As he has every morning for 15 years, Dominic Piccola walks across Liberty Avenue from his Bloomfield home to Tessaro’s, where he turns about 300 pounds of meat into ground beef for burgers.
Passing the checkered barroom floor and the kitchen, the 62-year-old with the salt and pepper handlebar mustache heads down the basement stairs to the walk-in fridge, the kind that’s big enough to house a large stainless steel table, a meat grinder and many shelves. He lifts the giant lever-handle and begins his work.
By 9 a.m., he’ll have 17, 12-pound bags of beef, or enough to make 550 burgers, the average number of orders he expects that Friday night.
Each bag contains a proprietary blend of Choice-grade chuck, shoulder, brisket, short ribs, spencer steak, New York strip and filet. The beef is grain-finished, supplied by Sherwood Food Distributors, a company he’s worked with for years, back when he was grinding beef for the restaurant as a butcher at the now-closed nearby House of Meats.
Since Kelly Harrington purchased the Bloomfield bar in 1985, the late proprietor’s vision of the “genuine, authentic and honest hamburger” has drawn crowds to Tessaro’s. But burgers back then still didn’t hold the overall cache they have now.
With the rise of the foodie era, the image of the burger has transformed from backyard barbecue staple to glammed up fast-food fare. As artisan meats and farm-to-table offerings have become ubiquitous, cravings also have been fueled by Instagram, where a two-handed burger has become a sign of decadence for the Everyman.
Mr. Piccola pushed Tessaro’s ahead of its time. These days, for burger restaurants to stay competitive, they focus on where to buy beef and which blends lend the most flavor: factors that have become as important as cooking and condiments.
Rise of a burger empire
Fiore Food Service in Penn Hills sits next to a camera repair shop on Frankstown Road. Brothers Mike and Ted Fiore have expanded the family business their Italian-born grandfather started in Larimer to a USDA-inspected wholesale facility with about 100 clients, primarily restaurants.
Their workday starts at 5:30 a.m. when they cue up Verdi’s “La Traviata,” one of several of Mike’s favorite operas. At one of the four cutting stations, Mike trims filet into medallions along with a beautifully marbled sirloin. In the back of the warehouse, a driver fills a truck with boxes packed with meat for 6:15 a.m. deliveries.
It is the supplier for Burgatory, the widely popular local chain that started at Waterworks Mall near Aspinwall in 2011. Burgatory now has four locations, including the Consol Energy Center stand, and three in the works.
The Fiores deliver an estimated 5,000 pounds of meat a week to the Burgatory restaurants, although it’s not just any ground beef. It’s a black Angus, Choice-grade, never-frozen, hormone-free proprietary blend. But because of the volume they’re buying, it’s not local.
“We’d reformulate, tweak and test for Burgatory over the course of a year before they opened,” says Mike. “They were looking for a certain meat-to-fat ratio and a texture that translates to a soft and juicy burger.”
Burgatory uses a 78/22 meat-to-fat blend that includes short ribs, chuck, brisket and sirloin. Before and during service, cooks under executive chef Brad Kohut shape loose patties in small batches and then transfer them to dedicated coolers at the proper temperature a reach away from the grated grill. Customers can order one of 100 variations, from the rub, to the cheeses, to the sauces and condiments. Unless it’s a naked order, burgers are served on brioche, baguettes or whole-wheat buns from Mancini’s or focaccia from Mediterra Bakehouse. They start at $9 and run to more than $12.50 a burger.
A departure from inexpensive ground blends made with trimmings and fillers, upscale proprietary blends have come into play alongside a restaurant-driven shift in consumer buying practices.
“Customers want to know more about the products they’re eating,” says Ted Fiore. “They want all-natural products with consistent quality at a reasonable price. And it’s why Burgatory is seeing so much success.”
Also in the mix in an increasing wariness among consumers of big-agriculture. That’s particularly when it comes to ground beef, which has prompted concerns over how animals are treated, whether they’re injected with hormones and how the meat is handled from processing to plate.
Locally, this hit home last November at The Porch at Schenley in Oakland, a Parkhurst restaurant where at least 12 people were sickened by E. coli. Since then, the restaurant has changed meat purveyors as well as how it prepares burgers. Even after the Allegheny County Health Department investigated, the source of the outbreak was never traced.
Different burgers, same family
For Eat’n Park, Hello Bistro and marquee restaurants in the group, such as Six Penn Kitchen and The Porch at Schenley, Parkhurst Dining purchased 1.5 million pounds of ground beef for burgers last year, with 850,000 pounds for Eat’n Park alone. A big corporation such as Parkhurst Dining tailors burgers according to restaurants’ customer base.
At Eat’n Park restaurants in Pennsylvania, burgers are Certified-grade, Angus beef charred on a grill then finished on a flat-top. Grilling results in the flavor from wood smoke, while the flat-top can produce a juicier burger.
Priced from $6.99 to $8.99, they’re served with a range of toppings on slices or buns from an in-house bakery or Nickles Bakery in Verona.
At Hello Bistro, an in-city restaurant that started in Oakland in 2012, $6.50 burgers at the three locations come from an Ohio supplier, and they’re cooked on a flat-top grill, with the exception of the $5 E’nP Superburger, which is the same preparation as the two-patty burger served at Eat’n Park with American cheese, pickles, lettuce and a signature sauce.
From here, prices and the quality of meat increases, according to the restaurant. When it comes to the Google cafe in Larimer, Six Penn Kitchen and The Porch at Schenley, “We give chefs the freedom to choose,” says Mark Broadhurst, vice president for corporate dining and retail development.
After last year’s E.coli outbreak at The Porch, executive chef Kevin Hermann promptly stopped grinding meat in-house and, a couple months ago, switched to all-local Wild Purveyors out of Lawrenceville to supply about 225 pounds of ground beef a week. Working with Wild Purveyors is in keeping with Mr. Hermann’s focus on sustainable sourcing that includes raising bees on-site and a partnership with Grow Pittsburgh.
Cavan Patterson, co-owner of Wild Purveyors, said he’s working with a USDA-certified processor in Washington County, where all-natural, grass-fed, locally raised beef is ground to spec, an approximate 85/15 blend of meat-to-fat that includes trim, chuck and sirloin.
The Porch sells a $16 burger that contains the meat from a single cow, served with a garnish of crispy shallots and tomato jam.
A few restaurants in the area also source hyper locally, with Habitat in the Fairmont Hotel, Downtown, and Butterjoint and Legume in Oakland, among them.
It started in 2010, when then-executive chef of Habitat, Andrew Morrison, sent an email to Audrene Burns of Burns Angus Farm in New Wilmington in Lawrence County to ask if she’d be willing to sell him local beef.
“At the time, I wasn’t supplying restaurants,” she says. “I didn’t know what he was proposing until we talked it out and worked out a system.”
With an average of 150 grass-fed cows, the family business is growing to supply a handful of restaurants, farmers markets and retail clients.
The Burns bought the former dairy farm in 2005 and since then, Audrene and her husband John, along with an Amish employee, do all the work from tending the fields to selling meat.
“It is not easy to source weaned calves from a farm program that meets our strict grass-fed, chemical-free standards. But we never consider anything less,” she says.
When cows are 2 years old, they’re taken in pairs to be processed. Afterward, the carcasses are aged for three weeks in a designated, temperature-controlled room.
Burns Angus Farm (burnsangus.com) sells quartered, half or whole animals as well as roasts, ribs and steaks that retail for $3.60 to $15 a pound.
Ms. Burns delivers meat to Habitat and Butterjoint in primals, which cooks break down to use for stock, various cuts and ground beef. In the case of burgers, Habitat and Butterjoint are making their own proprietary blends.
When Mr. Morrison left Habitat, replaced by Jason Dalling in 2012, Burns Angus Farm continued to provide meat for the restaurant’s $15, one-cow bacon cheeseburger. Served to lunch customers, 8-ounce patties are made to order and cooked on a flat-top grill, “for crisp edges,” says sous chef Dana Patton. Served on Mediterra brioche, each burger comes with a side salad or fries.
Habitat’s wide-angle view of Downtown along with the one-cow burger varies from Tessaro’s $8.75 to $11 half-pounders in Bloomfield.
Cooked on a grill fueled by fragrant maple, oak and cherry woods, Tessaro’s burgers rest on grates without much handling for 10 or so minutes over the fire so as not to lose the juices. Mr. Piccola’s favorite burger is rare, smothered with blue cheese and topped with bacon, lettuce and tomato on the side.
He’ll eat burgers only at Tessaro’s because he’s been butchering for the restaurant. “I like the taste of the meat,” he says, “And that I’m the one who does the grind.”
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter@melissamccart.