Sunday, June 28, 2015

For What Ails You in Pittsburgh - Cure

Hospitality.  The word comes to us from that etymological mac-daddy of dead languages, Latin, and it enters our own tongue in the late-14th century from the nominative hospitalitas for “friendliness to guests.”  Ancient Greeks (the Stoics in particular) believed the idea of hospitality to be a sacrosanct ritual of human kindness with the offering of a plate of figs and honey being the apotheosis and deliverance of divine rite.  Contemporary people (especially we restaurant habitués of the post-modern West) have taken a decidedly more relaxed approach to hospitality; we’ve conflated it with that dark-prince of conceptual doppelgangers, good service, and suddenly, for us, that perfect wine pour, that deft and expertly-timed application of the table crumber, has supplanted—in theory and in practice—that once-sacred bequest of tree nuts and mead.  That our beloved maître d’ is able to produce, instantaneously, and on sight, our favorite Pouilly-Fuisse is now (and heterodox to all reason) far more comforting to most of us than the offer of dry shelter and a friendly smile.  And that sucks.  Big time.  Because at some point between these two epochs and cultural polarities—ancient religious ritualism and the unmitigated douchebaggery of present day food culture—I’d like to think hospitality once occupied a golden age.  An age of spontaneous giving.  A time of selfless conference—from keeper to stranger—of both sustenance and mirth.  An idyllic age of travel when a voyager could quit the road and rest his weary bones among people whom he’d never before met, but who could be relied upon to provide food and conversation, simply for the asking.  For many of us modern dwellers, Starbucks—yes, Starbucks—has been the closest we’ve yet come to this illusory ideal.  But I’m here to tell you, friends, I’ve found the place, where true hospitality yet lives.  The place where the hungry journeyman is received with demonstrable largesse and a palpable conviviality of heart.  The place where the food is so very fucking good that it makes you want to stab yourself in the eye with your very own fork.

And that place is Pittsburgh’s magnificent Cure. 

To wit:  I was traveling by car—Chicago to Washington, D.C.—across that food desert and American turnpike that stretches from Gary, Indiana, to Breezewood, Pennsylvania, and beyond.  Mile after mile of endless culinary wasteland occupied by a veritable army of pernicious and highly hostile gastronomic kings and smiling clowns convened in rest areas under golden arches as bastions of dietary surrender.  I was trapped, boy-o, hemmed in by the turnpike.  I had nowhere else to go, and nothing to eat.  So I pulled my car over and sent up a flare.  A virtual Hail Mary.  A shot in the dark.  I tweeted Melissa McCart, dining critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, whose work I have followed with particular interest over recent years, and whose journalistic and gastronomic acumen is second to none.  I would be passing through Pittsburgh at dinnertime, I explained in my tweet, and would she, could she, recommend someplace in Pittsburgh that I might eat?  Melissa’s response to my query was nearly instantaneous.  Her list of recommendations (what to do, what to eat) was more replete than that of hotel concierge.  There were breweries, bakeries, baseball games, and, of course restaurants.  Lots of those.  One name at the top of her list caught my eye:  Cure.  Maybe it was because I was a Robert Smith fan when I was too young to know any better.  Or maybe it was because the name, Cure, temporarily placated my hunger on the inherent promise of proving an eventual panacea for my sudden craving for meat.  Cure struck a chord.  So I made my decision with my usual punctilio, which is to say with all the arbitrary whimsy and caprice of a drunk throwing a dart at a mounted wall map to see where he would next travel.  But choose Cure I did.  I hit the gas.      

Cure is located in the Pittsburgh borough of Lawrenceville.  For a restaurant of Cure’s caliber and craft, it’s a highly unlikely spot.  Situated on the banks of the Allegheny River, Lawrenceville—with Cure newly in it—was, until very recently, the kind of neighborhood one might visit to purchase, say, a commercially-available blow job, or a pharmacological silver bullet—packaged in consumer-friendly dime bags and vials, no less—that one could aim at (and temporarily decimate) one’s own, um, existential despair.

But what I found among the sleepy ruins of a once-vital Pennsylvania mill town was an extraordinary gem of a restaurant.  Simultaneously hip and homey, walking into Cure was perfectly analogous to slipping into a warm bath—warm, comfortable, and deeply inviting.  I walked into Cure, scruffy and bleary-eyed, wearing a t-shirt and jeans and boots, looking every bit the man who had just driven five hundred miles on an empty stomach.  More importantly:  I walked into Cure at exactly 7:15 on a very busy Saturday night without a reservation.  I repeat:  Saturday night.  Without.  A.  Reservation.

The hostess looked embarrassed for me, as if I were that mouth-breather at the party who has just bumped his nose on the unseen sliding glass door.  I was a dimwit, a rube, and she took real and immediate pity on me.  There were no seats available, she informed me, not even at the bar; the two open seats I was looking at had been reserved long before my arrival.  I took the news with a cool-no-problem shrug of feigned resignation, then showed her my phone and Melissa’s list.  Which of these other Pittsburgh eateries would she recommend I try next, I wondered?  The look of pity turned to empathy and deep commiseration.  No matter where I went in Pittsburgh, her face suggested, it would still be Saturday night, and I would still be arriving without a reservation.  The hostess looked at me again, a bit sideways this time, and bit her lip and nodded.  She would seat me at the bar on the condition I would complete my meal—light snacks only—by 8:00, when the reserved party of two was scheduled to arrive.  I gave her my word.  We made a deal.

The bar:  it’s my favorite place to sit and eat at any restaurant.  It’s at the nerve center of any food purveyor, and it sits neatly at the confluence of front and back-of-the-house cultures.  It’s a restaurant’s heart and soul.  Sit at the bar, order a drink, and within minutes, you’ll know everything—the good, the bad, the ugly—you’ve ever wanted to know about a place.  Who’s working high, who arrived late, who will be knocking boots with whom after the end of that night’s third shift:  it’s all there—the spectacle of restaurant theatre—for any patron willing to pay the price of admission:  careful attention.  The bar is also where magic can happen, as it did on my visit to Cure.  Because I had Colin as my bartender.  Because in all my years frequenting that last, lone stool at the end of the bar, I have rarely, if ever, encountered a bartender so genuinely magnanimous as Colin.  He greeted me with a smile and welcomed me with a menu.  He poured me a draught (Small Crop #3—low alcohol and refreshingly delicious—brewed just up the street from Cure).  Colin made me feel invited, as if he was truly happy to serve me.  And when he explained the dinner menu, he struck that perfect (and all too rare) equipoise of food knowledge and enthusiasm, without the slightest soupcon of that millennial I-know-my-shit-and-you-don’t snobbery now endemic to most menu presentation. 

Colin was the very definition of hospitable.  When I mentioned that I had only until 8:00 to complete my meal, he smiled and told me to relax.  There was no hurry. Other accommodations for the eight o’clock party had already been made.  So I went big with my order.  From Cure’s Salumi di Mare offering, I ordered the bacalao en aceite (salt cod, yo) and the sockeye salmson “nduja” (in quotes to denote a spread typically made from pork, not fish).  From Cure’s “Snacks” portion of the menu, I ordered their beef tartare with oyster aioli, black garlic, and cured egg yolk.

To say that I lingered over each plate of food, savoring every bite offered me, would be disingenuous in the extreme:  I woofed it down.  I made a spectacle of myself.  I gnashed my food like a man who had not eaten all day.  And had I not been in polite company, I would have licked my fingers and my plate.  Because the food at Cure is that fucking good.  It’s beyond good, actually; it’s mind-bendingly delicious.  Chef and Cure co-owner Justin Severino has clearly triumphed in a way so few of his contemporaries have:  the elevation of elemental protein forms into dishes that are truly—and I mean truly—sublime.

Severino cooks with the economy and compression of a poet.  Nothing in his craft is superfluous, every ingredient, every texture, matters.  My bacalao was haiku.  My tartare was a sonnet.  Every bite I took tasted like some Horatian ode to the marriage of culinary terroir and umami.  And for all the elegiac elegance of these small food forms, Severino’s Homeric magnum opus that night was a pasta dish, his Squid Ink and Leek Ash Gnudi (in a Bolognese of octopus, beef heart, and guanciale, no less), a dish so profoundly good, so deeply delicious, that it made me want to throw my chair, to break my beer glass, in the same way reading Eliot’s The Wasteland (or better: dropping a needle on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols) made me want to herald the discovery of something extraordinary by making a big fucking noise.  Because there was small revolution there, at the end of my fork.  Because now, for me, and all-things Italian, everything had suddenly changed.  Because of all the pastas I’ve yet tasted in my career as enthusiast and eater, I’ve not encountered one quite like it.  Severino’s is both mutinous and supreme.

For the record:  I did not throw my chair.  Instead, I reacted with finer aplomb:  I made the two young women sitting next to me eat from my bowl to ensure (for my own peace of mind) that Severino’s pasta was not some hallucination on my part, some trick of an over-hungry mind.  They covered their mouths and threw back their heads and laughed, and by their laughter, I knew exactly what they thought, and which no words could adequately express:  that Severino’s gnudi was really that good.

What I know of Justin Severino, the chef, is that he’s killing it (in the parlance of industry speak, yo, that’s as good as it gets), and that he’s a quixotic and boundlessly talented culinarian performing at the top of his game.  What I know of Justin Severino the restaurateur, the public figure, the man, is that he will leave his kitchen, in the middle of service to check on his guests, to make sure that they are—each and all—actually happy.  That Severino (or any chef of his caliber) does this suggests that in his quest for culinary excellence, he has succeeded in maintaining his sights on that most important aspect of all culinary endeavors—hospitality.

Thank you, Chef Severino, Melissa McCart, Colin, and the entire staff at Cure, for treating this weary traveler so very, very well.  And thank you for the extraordinary hospitality.

I can’t wait to hurry back.

Your link to Cure

5336 Butler Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15201


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