Ramps and other fresh greens.
The other end of the table: the protein and the starch.
The tranquility of the farm encouraged each diner to eat at a leisurely pace while chatting with friends new and old.  There was also plenty of time and food to indulge on a second helping…if you didn’t load your plate to gluttonous proportions like I did on the first trip.  I was completely stuffed to the brim when the last course made its grand entrance.  Spare dessert stomachs really do come in handy!  But really, who could resist a savory cornmeal based olive oil cake, topped with the sweet tartness of strawberry-rhubarb compote, and the herbalicious flavors of sorrel whipped cream?  Not me…in fact, I played my glutton card yet again when I took two pieces of cake and created my own makeshift version of strawberry shortcake. 

Dessert before...
Dessert after I got all Martha Stewart...olive oil cake with strawberry-rhubarb compote and sorrel whipped cream.
Once plates were cleared from blankets and tables alike, most people stayed and enjoyed the gorgeous evening air.  When we finally decided to head out (being the last guests left and all), I decided on two things: 1.) Brooklyn Brewery Mash is maybe one of the best PR events of all time.  Sure, Brooklyn got me there, but when I left I was singing praises for all involved.  2.) Dinner on the Farm was so much fun.  I strongly encourage you to keep your eye out for future dates. 

Thanks to all involved for making such a wonderful event possible, especially Blackberry Meadows Farm for being such welcoming hosts.  See you at the next farmers market. 

I give Brooklyn Brewery's “Dinner of the Farm” (Blackberry Meadows Farm): 5/5 forks
7115 Ridge Rd
Natrona Heights, PA 15065

For CSA information call or email:

Click here for Dinner on the Farm info.

Did you miss The Brooklyn Brewery Mash in PGH?  Here are the remaining tour dates:

LONDON, UK: July 27 - August 2

TWIN CITIES: August 10 - 16

PHILADELPHIA, PA:  September 28 - October 4

BOSTON, MA: October 12 – 18

MIAMI, FL: October 26 - November 1

AUSTIN, TX: November 16 – 22

 Blackberry Meadows Farm on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 12, 2014

Sienna Mercato’s Il Tetto is Open: Let’s Shout It From the Rooftop!

I am infatuated with delicious eats, but I’m a sucker for ambience.  Find me a place that has both, and I will be your number one customer.  I’m excited to say that the visionaries behind Sienna Mercato are now two for two with the recent opening of Il Tetto.  Now you have the mother of all dilemmas.  Will you get your meatball on at Emporio (located on the first floor) before or after you take the elevator ride to Il Tetto’s gorgeous rooftop beer garden? 

As some of you know I’ve been anticipating the opening of Il Tetto for some time.  As the cosmos would have it, their second night in operation just happened to be my birthday.  No lie, I was a tad nervous bringing my band of friends to a locale I had never been before, but the idea of a spacious rooftop bar in downtown was just too darn tempting to pass up.  My imagination had nothing on this place.  Upon exiting the elevator, my jaw dropped a bit.  The rain had stayed at bay, allowing the retractable glass ceiling to reveal a portion of the city’s skyline and a pleasant nighttime breeze.  Seating options varied from cozy nooks to sizable party tables.  The bar, which lined an entire stretch of wall, was inviting as well.  No matter where you sit, be sure to look up and admire the gas lamps and charming strings of lights.  The décor is pleasing to most anyone I’d wager, from sports fans (there were several TVs playing the Buccos game) to those seeking a romantic rendezvous and anyone in between. 

Take a Gander
So, Il Tetto is picturesque, you get it.  But looks will only get you so far (as my grandma loved to remind me when I’d get “gussied up.”)  I needed to get my hands on a birthday libation.  Lucky for me, the draft list is equally as impressive as Emporio’s.  The reason?  Each of the 32 drafts that are downstairs are piped up to Il Tetto’s bar.  You can also imbibe on wine and specialty cocktails if you prefer. 

In regards to food, the menu provides a select list of small plates ranging from munchies like house-made Pork Rinds to heavier dishes like the Duck Confit Steak Fries.  We ordered the latter.  The fries were crisp, yet tender and the duck fat gravy added a velvety richness to the plentiful shreds of duck meat.  The topping of a sunny side-up egg added yet another level of richness and texture.  In other words, it was delicious.  We also gave the Pork Conserve, Roasted Cauliflower, and Artisanal Italian Cheese plate a try out.  The pork dish was particularly guilt inducing.  The combination of grilled bread, lardo, tender pork in olive oil, and cherry based conserve (similar to jam) was complex in flavor and rustically elegant. 

Duck Confit Steak Fries
Roasted Cauliflower
Pork Conserve
If ordering a few small plates, you can easily create a filling meal.  One thing you cannot do, however, is order food from other floors (i.e. Emporio or Mezzo which will be opening soon).  Take my advice and avoid asking to have meatball sliders delivered via the elevator (don’t judge us), because as our patient server politely explained…Il Tetto is its own entity.  It just happens to be housed in the same building.  As a result, we ended our night downstairs, treating our sampling of small plates as appetizers.  Talk about convenient bar hopping. 

Il Tetto is an experience not to be missed.  Reminiscent to some of the trendiest rooftop bars in NYC, I am thrilled to have such a sweet place right here in the ‘Burgh.  The question is…will Sienna Mercato be the culinary trifecta of downtown when Mezzo opens its second floor doors?  Stay tuned.  

I give Il Tetto: 4.5/5 forks
942 Penn Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Il Tetto on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Stagioni: Bringing Class to East Carson Street

Let’s play a word association game.  When I say East Carson Street, what’s the first thing you think of?  Bars? Yeah, sure.  There are so many bars and so little time that many have been known to awaken next to the porcelain throne in a fetal position.  Noise disturbances and fistfights you say? Hmm…perhaps I should just cut to the chase.  Yes, it’s definitely true that East Carson Street has a reputation for excessive libation and poor decisions, but there’s a diamond shining among the rough.  It’s time to ignore the ruckus and treat yourself to the food and atmosphere that Stagioni has waiting for you. 

Stagioni resides in the once Le Pommier, after relocating from their smaller locale in Bloomfield.  I rather adore the residential feel you get when opening the door.  A staircase, with a lovely wooden railing, will greet you before entering the cozy bar area.  You could dine there and enjoy watching the creation of an elegant cocktail, or you may have reserved one of the granite, tabletops in the dining room.   

New Fashioned
Once seated, you’ll anticipate laying your eyes on the ever-changing, seasonal menu.  Some staple items consistently appear, like their delicate ricotta gnocchi.  But I prefer to take the road less traveled.  One dish that stood out recently was the grilled swordfish with salsa verde.  The swordfish was perfectly tender and bathed in the bold flavors of fresh herbs.  Ordering the fingerling potatoes as a side is a must.  Unlike the many boring potato presentations I’ve encountered, this was a medley of flavors and textures.  Crunchy pine nuts, salty olive tapenade, and Parmesan cheese worked together to bring inspiration to what would have been a typical menu item. 

Grilled Swordfish with Salsa Verde
Fingerling Potatoes
While dinner has been nothing but stellar, Stagioni’s Italian take on Sunday brunch has a delicious grip on me.  Cara DelSingnore, co-owner and designated greeter, has seen my mug many a Sunday.  A thoughtful treat of complimentary dried cherry scones and sinfully, delicious coffee cake (made in house of course) are presented shortly after you order your bottomless French press coffee.  These sweet morsels keep your hunger at bay while you peruse the menu. 

Complimentary Sweet Breads with Brunch
While everything I’ve tried is seasonally delicious, the steak and eggs is unbelievable.  I usually regret ordering this item at other eateries because the steak portion is often paltry and overcooked; yet I find myself paying a premium price.  Chef and co-owner Stephen Felder has officially restored my steak-loving faith.  There’s nothing measly or bland about the charred, peppered cut of beef that consumes your plate.  It leaves just enough room for spicy potato hash (a mix of roasted peppers, potatoes, and onions) and two fried eggs.  The only thing better than eating medium rare beef, is eating beef with a side of ricotta pancakes.  These are perhaps the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten.  Forget mountains of whipped cream to hide a less than desirable cake.  No, this cake is nakedly divine with the exception of a drizzle of syrup and dollop of mascarpone.  If you don’t close your eyes and make provocative noises while eating this, I’ll be shocked and disappointed in you.  For less than twenty dollars, you’ll be completely satisfied well into the dinner hour. 

Steak and Eggs
Ricotta Pancake
If you want to try something special, reserve your spot for one of Stagioni’s Sunday Suppers.  In keeping with the homey vibe of their décor, you’ll be served four family style courses.  Feel free to BYOW (bring your own wine) on these event nights free of corkage fees. 

I know some people avoid East Carson Street, especially beyond dusk on the weekends.  The scene can be unsavory at times and parking can be an epic nightmare.  That said…get over it.  Life is too short to let a few annoyances stand between you and a delectable meal.  Instead, give those rowdy frat boys some high-fives, chime in with the “woo!” of the passing bachelorette party, and be grateful when you cross Stagioni’s threshold.   

I give Stagioni: 5/5 forks
2104 E Carson Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15224

Tip: Make a Tuesday-Thursday night/brunch reservation, or claim an earlier Friday-Saturday spot to avoid parking fiascos and ghoulish behavior.   

Stagioni on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sienna Mercato’s Emporio: Meatball Lovers Unite

Disclaimer: I write the word balls in this review…a lot. 

In Italian, the word emporio often refers to a store.  Well, the geniuses behind Sienna Mercato may have developed the concept to one of the greatest “stores” of all time…a meatball lover’s paradise.  If you love savory, meaty balls every which way, it’s time to follow me down to Emporio: A Meatball Joint.

Let’s face it, ‘Burghers…our downtown scene was pretty dismal a few years back.  But lately, I’m finding myself “dahn” here more and more.  Sienna Mercato is one of the newest ventures you’ll find on Penn Ave.  It’s slated to be one of the hottest spots in the city if it lives up to the hype. The top floor, which will be Il Tetto is promising a rooftop beer garden with light munchies.  The middle floor, Mezzo, is sounding more like a sit down eatery, complete with charcuterie, pasta, and wood fired pizza.  While I’m certainly looking forward to experiencing both of these establishments, I’m here to share my current love for the main floor…Emporio. 

The interior of Emporio is trending with the likes of new bars that are popping up in various larger cities…simply modern (a concrete floor and brick walls) with a splash of retro funk (metal chairs and “vintage” bulbs).  With this kind of vibe, there was a great collection of people there both times I’ve visited.  Picture suits n’ ties, hipsters wearing ties, rowdy college kids, and older folks scowling at the lot of ‘em.  Tasty balls of meat are the common denominator uniting us all.

When casually dining out, we often avoid the dining area and Emporio’s expansive bar, complete with 32 rotating taps and an average cocktail menu, is the perfect spot for a Friday night.  The beers are a bit pricey, but considering the locale of this joint, I understand their price points.  That’s all the more reason to hit up happy hour when you can score ½ price pints, $5 glasses of wine, and $2 Happy Balls (sliders).   We sat at the bar on our latest visit and found ourselves chatting with veteran bartenders. I opted to stray from the drink list and order up my booze of choice.  Not many places can execute a Tequila Old Fashioned to my standards, but Emporio did it justice.

Alright, let's get to the part you've been waiting to read about...the meatballs.  So what makes a meatball delicious?  Well, flavor of course is the main factor, but for me, texture is a close second.  Chewy balls?  Dry balls?  No, thank you!  I prefer the moist, tender meatballs that Emporio is serving up.  And better still, this Meatball Joint lets the customers create their dream dish every time. 

It’s time for a lil’ education: here’s how the menu works.  At the top you’ve got your 4 balls (beef, pork, chicken, and vegetarian) and then you have a boatload of sauces to slather them with.  So, you pick your meatball and your gravy, now you get to choose how it’s served to you.  If you want to mix and match, you can order individual sliders.  If you’re a little more decisive, you can have your choice of meatballs served up as a 2-ball Panini or a 3-ball grinder.  Want to skip the house made bread altogether?  Go for the Saucy Balls!  This serving option allows you to keep it simple (just 4 balls n’ sauce) or to boldly pick from various sides, including gluten-free pasta, to set those balls upon.  If you want to throw yet another option into the mix, there is also a daily meatball to entice you. 

After a couple visits, my dining companions and myself tried several combos.  My favorite so far is the 2-ball pork Panini with pork bolognese sauce and smoked Gouda cheese.  The vegetarian meatballs over penne with pesto sauce were also quite flavorful.  The pesto was fresh and bold and it married well with the delicate veggie balls. 

Pork Panini with Pork Bolognese Sauce on the Side
Vegetarian Saucy Pesto Balls with Gluten Free Pasta
In addition to meatballs, they have various “snacky things” like fried pickle chips with bacon-ranch dressing and house cut fries.  The pickle chips were a generous portion to share and dangerously addictive.  I could have easily scarfed down a second batch.  The fries were golden and crisp and the dusting of herbs and Parmesan cheese gave those potato sticks a delicious, salty kick.  (I used the leftover bacon-ranch to dunk my frites.  So good.)  They also serve up soups, salads, and poutine.  And of course, you can add meatballs to all of these items as well.  On a future visit, I’d like to try the Rocket salad (arugula, toasted almonds, tomato, and fresh mozzarella) topped with a chicken meatball or maybe the Chili complimented by a beef ball or two.  To end your meal, I’d recommend the Ricotta Donuts, which come 5 to an order and are served piping hot.  These might just be the sweetest balls I’ve ever tasted. 

Fried Pickle Chips with Bacon-Ranch Dressing
House Cut Fries with Parmesan and Herbs and Malt Vinegar Aioli 
Dessert Balls: Ricotta Donuts
I can’t speak in regards to Sienna Mercato as a complete entity just yet, but I can definitely vouch for Emporio: A Meatball Joint.  The meatballs here are far from general and the atmosphere is just plain fun.  The next time you find yourself complaining about downtown being dead, make your way to Penn Ave.  Sienna Mercato is livening up the ‘Burgh one floor at a time. 

I give Emporio: A Meatball Joint: 4.5/5 forks
942 Penn Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Tips: They don’t take reservations, but the No Wait app will allow you to check in and “get in line” before you arrive.

Emporio: A Meatball Joint on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 20, 2014

Cenacolo Restaurant: It Might Just Be Your Last Supper

The last time we visited our friends in Erie, they took us to a charming Italian restaurant.  As I savored each bite, from appetizer to dessert, I racked my foodie mind to think of a comparable eatery in Pittsburgh.  Sure, we have Italian eats in the ‘Burgh, but I was coming up short in thinking of the kind of spot that makes you ask the wait staff, “ Hey, is the owner’s Nonna the executive chef?”  Since then, I’ve made it my mission to find said place.  That’s right my foodie friends, I’ve suffered through mediocrity and Prego-inspired plates to find the best of the best.  Here is my conclusion, although the city limits of Pittsburgh is still lacking overall, you can treat yourself to an Italian getaway in North Huntingdon (wait…where?) when you visit Cenacolo Restaurant. 

Finding Cenacolo, which refers to the Last Supper, the first time can be a bit challenging (we ended up in the Post Office parking lot more than once).  It’s not your typical restaurant locale and rightfully so. Fede Pasta, which has been making pasta for other restaurants since 2005, made the brilliant decision to open their own eatery this past October.  Rather than moving Cenacolo elsewhere, they built a restaurant and retail shop right within their wholesale distribution warehouse.  The retail shop is located in the center, offering a variety of pre-cooked pastas and house sauces for you to take home.  You can also purchase a seemingly endless variety of artisanal cheeses and cured meats at their “deli” counter.  On either side of the retail space, you’ll find the dining areas…cozy spaces that remind me of tastefully decorated home dining rooms. 

Retail Shop Meat and Cheese Counter
The owners are very accommodating to parties of all sizes; our latest visit was a birthday celebration for eight.  While we did have to wait more than a bit for our reserved table, the staff was attentive while we wandered around the retail shop.  Our waiter even brought us wine glasses so we could imbibe, free of corkage fee, as we mused over the seasonally printed menu. 

Having time to consider the night’s offerings, we were seated ready to order…or so thought.  While providing an overview of the menu, our waiter threw a delicious dilemma into the mix.  We could order individually as planned, or we could choose 3-4 items from the menu and be served larger, family style portions to share.  This was an offer we couldn’t refuse. (Ok…truth…I almost refused…because I’m stingy and I didn’t know if I could share the Ricotta Gnocchi with Short Rib Ragu.) We needed more time to agree on our selections, so we did what any hungry mob of eight would do; we ordered the large charcuterie plate.  While you may opt to select your own affettato (meat) and formaggi (cheese) selections, we let the experts do the picking and ended up with three meats and four cheeses.  My meat of choice was the Speck, a dry-cured smoked Prosciutto.  The salty, smoky flavor paired beautifully with the earthy, aromatic flavors of the Truffle cheese.  Combined with fresh, warm bread and a spread of Hot Pepper Jelly, you have bliss.   Forget about that overpriced Salumi board in Lawrenceville…this is where it’s at folks. 

Meat and Cheese Board
As we finished up our first course, arugula salads topped with generous shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano and cherry tomatoes arrived in rustic pottery bowls.  The salad was dressed in balsamic, which was a bit too sweet, even when paired with the pepperiness of the greens and the saltiness of the cheese.  It was tasty nevertheless, so next time, I will simply request the dressing on the side. 

Arugula Salad
With perfect timing, our family-sized pasta bowls began arriving, as our salad bowls were cleared.  The first pasta I scooped onto my plate was the Ricotta Gnocchi with Short Rib Ragu.  I selected this meal for myself on a previous visit and I had been dreaming of it since.  Unlike the heavy, sometimes gummy, potato gnocchi, Cenacolo has mastered the art of creating a light pillow of ricotta goodness that almost melts in your mouth.  Those yummy morsels are then blanketed in a rich, tomato-based sauce that is loaded with tender shreds of short rib.  Without exaggeration, it is the best gnocchi I’ve ever eaten. 

Ricotta Gnocchi with Short Rib Ragu
Once that bowl was pried from my fingers, I replaced it with the one containing Lamb Tortelloni.  This pasta is similar to tortellini, in that it is stuffed with various fillings, it’s simply bigger.  In this case, a velvety lamb filling was hidden inside.  The pasta was then dressed with a Marsala, mushroom, and thyme sauce that contained additional bite-sized chunks of braised lamb.  The Tortelloni were artfully created and were equally pleasing to the eye and to the mouth. 

Lamb Tortelloni
The third pasta we chose was the Mushroom Carmella.  I was tempted to pass this bowl along because I’m more of a meat sauce kind of gal and this dish was of the cheese sauce variety.  Just watching someone eat an Alfredo-esque sauce gives me stomach bloat, but I decided to trust Chef Josh Toney and took a small scoop.  That portion was doubled by night’s end.  The pasta was filled with flavorful mushrooms and was hand twisted on both ends to resemble a piece of hard candy.  The pasta was then bathed in a, dare I say, light Fontina cream sauce that produced surprise appearances of sage and crispy prosciutto.  I would have never ordered this for myself, but this dish has opened my eyes to how delicious a cheese sauce can be. 

Mushroom Carmella
Our final selection was the Gramigna.  This was a spinach and egg pasta that resembled spaghetti but was hollow in the center, and fittingly means grass.  This pasta featured a ground, sweet pork meat sauce.  It was tasty, but was my least favorite.  When dining out, I like to order things I wouldn’t or couldn’t make for myself at home, and this selection just seemed a bit dull in comparison to our other dishes. 

By the end of the night, our stomachs were beyond full and we ended up with leftovers.  But as my loyal readers know, I always have room for dessert.  Cenacolo does have post-dinner offerings, (we had the pumpkin cheesecake and the Tiramisu on a previous visit), but was gracious enough to allow me to bring a homemade birthday cake to end our evening.  Our wonderful waiter even sliced the cake for us in the kitchen.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, we were treated to shot of Limoncello to officially close the night. 

Tiramisu with Pistachio Gelato
And so, my tiresome search is over.  I declare Cenacolo the best Italian restaurant in the Pittsburgh area, and I may or may not be crafting a noodle shaped trophy in their honor.  Is it a bit of a drive for some of yinz?  Perhaps…but it’s worth every mile.  This isn’t just dinner, this is a culinary event you’d be silly to pass up. 

I give Cenacolo: 5/5 forks
1061 Main Street
North Huntingdon, PA 15642

Be sure to check out the pasta making classes and special dining events on Cenacolo's website as well.

Cenacolo Restaurant on Urbanspoon