Sherry-spiked saucisson, Fernet Branca–spiked salami, Cynar-spiked swordfish: with so much booze in the food, it’s hard to imagine that Cure, chef Justin Severino’s quasi-quaint charcuterie spot in Pittsburgh, started out just two years ago as a bone-dry BYOB.
“We had almost no money,” Severino says of his fashionably rustic-looking restaurant’s humble roots. No, Cure’s chef-owner didn’t grow up in a barn. He merely reconstructed one inside an urban retail setting, with interior walls of reclaimed wood and meat hooks for coat hangers. “We opened minimally,” he says.
Surviving for so long on food sales alone is a big source of pride for Severino: “We had a year and a half to gain success without selling liquor, and restaurants don’t typically do that that easily.”
Nowadays, however, the hooch is in high supply, both at the bar and in the kitchen. And the chef himself couldn’t be happier about having a properly stocked shop from which to sip and to experiment. “I like to drink adult beverages and I tend to be a bit of a snob about what those things are,” he says.
And why not? Severino and his crew have good reason to toast (and boast). In February, the bespectacled chef was named a semifinalist for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic honors by the James Beard Foundation. He’s the lone Steel City nominee on a list that also includes high-profile toques from more firmly established dining destinations such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
Severino, among other ‘Burgh boosters, has high hopes for his adopted city, where a once-fledgling food scene is steadily gaining respect on the national level. “I hate to be one of those people who’s like ‘Pittsburgh is the next big thing,'” the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern told Eater last June, “but I get around more than most people and I’m telling you, Pittsburgh is like the next big thing.”
“You feel like you’re a part of something here,” says Severino, who previously toiled in the pressure-packed gustatory gauntlet of Northern California, where farm-to-table isn’t merely a mantra, it’s merely expected; Severino is trying to help spread a similar ethos in Western Pennsylvania. “The more stuff that happens here compounds the more stuff that happens,” he says. “It’s pretty cool to watch.”
Some chefs splash red wine into their cooking. Others opt for a dash of whiskey. Severino is a big advocate for amaro. Unlike red wine, which classicism teaches to reduce in order to better concentrate the flavors, amaro should be left well-enough alone, he says: “Typically, amaro is so jam-packed with flavor to begin with, I don’t want to cook it at all.”
Severino initially began pouring the stuff into his salamis at his last job in Pittsburgh, as executive chef at now-defunct Elements. It was here — not the center-of-everything-cool San Francisco Bay Area — where he says he first discovered Fernet Branca, the now ubiquitous Jägermeister of Hipsterdom. Not that Severino would identify himself with that crowd. “I think I started enjoying Fernet as an ingredient before I started enjoying it as something to drink,” he says. “This kitchen that I took over had all these random bottles of things and I was like, ‘Well, let’s try to use them.’ I don’t think I even knew what Fernet Branca was at that point.” He’s since become an avid devotee to the bitter-sweet liqueur, in various forms. “The thing I love about amaros — like a standard amaro like Fernet Branca, for instance — it’s all flowers and pine and all those things you don’t taste in your mouth, you taste them in another part of your olfactory,” he says.
Severino is especially fond of the Negroni, which he asserts “might be the best cocktail to have with a nice plate of cured meats.” Hence, his Negroni salami, an all-pork sausage made with Campari, Carpano Antica, Juniper, some candied orange zest—pretty much every flavor you expect from a Negroni, everything, that is, except the actual gin. “We didn’t need to put gin in it because the flavors in gin don’t necessarily come through in the salami,” he explains.
Severino’s recipe for Fernet Branca–spiked salami is a drop or two different, incorporating beef or sometimes lamb. (“Those flavors don’t work with the Negroni at all,” he notes.) He also adds some oil-infused olives for an intended “leathery and sort of tobacco-y” effect, he says.
Perhaps the best boozy item in Severino’s repertoire, however, isn’t a salami at all. It’s salmon, specifically a pricey King Chinook variety, which the chief Cure-ator preserves with a mixture of pureed ruby beets, dried hibiscus flowers, blood-orange juice, blood-orange zest, and “a lot of Fernet Branca” for nearly 30 hours, he says. Given the premium quality (and equally lofty wholesale price) of the fish, this seasonal menu item would make zero financial sense as an entrée, he explains. But, as an appetizer of an ounce or two, it works out pretty well.
Severino folds a few Fernet-infused fish slices into a colorful assortment of almonds, baby beets, cucumber, green apple, dehydrated fennel and flower petals, which is plated just as pretty as the various flavors interplay on your palate.
“I want to say that it’s my favorite thing we’ve done with fish,” Severino says of the ultra-fatty product, which nicely encapsulates in just a few bites so much of what the chef likes about amaro as an ingredient. “Bitter is one of those flavors I love to play with, you know, like bitter and sweet, bitter and acidic, and bitter and sweet and acidic,” he says.
Saucing up the savory stuff isn’t strictly a kitchen-centric philosophy at Severino’s place. To hear him tell it, the booze-food synergy works both ways. “There are as many food components in the bar as there are bar components in the food,” he says. The most striking example: a bottled in-house cocktail made from shaved Perigord truffles and local vodka distilled with Pennsylvania-grown potatoes, priced at a whopping $40 a pop. “We’re going for the most expensive cocktail in the city, and I think we’ve done it,” he says proudly. Not only does each serving include about $15 worth of shaved truffles, but Severino and his bartender-collaborator Colin Anderson have sprinkled in a few gold flakes to amplify the extravagant factor.
It’s a stiff first sip, and as fragrant as you might imagine. (“Like sticking your nose into a bag of truffles,” Severino says.) It’s also interesting to look at: peering down into the sparkling murk, you’d be forgiven for shouting “Eureka!” like some prospector standing in a muddy stream, circa 1849. You might similarly want a sifter to strain out the truffle shavings, so they don’t get stuck in your teeth.
Inhabitants of this old blue-collar steel town may be reluctant to fully embrace a different type of precious metal (and an even fancier fungus) floating around in their after-work drinks. “People aren’t really wanting to buy them,” admits Severino, who nonetheless makes sure that his VIPs at least get a sip. Yet, the libation is a creature solely Pittsburgh’s own. “It’s something unique that you can’t really find anywhere else,” he says.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with ordering a simple Negroni to go with your Negroni salami, Severino says. In fact, he recommends it. Or, with anything else you care to order, for that matter.
“I think that amaros are great in cocktails at the beginning of meals, I really think they get your palate going, I don’t think they destroy your palate at all,” he says. “And then, at the end, as a digestif, I think it’s really fantastic. So, I’d always recommend it.” He quickly reconsiders: “Although, sherry is sooo good with salumi. I mean, if you don’t love pink bubbling wine, then you’re not American.”
5336 Butler Street, Pittsburgh, PA
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