If you want an unforgettable experience as a top-of-the-food-chain carnivore, you can’t do much better in Pittsburgh than a dinner at Cure in Lawrenceville.
Oddly enough, chef Justin Severino — who returned to Pittsburgh after years cooking at top restaurants in California and running his own butcher shop in Santa Cruz — was once a vegetarian. This experience has actually influenced his local, ethical, whole-animal approach to serving meat dishes.
“I pretty much stopped eating all land creatures, until I started to know some farmers, and where my chickens came from,” Severino says. “It solely came from being disgusted by factory farming. And I’m Italian — I need to eat meatballs.
“I make it a point to kill almost every animal I eat. Not because I enjoy killing things, but the respect of knowing the animal and where it comes from reminds me to take care with every animal and every dish.”
Cured meats, and the ubiquitous pig-related imagery around the dining room leave little mystery about the restaurant’s focus. But Severino casts a fairly wide net for what he dubs “extra-local, urban, Mediterranean food.”
“I spent nine years in the central coast of California, which is a Mediterranean climate,” Severino says. “I mostly worked at restaurants that cook Spanish, Italian and French food, which is what we speak to here. Some German influence, too. The ‘urban’ word — I’m trying to lower the level of pretentiousness associated with good food.”
Simple, cozy, comfortable — Cure combines the unpretentious charm of an old-timey butcher shop with the convivial, boisterous ambience of a rustic tavern.
The pig theme is a little over the top, in a good way. Hang your jacket on a meathook. Piggy banks and figurines gaze upon the dining room from their perch atop a counter, demarcating the tiny kitchen from the dining room. The menu is a piece of torn paper, strapped to a cutting board with a rubber band. A mounted wild boar’s head watched over us from the wall.
It’s loud, very loud — the din of neighboring tables’ compounded conversations was so noisy that I didn’t even realize that there was music on the stereo until after 9:30 p.m., when the crowds had died down a bit.
Upon his return to Pittsburgh in 2007, Severino made a splash with his house-made salumi selections at Elements, Downtown — so it’s a good place to start here. There are four-item ($8) and 10-item ($22) platters. We went with the big one, which included finocchiona, lamb pepperoni, ciccioli, duck speck, duck rillettes, lardo, black strap pork belly, lomo, pork rillettes and lonzino.
Even for a group of diners, this is an almost-overwhelming selection, and hard to pick out just a few highlights (though there really weren’t any lowlights). The deep-red lamb pepperoni stood out, as did the pork and duck rillettes, which were rich and decadent like a creamy pate. Finocchiona provided the most complex flavor, setting off the fattiness of pork with fennel and the mild bite of pepper at the tip of the tongue.
Whole-grain mustard and cornichons help provide a sharp contrast in flavors and cut through the fat. The only drawback was that the supply of long, thin pieces of toast ran out quickly — especially in combination with lardo, a smooth, butter-like pork fat concoction.
The non-meat dishes are treated with great care at Cure, as well. The Blackberry Meadows Salad ($7) — named for the farm in Natrona Heights — featured a surprising combination of pickled beets, rich and pungent (yet mild) Common Folk blue cheese, perfectly candied pistachios, and a preserved lemon-vanilla vinaigrette.
The plate of Morels ($11) showed similar creativity, with a pullet egg atop wild watercress, bread and a lightly-applied balsamic vinaigrette — but nothing strong enough to detract from the mushrooms themselves.
Then there’s perhaps the most aptly named dish ever — This is Why You’re Here ($27) — a panoply of meaty delights, prepared in both traditional and unconventional ways. There’s the simple, perfectly executed beer sausage, an intense pork flavor with a slight malty undertone. There’s the pigs’ feet, cooked down into a sauce-like substance. Then there’s the smoky, salty rendered smoked pork. Oh, and the incredibly rich, decadent foie gras hollandaise, which was actually subtler than it sounds. Pickled ramp stems, startling in their sweetness, helped cleanse the palate a bit. Then, on to the lightly fried, crispy brown sweetbreads, mushroom espuma (foam), fiddlehead ferns, pickled maitake mushrooms and pork belly confit — uncovering new, unexpected flavors and textures with just about every bite.
Service was generally slow, and dessert took a very long time to reach our table. That’s easily forgiven when one realizes they’re being made on the spot. The Bacon Prune Custard Tart ($8) was hot from the oven, with big juicy prunes juxtaposed against juicy chunks of thick-cut bacon, with a vanilla maple bourbon glaze.
The Chocolate Souffle Cake ($8) was almost as surprising, with an artful smear of green pistachio butter, olive oil and sea salt.