Annex Cookery is reborn in Homestead


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There is something very coming-full-circle about the name of Judith Tener-Lewis' Annex Cookery in Homestead.

The store began in 1967 as an annex to her mother's grocery store, which Ms. Tener-Lewis' Italian-born grandfather, Serafino Bonomi, started in the early 1900s on Streets Run Road in Baldwin. When Ms. Tener-Lewis opened on Walnut Street, Shadyside, in 1975, she brought the name with her, although newcomers surely wondered, Annex to what?

In its newest incarnation in a historic building at 218 E. Eighth Ave., Annex Cookery is once again an annex -- or rather, has one. Let's put it this way: The store and its next-door neighbor, the Tin Front Cafe, are equal partners in a high-spirited venture that is bringing community, comfort food and quality cookware to Homestead's main street.

The two businesses are a family affair. Ms. Tener-Lewis and her husband, architect, artist and author David Lewis, both of West Homestead, own five historic commercial buildings on Eighth Avenue and are restoring them as money allows. Nothing is done on the cheap or on the fly, so the just-completed four-bedroom, three-bath apartment, a potential live-work space above the cookware shop and cafe, has been fully insulated and beautifully appointed.

While Ms. Tener-Lewis runs Annex Cookery, her son, Daniel Steinitz, and his wife, Ellie Gumlock, operate the Tin Front Cafe, a fresh-and-local, no-meat eatery open for breakfast, lunch and early dinners five days a week, with shorter hours on Sundays.

The three-story building and its elaborate, Classical, pressed metal ornament caught Mr. Lewis' eye about 10 years ago.

"When we bought the building it was a jitney stand," Ms. Tener-Lewis said. "David wanted to turn it into a store for me."

Mr. Steinitz, a University of Pittsburgh business school grad, also encouraged his mother to reopen the shop she closed as a retail space in 1998, after 23 years on Walnut Street. After operating for a few years as a Web-based business, Ms. Tener-Lewis quietly opened Annex Cookery in late 2004 on the first floor of a slim, two-story building they also own adjacent to the tin-front one. The long, narrow, brick-walled space once was an alley traveled by coaches to get to the former stable and settlers' cottage behind the tin-front building. Between the cottage and the back of the tin-front building is a courtyard that will accommodate al fresco dining come spring.

Now Annex Cookery has grown into the tin-front building and expanded its wares. Some of them rest on the former back bar of the late, lamented Homestead landmark, Chiodo's tavern.

During construction, "Daniel said, 'I'd like to buy Chiodo's back bar,' and we said 'Are you crazy?' because money was just pouring out. But we got it and we love it," Ms. Tener-Lewis said. Chiodo's bar is next door, serving as the cafe's coffee bar.

She said that what customers liked about her Walnut Street location was the personal attention they got. Her prices are good, too, lower than retail.

"I want customers," she said. "I want to sell."

Most of her merchandise is picked "because it's wonderful and beautiful and all sort of hangs together in a collection," she said.

With limited space, she sells only a few lines of cookware, including All-Clad, Le Creuset, Joyce Chen and Nigella Lawson.

Annex also carries oven-to-table La Chambaware, the sturdy, smoked, unglazed black pottery made in the village of La Chamba, Colombia, mostly by women. These elegant vessels -- bean pots, casseroles, tagines and more -- also can be used on the stovetop or in the microwave.

A glass-topped wooden table by Robert Brandagee holds hand-thrown bowls, teapots and unomi cups by Minnesota potter Guillermo Cuellar, who studied with Mr. Lewis' lifelong friend, Warren MacKenzie, and shares his Japanese aesthetic of beauty, simplicity and utility.

Tabletop ware, both traditional and contemporary, includes Italian-made Vietri and Deruta, and Annieglass, artisan-made in California. Most of Annex's flatware is designed by artists and architects for Finland's Iittala.

Colorful ruffled aprons and smocks, OXO kitchen tools and Cuisinart, Krups and Waring Pro appliances round out the eclectic shop. Annex's distinctive light shades -- large paper umbrellas -- are for sale, too, at $22 each.

Bowls carved from wild olive wood in Zimbabwe are a reminder of her husband's strong ties to his native South Africa.

Mr. Lewis, a fine vegetarian cook who for decades has shared his dinner table with an ever-evolving cast of friends and family, serves as guiding light and inspiration. He taught Ms. Gumlock to bake the cafe's whole wheat and white bread; she also makes its scones, muffins and cookies and runs the kitchen.

Mr. Lewis' custom blend of Darjeeling and Assam is the cafe's house tea; herbal teas are custom-blended by Jeffrey Berta in Slippery Rock, including a heavenly Lady Grey Lavender Tips.

Among other items on the seasonal menu: Cheesy Cheddar Grits ($3); Apple and Brie French Toast ($5.25); Spicy Spinach, Mushroom and Mozzarella Quesadilla ($5); and Spinach Salad with Gorgonzola, Pears and Spiced Walnuts ($4.95).

The cafe's walls are lined with prints of paintings by the late East Liberty restaurateur Peter Contis, another Lewis friend whom he wrote about in his 1995 book, "Byzantine Butterflies."

Mr. Lewis moved to West Homestead in 1988 after becoming involved in efforts to revive the Mon Valley steel towns, beginning with the Remaking Cities conference that year, for which he brought Prince Charles to Pittsburgh.

With the new ventures and with other shop owners on Eighth Avenue, "We're trying to make Main Street the center of the community," Mr. Lewis said. The cafe also hosts community meetings.

Now retired from architecture and from teaching at Carnegie Mellon University, Mr. Lewis has had more time to devote to his own artwork; the animals in his paintings have roared off their brown paper backgrounds and exploded in size to become large painted metal sculptures; two of them crawl across the tin-front building's storefronts and four more greet visitors from display windows across the street. Others are soon to alight on neighboring businesses, transforming the block in a way that just might be contagious.


Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590. First Published January 21, 2010 5:00 AM


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