On her journey here, the new dining critic learned from a McKeesport-born chef, Frank Ruta

I'm smitten with a simple consomme. A rich clear broth starts with meat and bones, mirepoix and egg white that simmers and is skimmed to perfection. It's this classic base that draws me back to my go-to restaurant in Washington, D.C., the city I have called home. My favorite restaurant there serves beautiful soup.

Days before my recent move to Pittsburgh, I sat at the bar at Palena with a friend, savoring a bowl of Consomme d' Ete, a rich oxtail broth of corn raviolini, chanterelles, foie gras slivers, and heirloom cherry tomatoes. A bowl that combines skill, decadence and sweetness of the season paused conversation.

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Chef Frank Ruta opened Palena in 2000, naming the restaurant after the small town in the province of Chieti in the Abruzzo region of Italy, where his mother was born. Offering dishes inspired by Italy and France, it's located at 3529 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008; 1-202-537-9250; www.palenarestaurant.com. The cafe is open for dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday, and 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for brunch Saturday and Sunday. The dining room is open from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Reservations encouraged.

Palena is a humble neighborhood restaurant on Connecticut Avenue that features some of Washington's most soulful cooking. It is helmed by Frank Ruta, former White House chef for eight years, first for Jimmy Carter, later for Nancy Reagan through the first 15 months of the George H.W. Bush presidency. In between, Mr. Ruta took a job in the Italian Alps, at a one-star Michelin restaurant called Ristorante Andreas.

If this sounds fancy, it is. And it's a contrast to the chef's roots.

Frank Ruta is from Pittsburgh: McKeesport, to be exact. He grew up in an Italian family in which the family garden and the dinner table were central. Everything was made from scratch. They cured meats. They made wine.

It was in Pittsburgh where he attended the American Culinary apprenticeship program, during which he worked first at Lemon Tree in McKeesport, then at the Lincoln Hills Country Club in Irwin, where he was plucked to become a White House assistant chef at just 22 in 1979.

Despite the pedigree, his restaurant speaks to his roots. The modest dining room resides in a former grocery store. Dressed in woods and whites, the dining room is as free from trends as his cooking.

Frank Ruta is a chef's chef. His is the restaurant they go to on nights off to order roast chicken and house-ground burgers, of all things.

"He's the best cook in the America, if not the world, and I say that having eaten at every two- and three-star restaurant in New York," D.C. restaurateur Mark Kuller told Jane Black of The Washington Post.

A few things about Mr. Ruta: He is so private, no reporter or casual interloper had ever seen his basement kitchen where he cooked for a decade prior to his restaurant renovation in 2010. "I had begged him for a tour for years but he'd never let me see it," a local food section editor had told me.

Mr. Ruta is so focused on work and family that he skipped the James Beard Foundation Awards the year he was nominated and shared the win for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic with R.J. Cooper in 2007. Instead he went to Delaware to help his wife's parents. "I didn't think that it was going to be my year," he told Tim Carman of Washington City Paper.

Chefs such as Mr. Ruta incite my curiosity for cooking and dining, and have helped lead me toward this career as a critic. I am captivated by experiencing a person's life narrative through his or her cooking. That Mr. Ruta's modesty and work ethic have been defined by a Pittsburgh upbringing is a delight, but not a surprise.

"Hey, ladies," he said to my friend and me as he made a rare appearance in the dining room. My friend had worked for the chef for a decade.

Dressed in shorts and kitchen clogs, Mr. Ruta had buttoned his double-breasted chef jacket to the clean side. A haircut and horn rims made him look younger than his 55 years.

He is so precise he follows recipes for everything, a habit he embraced while in the White House that allowed him consistency no matter how long it had been since he cooked a dish.

"It makes the teaching process simpler as well," he wrote to me in an interview a couple of years ago. "There's not too much hand-holding from point A to point B," he says.

This means the learning curve for a chef expands over a longer period. "Cooks benefit from working at Palena if they stay three or so years. Anything less I feel would be incomplete." Rumor has it that very new line cooks started with pickling, where they remained for an entire year.

Working under Mr. Ruta is no trivial commitment. And it shows on his plates.

Back in the dining room, he was warm and welcoming. "What are you all doing? How have you been?" I had come across him as a source for various articles, but I didn't have the easy back-and-forth with him the way my friend did.

"Melissa is moving to Pittsburgh to write for the Post-Gazette," she told him.

He was thrilled because of his love for his hometown. He says he reads the Post-Gazette every morning. He visits the Strip to buy ingredients. And of course, he remains a loyal Steelers fan.

As a restaurant critic, I no longer will allow myself this kind of access to chefs. Yet having this access has helped prepare me for this job. Years of behind-the-line writing about ingredients, purveyors, dishes, restaurants, chefs, and life work within the industry have afforded me perspective to approach cuisine from all types of chefs serving food inspired by cultures around the world.

Access to chefs has also offered a window into the sacrificing work of the profession. I have watched how precarious it is to make a living in the industry. I have interviewed more chefs than not in the middle of a 90-hour work week, which had been their routine for years.

And yet my work as a food writer in D.C. and a food critic in South Florida also have reinforced how important it is to for a critic to write exacting and candid reviews.

Which is why, for now, I'll maintain the star system China Millman tweaked this past January as a cross-check. A star system offers concise comparison between Pittsburgh restaurants. It rewards superlative dining experiences, and it serves as a barometer of this city's dynamic restaurant scene.

Such is the case in D.C., where few would argue that Palena has earned its three and a half of four stars from The Washington Post. It was docked for service, not cuisine. (In 2004, former Post-Gazette restaurant critic Elizabeth Downer also awarded Palena 31/2 stars. She was drawn to the restaurant when she saw Mr. Ruta on a magazine cover under the banner, "The Ten Top Chefs in America," and learned later about his connection to Pittsburgh.)

At another farewell dinner that was a more raucous affair, Mr. Ruta prepared a Tavola di Perpetua e Felicia, a nose-to-tail, seven-course beef dinner for a handful of foodists celebrating the work of a colleague leaving town.

We should have known we'd be seduced by the brightness of carne cruda with shaved Reggiano and lemon olive oil. Or dazzled by a course of toasted vermicelli with oxtail and beef cheek stew. Not only was it transcendent, but this particular dinner also was an education among beloved friends.

In this vein, I am eager to learn about Pittsburgh through journeys at the table. And I look forward to your participation and feedback along the way.

Melissa McCart is the new Post-Gazette dining critic: mmccart@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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