While eating out is all about a terrific culinary experience, a meal is made that much more special if the owner is present and vested in the details. These restauranteurs and chef/owners in Pittsburgh are part of singular establishments imbued with their personal touch.
Brooklyn-born Michele Savoia, owner and executive chef of Dish Osteria on the South Side, was raised in Italy by his grandmother. By the time he was in his 20s, “my goal was to eat! Sometimes, we’d spend all our money on that little trattoria in the Italian countryside.” Migrating back to New York City, he took front-of-the-house jobs at a series of restaurants, ever keen to know what the chef was doing in back. When Savoia and his Pittsburgh-born wife, Cindy, purchased an old Irish bar on the South Side in May 2000, he finally had the canvas on which to execute his vision.
The tall, lanky Savoia is a fixture at Dish and easily recognizable by the neat ponytail pulled at the nape of his neck. While he writes the menu and preps dishes including the Sicilian soup, he’s most at home at the restaurant’s cozy front bar, chatting up patrons, including many regulars, on the seafood dishes dear to his heart along with the many Italian wines on his small, well-curated list.
“This food is a reflection of me,” says Savoia. “It’s my history, my past, and I have a desire to share it with everyone who comes through the door.”
There are those who would label Trevett Hooper, the chef-owner of Legume in Oakland, an iconoclast. Hooper, after all, refuses to believe that he cannot create meals composed almost (if not) exclusively of locally-sourced ingredients. Eating seasonally and with minimal product wasted is the meme which guides the Maine native through long days spent largely in the kitchen of his 140-seat restaurant.
“I really have this purist vision,” says Hooper. “It’s about eating local.”
Hooper is in the seven-year-old Legume six days a week and would likely be there seven if the restaurant wasn’t closed on Sundays. He considers his day off, Thursday, a success if it’s a seven-hour day and he is involved in every aspect of the operation. “You know when the owner is present. It’s what makes Legume have the vibe it has. You always know when you’re in a family or independently-owned restaurant.”
Yet, the “horribly shy” chef is hesitant to get out on the floor. “Now, at lunch, I [refill] water and do coffee. It helps me learn who the customers are and what they want. People don’t know who I am because I dress like this,” he continues, pointing to a server’s standard attire of simple shirt and floor-length white apron. “But I’m learning more about how they perceive the restaurant.”
Sherree Goldstein grew up in a local family business, Custom Craft, which dealt in upholstery and custom furniture on a retail level. Her mom worked nine to nine and on Sundays, and Goldstein and her siblings all pitched in. “It’s in my blood to be involved,” she says of Square Cafe, a cheerful yet sophisticated breakfast-lunch spot in Regent Square. The restaurant’s knack for turning out quality fare day in and day out eleven years later is an embodiment of Goldstein’s determination coupled with respect for her clientele.
“We have really high standards and they don’t change,” says Goldstein. “I expect a lot from my staff, and I’m happy being a role model.”
The sense of being in it together translates from the restaurant’s staff to its patrons. “This is peoples’ second kitchen!” laughs Goldstein. “On family occasions, whether it’s a funeral or a shower, people bring in the whole clan and we squeeze ’em in. We’ve seen births here and raised kids here—I can remember seeing some of these parents when they were pregnant. I know about people’s dogs and their grandkids.”
What goes around comes around: Goldstein is especially fond of the customer who spends winter mornings knitting scarves for staffers while seated at the counter. When the menu includes dishes like hazelnut espresso pancakes, it’s easy to give back.
It’s nearly impossible to walk into Little Tokyo in Mt. Lebanon and not see owner Frank Lin at the host stand, an ever-present smile on his unlined face. The Chinese immigrant came to the U.S. in 1988 and landed in Pittsburgh in 1991 after reading a Fortune magazine story that featured Pittsburgh as one of the top ten cities in which to live (it was #9). Lin and his wife, Diane, worked a variety of restaurant jobs in the region, learning from the owners at every stop.
It was Diane who encouraged her husband to open a Japanese restaurant and their dream was realized in 1997 (an eponymous restaurant on the South Side is owned by Lin’s brother). Located in the bustling Uptown corridor of Mt. Lebanon, the sparkling two-room storefront has at its center a station manned by white-clad sushi chefs who rarely look up from the task at hand.
“The consistency and accuracy we have is very hard to achieve without my presence every day,” says Lin. “The anticipation is here for the customers, that it will always be the same, be good.”
Lin knows his customers by name yet makes strangers feel equally at ease. The owner and his staff pride themselves on knowing how customers like to be served and what they eat, whether it’s a hibachi dish at lunchtime or sushi in the evenings. So how does the owner manage to be on hand for every shift, day and night?
“I live at the Washington Towers condos five blocks away,” smiles Lin. “I walk to work!”
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