Making a comeback, veal is star of Pittsburgh's priciest entree

What's the most expensive entree in Pittsburgh?

A veal chop.

The 24- to 28-ounce bone-in cut is prepared by Jonathan Vlasic, the chef for the past nine years at Alla Famiglia in Allentown. Diners can order it Milanese, Griglia or Pizzaiola style. Depending on the order, the price is $68 or $72 a plate.

When a customer orders a Milanese chop, Mr. Vlasic pounds it to half an inch thick, then seasons it with salt and pepper. He dredges it in egg, followed by flour and bread crumbs and fries the chop in clarified butter. He finishes it in the oven and bakes it to medium. The Milanese chop is served on the bone with a garnish of pine nuts, green onions, jumbo lump crab meat and shaved Parmesan.

It's a rustic preparation that results in impossibly tender meat. Many tables treat it as a family-style dish to share.

If you think this dish is too pricey for Pittsburghers, think again. Alla Famiglia served 2,536 pounds of veal chops in 2013.

And it has been popular for years. Because of Pittsburgh's many Italian restaurants and red sauce proclivities, veal has remained a staple on many Pittsburgh menus at a time when it largely faded from restaurants in other cities.

For decades, eating veal has been frowned upon due to pressure from the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals about inhumane farm practices, which included confining calves in small crates and the use of antibiotics that are harmful to animals and humans.

Consumption of veal has plummeted from a high of 8.6 pounds per person a year in 1944 to just a little more than a quarter of a pound of veal per person in 2008, according to the latest statistics from the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

The last year consumption was above 1 pound per person was in 1988.

Though it may be slow-going, veal is beginning to make a comeback at new restaurants in Pittsburgh as well as at restaurants nationwide.

Whether it's called pasture-raised, free-range or rose-veal, these names point to several changes in treatment and production.

In 2007, the American Veal Association passed a resolution to push for alternative ways of raising veal by 2017, which includes an end to the use of crates.

The U.S. Department of Justice added momentum to the change, going after companies for unregulated use of formaldehyde, for example, for disease prevention in raising animals.

The local food movement has also helped change people's perception about veal.

"If you eat cheese, you should eat veal," said Sandra Miller, farmer at Painted Hand Farm in Newburg, Cumberland County, who hand-feeds calves and raises them in pastures.

She sells whole animals to Justin Severino at Cure in Lawrenceville and has a dozen clients in Washington, D.C.

"Veal is from male calves that don't provide milk but are supposed to provide meat," she said. "They are a byproduct of dairy farming."

Veal comes from calves that are 18 to 20 weeks old, which is a longer life-span than the age at which chickens or pigs are processed.

Ms. Miller says she hand-feeds each calf when it is very young, with a bottle filled with a natural formula that gives it iron.

"Iron in the diet comes across as pink meat and shows the sign of a healthy animal." Grass also plays a role in the pink that lends rose to rose-veal, which requires alternate preparations than industrial-veal of decades ago, because it's leaner.

She said that calves are extremely fragile and that hand-feeding allows her to monitor their health. As they grow older they are pastured.

At Cure, Mr. Severino butchers and uses the whole calf for charcuterie such as ciccioli, bresaola and fiocco as well as dishes like his highbrow take on veal marsala and braised shanks with sides for two.

"It's beautiful stuff," he said.

He recalls when he returned to the area from California how surprised he was to see veal on menus here.

"No one was serving it out west several years ago," he said. But the renaissance makes sense to him, now that he has a relationship with a farmer.

"And our customers prove to us that they're willing to eat it," he said. Mr. Severino bought his third calf in three months from Ms. Miller.

At Salem's Market in the Strip District, Abdul Salem buys local whole animals that are processed at a Halal facility in McKeesport, then butchers them in-house.

Hanging in the walk-in refrigerator, they look beautiful and smell healthy. Yet they're "too small for a restaurant," he said.

And they're sold to home consumers for $3 to $6 a pound for legs, chops and ribs. Mr. Salem said that when his market used to be in Oakland, he had protesters regularly accost his employees about buying veal in particular.

"People don't understand, they're being raised with their mothers, they are pastured," he said.

Still, people aren't entirely comfortable buying it to cook at home. Places such as Marty's Market in the Strip District and Butcher on Butler in Lawrenceville don't sell it.

"There's no demand," said owner Mike Rado of Butcher on Butler. DJ's Butcher Block in Bloomfield carries veal on occasion.

On its website, Giant Eagle said it sells free-raised veal from Strauss farms in Wisconsin, where they're raised in open pastures with their mother and herd.

Back at Alla Famiglia, Mr. Vlasic said humanely raised veal is still somewhat hard to come by at the volume he's selling it. He keeps his source for veal under wraps.

"It's a really great product, but I just can't tell you anything else," he said.

It's the only secret in his kitchen.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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