The news was impressive, but I don’t think anyone in Pittsburgh’s restaurant community was surprised to see it: Yesterday, the James Beard Foundation included Pittsburgh restaurants, chefs and distillers in seven categories among the semifinalists for their 2019 awards.
Becca Hegarty, Jamilka Borges, Kristin Butterworth, Wei Zhu, Richard DeShantz and Tolga Sevdik, as well as Bar Marco and Wigle Whiskey’s Meredith Meyer Grelli all got nods this year from the nation’s foremost authority on culinary culture.
Justin Severino’s name wasn’t among this year’s honorees. But it’s fair to say he’s the one who kick-started Pittsburgh’s entry into the world of serious restaurant cities.
As Pittsburgh bids goodbye to Cure, consider how effectively that tiny outpost helped get this city noticed as a destination for globetrotting foodies — a city that recently had both the BBC and National Geographic Traveler encouraging world travelers to choose Pittsburgh as a top U.S. destination for food in 2019.
Severino and his wife Hilary Prescott Severino opened the Butler Street spot in 2011, long before that particular stretch of Lawrenceville was super cool. At the time, Bon Appétit magazine hailed it as one of the Top 50 Best New Restaurants and the James Beard Foundation began nominating Severino for Chef of the Year — something they ended up doing four years in a row.
In the process, Severino and his menus have inspired plenty of local chefs to up their game.
Chef Julio Peraza of Fairmont Pittsburgh’s fl.2 heard about Severino while helming award-winning restaurants in Dallas, Texas.
“I’ve worked in a lot of different states and Justin’s charcuterie program is by far one of the best in the nation,” he says. “He was one of the first chefs to bring the national food scene buzz to Pittsburgh. I’ve been here for over a year and I’ve noticed that many restaurants are neighborhood restaurants, however, he is a chef that’s not just supported by his neighborhood but from all over. The support the City of Pittsburgh has given him is amazing — and rightfully so.”
Sonja Finn, chef and owner of Dinette in East Liberty and consulting chef of The Café Carnegie at Carnegie Museum of Art, calls Severino a virtuoso when it comes to salumi and pates: “Gwen, the L.A. restaurant, is flying him across the country to run their charcuterie program,” she says, “because he is better than anyone on either coast or in between.”
It won’t be the first time Severino makes waves in California. He co-owned and operated Severino’s Community Butcher in Santa Cruz and worked for several renowned restaurants including Manresa, Big Sur Bakery, Bouche, L’Auberge Carmel and Bernardus Lodge.
It’s an impressive resume that started in the Keystone State. Severino graduated from the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in 1999.
Bill Fuller, corporate chef for big Burrito Restaurant Group, cooked with Justin in the kitchen at Casbah in Shadyside during that time.
“He came to work for me there as a culinary student. I think we’ve hired or rehired him four or five times,” Fuller says with a laugh. “I told him he’s not eligible for a job anymore.”
Chef Sam DiBattista was also inspired by his friend’s determination. When they met, he had just closed Vivo Kitchen in Bellevue and was at the end of his rope.
“Justin is just so enthusiastic about everything and it gave me some more motivation and got me moving again,” says DiBattista, who later opened Vivo Kitchen in Sewickley.
He also praises Severino’s business sense: “Cure is doing quite well, but he knows when to make a move,” DiBattista says. “Get out at the top of your game and become a legend.”
Of course, Severino isn’t really going anywhere. His other lauded Lawrenceville restaurant, Morcilla, will continue to churn out pintxos and family-style dishes. He’s also partnering with Scott Smith at East End Brewing Co., transforming the Larimer tasting room into a casual eatery.
“I’m sure I’m not alone in my appreciation of what Justin has meant for the Pittsburgh food scene,” Smith says. “He showed this city what’s possible and he showed chefs that Pittsburgh was ready for more. And now look where we are! Justin and I have known each other for a few years now, and we’ve been threatening to do something together for much of that time. So, we’re thrilled it’s finally coming together here at the brewery.”