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Dining: Spanish-inspired Morcilla in Lawrenceville showcases chef’s charcuterie skills

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James Knox | Tribune-Review
Inside Morcilla in Lawrenceville on Friday evening Jan. 15, 2016.
ptrtkdining2012116
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Inside Morcilla in Lawrenceville on Friday evening Jan. 15, 2016.

“It was the best worst decision of my life,” jokes Justin Severino, chef at Morcilla and Cure.

The choice was to enroll in culinary school in Pittsburgh. But the desire to create in the kitchen was, as he says, “in his blood.” His mother and grandmother were great cooks. And, foreshadowing Severino’s mastery of whole animal butchering, his grandfather was a butcher and made his own sausage and prosciutto.

After culinary school, he spent years in California working in high-profile kitchens and dedicating time to understanding the realities of the meat industry. He opened a butcher shop where he could source hogs from farmers he knew. He taught himself to cure.

When the time came to make a business move, Severino chose to return to Pittsburgh, where he ultimately opened Cure in 2011, a showcase for his charcuterie skills.

Morcilla, his new Lawrenceville restaurant, co-owned with his wife, Hilary, opened in December and adds another delicious chapter to his story.

The idea for Morcilla grew from an affinity for Mediterranean food and culture.

“My first real kitchen job was at Casbah with Bill Fuller,” Severino says. “It was my introduction to Spanish cuisine. I love the idea of how they eat and the way they eat in Spain.”

His Morcilla menu echoes this sensibility with many choices of pintxos — small plates — and several larger platters for sharing.

The space is energetic. You enter through an orange-yellow facade, with a large window that can be opened to the street in warm weather. One quickly notices the legs of ham hanging above the bar, behind which some small plates are assembled. The working kitchen in the back can be seen from any of the tables in the dining area. It is a fun vibe that carries over to the creative fare on offer.

Pinxtos make up the majority of the ever-changing menu. Most are just a few bites, but getting through the whole list would require quite a few visits. Pinxtos include dishes like a half or whole dozen oysters, salt cod with olive oil and fried garlic, and many versions of pig.

The spicy chorizo, one of my favorite items, is paired with vanilla oil that stays with you after the last taste. While not made by Severino or his team, the Jamon Iberico De Bellota, a four-year aged ham, comes with his highest recommendation. “It’s the best ham in the world,” he says. “The Iberico pig is the first genetic version of pig on planet Earth. Can’t replicate that.”

Small, two-bite open-faced sandwiches, montaditos , include the likes of beef tartare and foie gras. The standout here is the oxtail with caramelized onions and a melted cheese. The oxtail melts in your mouth.

Croquetas, round, fried balls filled with various cheeses and meat, arrive three strong. So, if you are sharing, there may be some fighting. The ham croqueta with leek aioli is a bit too salty. Instead, try the goat cheese with a quince jelly for a very rich, smoky flavor.

Some folks, myself included, will have a hard time ordering the restaurant’s namesake, morcilla — Spanish blood sausage. But give it a try. Served here as a montadito, the dark slices sit atop a spinach bechamel on a bread slice. The combination provides creamy spiciness that is quite pleasing.

Surprisingly, given Severino’s background, I found some of the meatless plates to be the best bites.

Alcachofa a La Plancha, a whole artichoke halved with a hard outside and soft inside, has a refreshing quality paired with a squeeze of a roasted lemon.

Castanas, one of the croqueta options, includes a blend of chestnut, smoked apple, and a dusting of sage. The warm sweetness of the chestnut was cut by a light sprinkle of salt. Winter has a flavor, and it is these castanas.

If you don’t overdo it with small plates (which I did and always will), larger platters of chicken, baby-back ribs, sausages and bean stew can fill you and your friends up.

With lots of options for indulging, Morcilla provides opportunity for many happy returns.

That best-worst decision worked out for Severino and his adopted city.

Says Severino: “I wouldn’t trade this experience in Pittsburgh for anything.”

Laura Zorch is one of the food-savvy ladies of eatPGH.com, who contribute a weekly Dining Out column to the Tribune-Review.

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