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Vegetables, herbs at North Hills restaurant are straight from the garden

Sunday, July 25, 1999

By Kathleen Ganster

Any good chef knows that the fresher the ingredients, the better the final dish. That's one reason Rico Lorenzini, owner of Tomatoe Pie Cafe, grows many of his own vegetables and herbs. That, and the fact that he loves to garden.

  Rico Lorenzini waters his roses adjacent to the outdoor dining area of the Tomatoe Pie Cafe in McCandless. Lorenzini, who comes from a family of chefs and gardeners, grows tomatoes, squash and zucchini, as well as herbs, with no chemicals or sprays. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

Behind his little cafe sits Lorenzini's gardens and greenhouse. In front of the cafe grow dozens of roses and other flowers and plants. "I've enjoyed gardening as long as I can remember," said Lorenzini, who remembers planting a marigold in a milk carton in kindergarten.

He says he comes from a long line of gardeners. Many of his plants are the types that he has seen in relatives' gardens in Italy. He comes from a food family. His father, also named Rico, owns Rico's in Ross, and his older brother, David, runs the family-owned Piccolo Mondo Restaurant in Green Tree.

The Tomatoe Pie Cafe is on the edge of North Park in McCandless in a building constructed in the mid- '70s. His family acquired the restaurant in November 1995. (The "tomatoe" misspelling came with the place although the spelling is corrected on the menu and other places.)

Lorenzini, now 32, was ready to take over his own restaurant. "I started at my dad's when I was a kid helping out in the coat room or as a cashier. Then my dad thought I should do more as I got older, so I started learning how to cook in the kitchen," he said.

He also remembers watching his dad in the garden when he was a young boy. "I liked working in the dirt. I guess I caught the fever of gardening at an early age," he said.

Lorenzini, who is single, grows many of the herbs he uses in the dishes at the restaurants. He grows a variety of vegetables, including several kinds of tomatoes, squash and zucchini. "I don't use any chemical or sprays on my produce. I like having that control.

Besides the freshness, I can also save money," he said.

Many of Lorenzini's plants have a history of their own. The jasmine came from a trip to Italy, and the fig tree belonged to his uncle, who had a stroke and could no longer care for the tree. Others he grows because they remind him of his trips.

"The boxwood is grown in formal gardens in Italy. And the roses are often grown in courtyards. I love the smells. They bring back so many memories."

When the restaurant isn't busy, Lorenzini is often out back digging, planting or tending his gardens. His customers know him for both his gardening and cooking skills. That and his sense of humor.

"He is such a character and so enjoyable. He teases my husband, who teases him right back," said Betty Atkinson of McCandless. Betty and her husband, David, a retired ophthalmologist, visit Tomatoe Pie Cafe once or twice a week.

"Rico is a healthy cook. He uses fresh ingredients, and the restaurant is so clean. We love every dish he prepares."

Atkinson, a cook herself, rarely cooks Italian food anymore, "Why would I need to when we have Rico? I make spaghetti every once in a while, but that is it."

Having an assistant chef, Pam Kennedy of Pine, allows Lorenzini to have more gardening time. She has been with the restaurant since it opened.

"The other owners had a few plants, but Rico is really into his gardens. He believes the fresh herbs make a world of difference in our dishes," she said.

Like Lorenzini, Kennedy learned cooking through hands-on experience. She leaves the experimenting and creation of new dishes to him. "I like making the standard dishes. He is a wonderful cook and enjoys trying new things," said Kennedy.

Said Atkinson: "Pam is also a wonderful cook. Rico has taught her well."

The backyard garden-food connection is a historical one. The elder Rico Lorenzini had grown up in Italy and moved to Pittsburgh as a young man. He and his wife, Gloria, had raised their three children in Green Tree, then moved to Hampton when the young Rico was 20. "My mom helps out with bookkeeping," said Lorenzini.

After a stint at Duquesne University, Lorenzini began working full time at his father's restaurant. He became a prep cook and eventually learned all aspects of cooking. "I even learned about butchering," he said.

In 1989 he also spent a few months working at a restaurant in Montecatini-Terme, Italy. "It is a town close to where my father grew up. I worked at a five-star hotel, in their restaurant."

In 1995, Lorenzini took over the Tomatoe Pie Cafe. Many Italian dishes, salads and pizzas are served at the cafe. The spinach and cheese pizza is a favorite of many.

The small restaurant has nine tables inside, seating about 20 or so. In a porch area at the back of the restaurant, Lorenzini has five tables and six more on the patio in the front. The restaurant is usually open February through November.

Though closed for a couple of months, Lorenzini still runs his catering business through the holidays, then uses the rest of his time to travel -- often to Italy -- or take care of other things. "I had my nose operated on last winter," he said.

During the trips to Italy, Lorenzini visits relatives and family friends. He learns new dishes and picks up gardening tips. "A friend of my family's is a pastry chef. I go and visit her, and she always cooks for me. I watch her and learn," said Lorenzini.

Lorenzini's uncle, an olive grower, taught him how to prune his roses. "I like learning through mentors. I am a hands-on type of guy," said Lorenzini.

Although Lorenzini loves his gardens, he enjoys the cooking, too. "Food is the center of family. Eating is a time of celebrating, a time for talking. People think cooking is a science. Baking may be, but not cooking. It is really simple."

The Tomatoe Pie Cafe is located on Ingomar Road on the edge of North Park in McCandless. Hours vary according to season. 412-364-6622.

Kathleen Ganster is a free-lance writer from Hampton .

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