Sunday, October 26, 2008

Ciao, Cafe Allegro!

A brief interlude from the "who is this guy?" epic...

Saturday night saw my very last dinner at Cafe Allegro. It was a bittersweet celebration with close friends who I have worked alongside, or been dining partners of, in the past. All of whom had to get one last taste of the AMAZING grilled calamari, and other Allegro signature dishes.

The news about Allegro's closing came a mere two weeks ago, and the last night of service is scheduled for Nov. 1st. I grabbed the people I wanted so badly to share that last meal with; my wife; Heather, friends Colpo, Lexi, Nico, Joe Stile, Joanne & Lexi's boyfriend Lee . I wanted to share the moment with my favorite ex-Allegro sous chef Monique, but scheduling could not permit.

I made my bones at Cafe Allegro, started as a busser, moved to waiter - bartender - bar manager to General Manager over the course of seven years. It was a magical place for those of us who worked there. We were a tight knit family, who looked out for each other, played hard and shared in many sorrows. We were pirates at sea in the murky waters of the South Side of Pittsburgh. Like family, we often fought claws bared, and fangs exposed, but there isn't a single f**ker in that place that I didn't love with all my heart.

In my time there, I raised my son, started yawp magazine, helped open the Club Cafe, and started to learn everything I could about wine. It was with a very heavy heart that I ever left there, but always thought they'd weather the storms of a failing economy without me. 3 years later and the news broke.

So we made a reservation for 8 and after a quick martini at the bar - Grey Goose martini up, dry, dirty - were shown to table #51. The same table where years earlier I had waited on Norah Jones (before she was famous... and yes, she tipped horribly). For appetizers, of course, grilled calamari. The calamari is seasoned with a spice similar, yet completely different, than Old Bay, tossed in a salmoriglio (sp?) sauce (which basically consists of orange juice, olive oil, and fish stock) thrown on the grill whole brushing beautiful grill marks all over the squid body. After grilling they take the body off the grill and cut it into the nice calamari rings so familiar to the average calamari diner. They then toss the rings again in the sauce and then throw the whole plate under a salamander (sorta like a kitchen broiler). Garnished with a lemon and lime for squeezing over the nummy bites before digging in. There is no better calamari (and I may venture to say "food") in the world. I had two plates!

I had brought a bottle of Albert Bichot Chablis Grand Cru Moutonne from Burgundy, 1999!!! It was a great start, with a crisp apple acidity, and a mellowed caramel flavor that really shone through. I was worried it might have been spoilt, as it had only recently come into my possession, but it was perfect.

The discussion turned from Will Ferrell quotes to the set list for our upcoming performance, lounge band "Rich Mahogany and the Leather Bound Books"... Soon we were talking old Allegro experiences. Most of them related to some experience with a celebrity. Richard Gere's criticism of Johnny Cash's American Recording Cd's saying "It seems a little forced." the server responded "Like a gerbil, or like 'Runaway Bride?". The night Sinnead O'Conor poured another customer's scotch over Peter Gabriel's head as the couple broke up mid-tour in our restaurant. Matthew Broderick's down to earth kind, quality, and good humor.

And of course we mentioned the highlight of my serving career when the hostess, Allana, called me at home and told me to come down to the restaurant because 100 people from the local filming of '10th and Wolf' had just invaded the restaurant, and we had 3 servers on. I rushed down, on my day off, in jeans and a white button down shirt to try to maintain some form of control. We pulled it off, the actors were very forgiving, as we had been a dry spot out of the brewing storm that lashed at their trailers parked outside. But the highlight for me was the Chef, passing me a pork chop, and asking me to serve it to the first table on the "patio". I obligingly ran the food out to the table, placed it down, and who's looking up at me thanking me with a gigantic cigar hanging off his lower lip??? Dennis (fuckin') Hopper... and I, in a dirty white shirt, jeans and sneakers... the night ended with Giovanni Ribisi and Piper Parabou (sp?) just hanging out with me at the host stand trying all our different wines, scotches and ports.

Uproarious laughter ensued as all the stories unfolded

We followed the Bichot with a Louis Latour Puligny-Montrachet 2006 (also a chardonnay, also from Burgundy, France) which was certainly younger, but still had many similar flavor profiles, enough to carry us through our second course... I chose a favorite... the shrimp and lobster bisque.

Dinner progressed through a bottle of Clos Apalta 2003 from Chile (funnily enough from the same company that makes Grand Marnier... Casa Lapostelle... for anyone who loves the orange flavored liqueur as much as I do). The Clos Apalta showed great full fruit. It was aged perfectly, the tannins were wonderfully balanced, we drank this as a quaffing wine... needed no food. It was the perfect wine to drink here, as I had discovered the carmenere grape within these sacred culinary walls. I purchased the Clos Apalta originally, years before for the restaurant. About three months later Wine Spectator named it one of the top 3 wines of it's annual top 100 report. It was a crowning achievement for me. I love carmenere for the history. It was originally one of the Bordeaux blending grapes alongside cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petite verdot and malbec, but the phyloxera louse of the late 19th century completely wiped it out of Bordeaux. The grape was thought lost to the sands of time until a century later when DNA testing on a Chilean varietal, that was thought to be merlot, proved to be the missing carmenere grape. Apparently it was transplanted in Chile long before the phyloxera struck, and thrived in the phyloxera free wine growing regions of Chile. So cool!

For my entree I had a veal cutlets in a fig and red wine reduction that was out of this world. The reduction was gooey and rich. Very rustic dish, a reminder of where Cafe Allegro always shined, in hearty, rich provincial style flavors. With this dish I finally opened a bottle of 2000 Chateau Reignac which I had been saving for 2010, but, still having one bottle left, I decided to try it out tonight and see how this wine was aging. It was beautiful. Wet terroir murky flavors of Bordeaux were mingling beautifully... however a little more aging won't hurt that last bottle which I'll be holding onto for a precursor to my 1990 Chateau Lynch-Bages that I'll be drinking on my 40th in 2010.

The night ended with a glass of Fonseca port, an espresso, and Cafe Allegro's famous "Berry White"; a blueberry, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry tart covered with melted white chocolate. We got four and everyone shared.

Dinner was over, and sadly so were the memories. We paid our bill, said goodnight to all the staff... our friends... but couldn't linger on long goodbyes, as they still had customers to serve, and another week of strong business to contend with.

So I say it here, now... goodbye Cafe Allegro. I raise a glass to all the friends and family I have had the distinct pleasure of serving alongside over the years... the friendships which continue today, and continue tomorrow. There will never be a place that holds such a huge part of my heart and soul as that little spot on the Southside that shone like a beacon of culinary light.

To Marco, Paula, Joe, Antoinette, Gloria, Monique, Stevo, Colpo, Jim K, Vogt, Jay, Paco, Ziad, Dale, Will, DC, Chmill, Sam, Jamie, Chris, Aaron, DD, Freddie, Kevin, Scott Brady, Johnny Star, Josh Nicholas, Stiles, Dave, Lou & Mary Jean, Cedric, Marko, Dustin, DJ, Phyllis, Don Bistarkey, Lexi, DJR, Laurend, Mullet & Nik, The Hardy Boys, Allana, Shon Kelley, Eric, Rudi, A.C. and all the other Cafe Allegro all-stars... cheers! ...and God bless!

Article by Post-Gazette:

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