In recent years Pittsburgh has moved beyond its reputation as the blue-collar Steel City to become a cosmopolitan city known for an increasingly sophisticated dining scene. Justin Severino, chef/owner of Cure in Pittsburgh’s hip Lawrenceville neighborhood, returned to his Midwestern roots after spending years surfing California’s waves and restaurant industry. As a graduate of the Pittsburgh-based Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, which later became an affiliate of Le Cordon Bleu and then closed in 2012, Chef Severino was eager to bring the culinary innovations and butchering expertise he learned on the West Coast back to the city.
“For years it was all about meat and potatoes and the good ‘ol boys,” says Chef Severino, 36. “When I came back here in 2007 there were very few places I could work, but as time goes by, the city is progressing faster. It’s a smart move now to open in Pittsburgh rather than New York, where real estate is so expensive and there is so much competition.”
It’s such a smart move, in fact, that Chef Severino is planning a second Pittsburgh restaurant, Morcilla, named after the traditional, popular Spanish blood sausage. When he talked with FSR, Chef Severino had just come back from a two-week trip to Spain to learn more about that country’s cuisine and cured meats.
His first Pittsburgh restaurant, Cure, opened in 2011 and represents Chef Severino’s incarnation of urban Mediterranean, with a focus on quality meats along with produce sourced from Pennsylvania’s many Amish, Mennonite, and sustainable farms. As the name suggests, the restaurant has an ambitious charcuterie program with an in-house whole animal butchery influenced by the chef’s Italian-American background.
“I grew up in an Italian family that cooked [together] and ate at least six days a week with extended family and friends,” says the chef, who was also influenced by living in California, between Santa Cruz and Big Sur, for nearly a decade. “The California climate [and produce] are similar to what actual Mediterranean food is like—you have artichokes, lemons, avocados, and all types of produce,” says Chef Severino. “I like to feed people the way I like to eat. That’s the first purpose of a restaurant—to feel warm, invited, and comfortable, and also enjoy great food.”
What he’s doing at Cure is working: In 2012, Cure was named one of the 50 best new restaurants by Bon Appétit, and the last two years Chef Severino has been a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic.
While many chefs have mastered the art of whole-animal butchering, only a handful have actually run their own butcher shops. After working for chefs throughout California—including David Kinch of Manresa, Philip Wojtowicz and Michelle Rizzolo of the Big Sur Bakery, Walter Manzke of Bouchee and L’Auberge Carmel, and Cal Stamenov of Bernardus Lodge—Chef Severino opened a butcher shop, Severino’s Community Butcher, in Santa Cruz in 2005.
With his wife and co-owner Hilary Prescott Severino, he worked with whole pigs, rabbits, chickens, goats, lambs, and cows. “We served lamb stew, fresh pork chops, homemade bacon, prosciutto, and other salumi,” he says.
Their decision to open a butcher shop was motivated by curiosity coupled with concerns about animal sourcing. “As I got older and learned more about the craft, I became really curious and aware of where all my food came from,” Chef Severino explains. “I even quit eating meat for a while because I didn’t know where it was coming from and how the animals were raised.”
In California’s South Bay area, he had opportunities to talk directly to farmers and learn about animal husbandry. Even before opening the butcher shop, he worked closely with a sustainable chicken and pig farmer during his tenure at Manresa in Los Gatos. “I would go to the farm to help slaughter pigs, and my job at the restaurant was to butcher the whole animal.”
Those experiences continue to yield positive returns. At Cure, butchering in-house helps save costs. “I always think about how to use all of the animal,” says Chef Severino.
The restaurant can include an upcharge for some of those creations while keeping other costs low. One of the menu’s larger charcuterie boards—with 20 kinds of homemade salumi including duck speck, culatello, coppa secca, Spanish chorizo, and salami negroni—costs $40, but feeds a group of four to six.
The biggest challenge for a restaurant in Pittsburgh is the issue of pricing, acknowledges Chef Severino. Prices have to be high enough to cover food costs, but low enough to not scare the crowds away. And the quality has to substantiate the prices.
Chef Severino balances the meatiness on Cure’s menu with a few homemade, rustic pasta dishes and a delightful gnudi, made by binding dried ricotta with egg and dehydrated leek powder along with a smoked goat cheese and mint Bolognese.
Cure doesn’t have a cold room—yet—the chef notes, adding that it’s important to break down the animal as soon as it comes through the back door to make sure the meat stays fresh and safe.
While Chef Severino focuses mainly on Italian-style cured meats, aka salumi, he adds modern touches. For example, a salami with cured olives has fernet-branca, an Italian bitter, and Meyer lemon. Salami negroni is made with sweet vermouth, juniper berries, and orange zest, resembling the flavors of the cocktail. He has also tried a French-style salami with sea salt, black pepper, cognac, and lavender.
Lately, he’s experimented with Spanish hams and cured meats in preparation for the opening of his second restaurant, Morcilla, which will be located not far from Cure and offer a casual, communal atmosphere.